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  • Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: freedom, democracy and citizenship in the era of decolonization by Emma Hunter
  • James R. Brennan
Emma Hunter, Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: freedom, democracy and citizenship in the era of decolonization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (hb £64.99 – 978 1 107 08817 7; pb £21.99 – 978 1 107 45862 8). 2015, 259 pp.

Africanist academic literature often treats political concepts firstly as instruments of collective action. Nationalism, democracy, socialism, neoliberalism – these are projects to be realized or thwarted, and only secondarily the substance of public debate. Emma Hunter’s fine book Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania challenges this approach by framing what she terms three ‘core political concepts’– democracy, citizenship and freedom – as examples of political thought that unfolded in specific regional and global frameworks of the mid-twentieth century. Situated as a study of political debate in the Mount Kilimanjaro region, the result is a persuasive call to take intellectual history within African countries as seriously as those countries’ politics.

But first, how does one characterize political thought within a given country? Do we stress the ‘great thinkers’ or the ‘average’ debaters? Does political thought emerge from indigenous discourses best examined through ethnographic attention to local words and things, or from modernist-minded engagements with public forums such as newspapers and local councils? In both cases Hunter leans heavily towards the latter, producing a method that resembles the ‘ideas in context’ approach pioneered by Quentin Skinner, in which the key debates of political thought are responses to the major questions set by the larger society, expressed in textual form. A host of rich textual sources, mainly newspapers but also local political treatises and petitions, undergo rigorous historical analysis and interpretation to show how Tanzanian intellectual agency transformed concepts such as citizenship and freedom into tools of local debate that repeatedly invoke both regional and global registers of political legitimacy. But ideas are more than instruments – they pose questions about social relationships and forms of political accountability, which provide the rich social ‘context’ for this book’s study of otherwise abstract ideas.

Hunter argues that Tanganyika’s political sphere emerged in the mid-twentieth century, in significant part through the profusion of a comparatively free Swahili-language press. Democracy surfaced as an explicit topic of debate in Tanganyika during the 1940s, informed by the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which detached rights from ‘civilization’ and [End Page 623] made self-determination a universal goal. Yet considerable conflict lay behind this new consensus, which took the schizophrenic form in Tanganyika of gradual ‘democratization’ of local councils from below while protecting racial privilege in central government from on high through various constitutional schemes of ‘multiracialism’. Hunter shows that notions of being a responsible subject or citizen (both are raia in Swahili) in Tanganyika marked a fundamental shift in notions of political representation, in which new citizenries empowered the formation of new political communities – ‘tribes’, parties, nations – headed by chosen leaders. Hunter ably narrates just how this unfolded in 1950s Kilimanjaro through an examination of political debates in the district council and the region’s Swahili-language newspaper, Komkya. The Kilimanjaro Chagga Citizens Union (KCCU) presented itself as the ‘voice’ of the region’s ethnic Chagga population at the decade’s start, successfully challenged existing chiefs by supporting Thomas Marealle’s accession to the newly created office of paramount chief, and then found itself outpaced by rival organizations that drew on the strength of TANU, the country’s main nationalist movement, by the decade’s end. Within these debates were opposing visions of society – a respect for received hierarchy and property among KCCU members, and a levelling egalitarianism among TANU supporters. Appropriated from its abolitionist origins, the idea of ‘freedom’ (uhuru) emerged as a principal watchword through dialogue between TANU and its affiliates and the wider Kilimanjaro citizenry, coming to mean not simply freedom from colonial rule but freedom through party membership. This latter idea worked to close down political alternatives to TANU’s political authority during the 1960s as the party took power, setting the stage for new debates about...