OBITUARIES

by Ben Taylor

Respected lawyer, human rights activist and politician, Dr Sengondo Mvungi died in Milipark Hospital, Johannesburg, on November 12th. He had been attacked in his home by bandits nine days earlier, in an apparent robbery. Though he was rushed first to Muhimbili National Hospital, and later to South Africa, Dr Mvungi never recovered from the attack. He died from his injuries a few days later.

Having begun his career as a journalist on the ruling party’s newspaper, Uhuru, Dr Mvungi later switched to the law. After studies in Dar es Salaam and abroad, he taught in the Law Faculty at the University of Dar es Salaam for over two decades. He had recently been appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of the newly established University of Bagamoyo.
A staunch defender of media freedoms and human rights, his legal expertise and media background made him an obvious appointment to the founding board of the Media Council of Tanzania, where he was very active. He was among the founders of the Legal and Human Rights Centre, and practiced as an advocate of the High Court.

With the advent of multi-party politics, Dr Mvungi joined the opposition, running as the NCCR-Mageuzi Presidential Candidate in 1995. He knew he could never win, but saw value in making a contribution to the slow task of building a new political reality in Tanzania. It was a cause he continued to struggle for throughout his life.

Most recently, Dr Mvungi had been a prominent member of the Constitution Review Commission, bringing his sharp legal mind and unstinting defence of human rights once more to the service of his country.

“His untimely departure leaves us with a serious gap in a situation where we already had too many gaps,” wrote Jenerali Ulimwengu. “Our cumulative and collective actions have created around us an intellectual wasteland in which rather than blooms of flowering thought, angry shrubs produce only prickly and poisonous thorns, testimony to our degeneracy.”

“It may not explain the whole episode but Mvungi was killed by representatives of these shrubs, who may not even fully comprehend the enormity of their actions in terms of the loss inflicted on the nation. How could they ever understand, when all they were looking for was a little cash and some trinkets they could sell to get money to drink and to buy chicken and chips. The cheapness of life implied in their actions speaks to the cheapness of life generally, engendered by a nonchalant system that has manufactured disposable people who dispose of other people.”

Seasoned Tanzanian politician and diplomat, Ambassador Isaac Sepetu, died on October 27th, aged 70. Ambassador Sepetu’s career encompassed a spell as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs during the presidency of Julius Nyerere, Minister of Information in the Zanzibar Revolutionary Government in the 1970s and Minister of Economy and Planning in Zanzibar in the 1990s. He also served as Tanzanian Ambassador to the former USSR and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To many younger Tanzanians, however, Ambassador Sepetu is perhaps best known as the father of Wema Sepetu, actress, model and former Miss Tanzania. Wema has become a staple of the celebrity-obsessed tabloid media, not least for her relationship with bongo flava star Diamond Platinumz.

Lionel Cliffe: An Africanist scholar and global citizen
By establishing the Department of Development Studies in 1969, the University of Dar es Salaam was stepping into an uncharted territory. The main task of the new unit was to teach an interdisciplinary course on socio-economic development to all entering students. The course would challenge the conservative spirit of the traditional social science disciplines and reflect the goal of building socialism in Tanzania. The first head of this bold academic venture was Lionel Cliffe, a British scholar who had come to Tanzania in 1961.

After teaching at Kivukoni College and a spell in the civil service, Lionel had joined the Department of Political Science of UDSM in 1964. Lionel was a socialist, sympathetic to Mwalimu Nyerere’s policies, and a firm supporter of the liberation of Africa from external domination. Right from the start, he undertook pioneering socio-political research and became involved in the effort to make the university curricula more relevant to national needs. The book One Party Democracy: A Study of the 1965 Tanzania General Elections (East Africa Publishing House, Nairobi, 1967) that he edited and co-authored and which contains several detailed investigations and political analyses is regarded as a pioneering work in the field that also provides a bright insight into the political dynamics of Tanzania of that time.

Lionel was not just an armchair academic. As a leftist student activist at the UDSM at that time, I vividly recall him providing much needed support to progressive student groups in ways more than one. Our student magazine, Cheche, had no external funder and was perpetually short of resources needed for bringing an issue into print. Though we did the printing ourselves, paper was expensive. Lionel helped out by selling printing paper from the departmental stock to us at the wholesale price.

By the time Lionel left the university in 1972, Development Studies had become an integral part of the local academic scene, and universities the world over began to imitate the department. Lionel edited (with John Saul) Socialism in Tanzania: A Interdisciplinary Reader, which remains a standard reference work for anyone interested in the post-Independence history of Tanzania and a relevant text for present day students of development studies, economics, education and political science that focus on Africa.

I pen these words with a heavy heart because Lionel Cliffe passed away after a brief illness on October 23, 2013. Until his death, he was engaged in African issues. Among his many achievements, he was a founder editor of the Review of African Political Economy and the first Director of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Leeds. Over the years, he had established a distinguished academic reputation, and published on a range of issues spanning from land tenure and reform to political affairs and external barriers to development. He remained a champion of social and economic self-determination for the people of Africa and took a sharply critical stand on the Western strategies that promoted continued domination over the continent.

I last met this fine, ever smiling, soft-speaking human being in April this year. He was in Dar es Salaam to attend the annual Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the UDSM. He had regularly visited many countries in Africa over the years, maintaining strong links with progressive African scholars striving for social and economic justice.

Lionel engaged with us on an equal footing; at times we critiqued him, and at times, he critiqued us; but in the spirit of comrades undertaking a joint long term journey. He had the outlook of and functioned like a global citizen. At his passing, Africa has lost a good comrade; an upright champion our people’s rights. Let us pay homage to this stellar specimen of humanity by drawing sound lessons from the work of activists scholars like him and begin to recreate an African academia that will challenge the neo-liberal establishment and truly champion the rights and needs of the people of Africa.

One thing I am certain of: Wherever in the heavens he has landed, Professor Lionel Cliffe is already busy establishing an inter-galactic Institute of Development Studies, and boldly challenging the status quo. Most likely, he has us within his sights too. Let us then once more elicit his usual broad grin by retaking similar steps on this planet.
Karim F. Hirji
(Abridged, with permission, from a longer obituary in Pambazuka News)

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