Out of Africa: Tanzania and Julius Nyerere

Cameron Duodu


Tanzania, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a name that automatically summons great affection from the bosom of every African who looks at the history and development of the continent from a Pan-African perspective.

Although Tanzania was desperately poor when it won independence in 1961, that did not prevent it from putting its full weight behind the struggle for freedom by the African people still under colonial rule. The atrocities committed against the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, had enabled Tanzanians to realise that anti-colonial struggles could stray from their own relatively peaceful path to independence. So they were receptive to the cries for help that emanated from the countries in their region that were still suffering from colonial oppression.

I was an eyewitness to Tanzania’s valiant efforts in this regard. I found Dar es Salaam to be a hive of anti-colonial activity when I paid my first visit to the country in 1962. As an editor from Ghana, then the nerve-centre of Pan-Africanism, I was anxious to interview as many African freedom fighters as possible and I was not disappointed.

Within days, I had ‘bagged’ the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) leader Dr Eduardo Mondlane (later assassinated by the Portuguese secret police); Dr Frene Ginwala, who would, years later, become the first Speaker of the National Assembly of a free South Africa; Joe Louw, a ‘coloured’ South African who had made headlines by ‘escaping’ from his country with a white woman in defiance of South Africa’s obnoxious Immorality Act that criminalised sexual relations between blacks and whites; and Sheikh Mohammed Babu, a fiery politician from nearby Zanzibar, who was to feature prominently in the island’s future politics in later years.

When I revisited the country in the mid 1970s to represent Ghana at a crucial meeting of the Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – aimed at deciding which African liberation movements in Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa should be assisted financially by the OAU – Tanzania was buzzing with militant anti-colonial activity. By this time, the liberation struggle had begun chalking up quite a few successes: in fact, while I was there, Joachim Chissano of FRELIMO paid a visit as the first Prime Minister of Mozambique, whose independence was fast approaching.

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania not only sustained these movements in their struggle but tutored them politically as well. For he was a teacher and a scholar, even finding time to translate two of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, into Swahili in 1968. He was also a ‘permanent student’ of sorts, for he was no doubt inspired to embark on his ujamaa programme of ‘African socialism’ after reading some of the works of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

He agreed with Mao that economic and social development could occur more rapidly in the countryside if state resources were applied to the collectivised habitats of the peasantry than if they were directed at small, scattered communities dotted all over this vast African country.

Perhaps if Tanzania’s scarce resources had been used solely on collective villages, instead of being also wasted on such projects as the construction of a brand-new capital, Dodoma, Nyerere’s economic programme might have been more successful. But he approached these schemes with the enthusiasm of the intellectual zealot who, once convinced of the rationality of an idea, seeks to push its implementation to a logical conclusion. To him, Dodoma made sense because it removed the centre of governmental activity from the coast into the interior, but it cost money to duplicate governmental facilities, and Nyerere never recovered from the shame of presiding over the near-bankruptcy of his country.

Of course, he ought to have investigated China’s politics a little more deeply before deciding to follow Mao’s footsteps, for had he been fully apprised of the full cost of the suffering that the Chairman exacted from the Chinese people when he imposed ‘people’s communes’ on them, Nyerere might not have embarked on ujamaa. And besides, Tanzanian society was typically too relaxed, in the well-known African manner, to adjust easily to such a regimented system.

One thing stood out about Nyerere, however – he was honest. He expressed shame over the revolt of his army in 1964, which obliged him to call on Britain for assistance. And he believed in genuine power-sharing, promoting Rashidi Kawawa to become prime minister under him. And, although Nyerere did introduce one-party rule through the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi, it was relatively democratic in comparison to some African ruling parties in so-called ‘multi-party’ states.

Nyerere’s greatness is demonstrated by the fact that his absence is still felt in African politics – which today is like an orphanage in which many of those in charge seem to be children themselves. Time after time, African tragedies occur – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Great Lakes region, Sudan or Chad – without any intervention from the African Union (AU). In August 2011, for example, the AU struggled to convene a high-level donor conference intended to raise funds from within the continent for the people starving as a result of drought and the actions of political brigands in Somalia.

During its civil war in 1967-70, Nyerere was not afraid to provoke the anger of Nigeria by recognising the breakaway province of Biafra. Nyerere said then: “We recognise the state of Biafra as an independent sovereign entity… Only by this act can we remain true to our conviction that the purpose of society, and of all political organisation, is the service of man.”

With those words, Julius Nyerere, in effect, wrote his own best epitaph.

About the author:

Cameron Duodu is a freelance journalist and columnist for the New African magazine, City Press, and the Ghanaian Times, appearing frequently on BBC World and BBC World Service radio news programmes discussing African politics, economy and culture.


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