Letters from TZ

Countries can be replaced with currency but life cannot

Consider for a moment what it would mean to be stateless, a person for whom the notion of nationhood bears no meaning. A citizen of the world. A global villager. Would it be so bad? What really holds us together anyway? But perhaps more importantly, who was it that placed us together? And what was their motivation? Does our sense of national pride stem from a common heritage or from the ostensibly arbitrary borders that marked the end of the scramble for Africa?

In the wake of Zanzibar’s recent troubles and before that, the ‘Pwani si Kenya’ movement in Mombasa, talk of secession is once again on our lips. Like their brothers at the Kenyan coast, Zanzibaris want the freedom to do their own thing as an independent nation state. An entity separate from the mainland. Zanzibar wants to be the captain of its own ship and the master of its destiny. But to what extent is that possible for any African on the continent? Africa was divvied up and annexed off to the highest bidder centuries ago. If we were so independent, we would have closed off the channels carrying ‘aid’ from our ‘former colonial masters’ as soon as it became apparent that we were exchanging old shackles for new debt. So when talk of secession begins, one immediately wonders which ‘master’ stands behind the veil covertly directing proceedings, and what profit will come of it. Then again, that is an outrightly cynical view of the thing. It may not be that way at all.

But consider for a moment what it would mean to be stateless. Last month, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, renounced his US citizenship to become a resident of Singapore, where he has been living for the past couple of years. “I was born in Brazil, I was an American citizen for about 10 years. I thought of myself as a global citizen,” he said, speaking to the New York Times. Despite that tepid attempt at an explanation, the billionaire has been roundly criticised for dumping his citizenship to avoid taxes. It has been reported that Saverin stands to save $67 million (Sh108 205 000 000) by renouncing his American citizenship and moving to Singapore. He earned billions of dollars from the recently concluded Facebook IPO. According to Forbes Magazine, wealthy people and corporations have been avoiding taxes in this manner for centuries. About 1 780 Americans gave up their citizenship just last year, claims a separate Bloomberg report. Responding to the trend, American senators Charles Schumer and Bob Casey have announced plans to introduce a bill dubbed the ‘Ex-Patriot’ Act to abolish tax related incentives for offshore tenancy. “We simply cannot allow the ultra-wealthy to write their own rules,” Senator Casey said in a statement. “Mr Saverin has benefited greatly from being a citizen of the United States but he has chosen to cast it aside and leave US taxpayers with the bill.”

Reading the backlash that resulted from Saverin’s decision to ‘ditch’ his precious American citizenship, made me think about how difficult it is for your average-earning ‘Joe Schmoe’ to get an American tourist visa. And to wonder if the same ruckus would be raised if a poor Mexican immigrant made the same decision that Saverin did. How clear it is to see that money is the root of all things be they good, evil or simply comedic. Leaving America might some day become a crime if you are wealthy – entering it has always been a crime if you are poor.

One reader commenting on the Saverin saga writes on Forbes.com: “This idea that billionaires are becoming citizens or rejecting their citizenship for “the love of a country”, or some other altruistic reasons, is usually wrong. They migrate for money, they become citizens for money and they reject citizenship for money.” If you think about it in this way, the very idea of nationalism begins to diminish. As Jesus said, wherever your treasure is, there your heart is also. So why do we derive so much of our identity from the nation state? What made us Tanganyikan or Zanzibari? What makes us Tanzanian?

When all is said and done, whether we recognise it or not, we assess the value of everything in currency. It doesn’t have to be money; it could be emotional or psychosocial currency – simply a medium of exchange for which we receive a measure of national pride. Some make a bigger investment in nationalism than others. Some remain for love and others leave for money. The value we place on our nationality therefore, is a transient thing, meaning more, or less, depending how much currency we have invested in it.

But many times what we feel for our country is shaped by outside influences. Sometimes we take collective ownership of our national identity to unite against a common enemy. Other times, a common enemy divides that loyalty, causing erstwhile ‘country’ men to splinter into groups that are much easier to manage. Whichever way you look at it, nationalism might be a personal thing but it is not something to be taken personally. It ebbs and flows depending on the circumstances prevailing at any given moment. So whether a man has a long-standing grievance or a petty complaint against the State, neither should cause him to raise his hand against another. As the Saverins of this world are proving, countries can be replaced with currency. Life however, cannot.