Nyerere: A Flawed Hero

June 1, 2000 Topic: Society Tags: AcademiaNational Liberation Movements

Nyerere: A Flawed Hero

Mini Teaser: To acknowledge that Nyerere was better than most African leaders of his generation amounts to only modest praise. His record was a decidedly mixed one.

by Author(s): R.W. Johnson

When Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, died last October, there ensued an outpouring of grief and tribute in Africa and beyond that left others puzzled and even indignant. They demanded to know what was so special about a man who had "single-handedly destroyed the economy of Tanzania", who had "showed little regard for individual rights and liberties", and who was to blame for "forced removals on a scale about which apartheid bureaucrats could only fantasise." But not even his harshest critics denied that he had possessed a certain charisma. For many, Nyerere still remained "Baba la Taifa", which means "Father of the Nation", or even broader, "Father of the African Struggle" or "Father of Africa"; and, of course, "Mwalimu" -- "the Teacher."

Sadly, this difference of view often proceeded along racial lines. Nyerere had ruled Tanzania from 1960 to 1985, when he stepped down after five terms as president. No one could deny that mistakes had been made during his quarter-century tenure, and, to some extent, the division of views at the time of his death rested merely on whether one could excuse, or even justify, these mistakes. But it was also noticeable that his critics and supporters talked about different things: the former spoke of horror, of economic failure and restraints on individual liberty; the latter in glowing terms about national liberation, nation-building and the assertion of ideological principles.

Sometimes such differences in emphasis led to almost self-contradictory assessments. One commentator on an Internet newsgroup accused Nyerere of having "created" his successor in power, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, whom Nyerere himself pronounced to be corrupt. The commentator then added that despite this failing, his "respect for Mwalimu will never wane mainly because of his convictions and actions. He never used office for selfish reasons and he tried what was humanly possible to liberate and empower the masses. He is thus a source of inspiration."

Others made similarly passionate declarations, arguing that whatever criticisms might be leveled at him, Nyerere should be seen as a patriarch of the world's African family, second only to Nelson Mandela. This is a remarkable judgment to make of a man who led one of the world's poorest and least successful countries, which became even poorer and less successful under his rule.

To understand this phenomenon one must start with the fact that Nyerere was part of the generation of African nationalists who led their countries to independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For Africans -- and the wider black diaspora -- names such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, Milton Obote and Seretse Khama will never wholly lose their glamour and allure. Although some of these men have been rightly scorned for their many failures and even their crimes, they remain founding fathers. Nyerere not only belonged to this group, he was a survivor, far outlasting his famous contemporaries. He stayed in power longer than any of them and managed to avert the military coups and major political crises that befell so many others. He thus became a living symbol of the golden era of African nationalism, the era of struggle and victory, of suffering and glory.

In fact, Nyerere had to do less than most to earn the reputation of a fighter. True, from 1954, when he founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), until 1960, when he became chief minister in Tanganyika's first Council of Ministers (a year before the country's independence), he went through a volatile period of political skirmishes with an unwilling and slow-moving British administration. But he did not have to resort to armed struggle, he was never imprisoned, and there was no need for violent clashes with the police or army. Nyerere's path to independence was much smoother than that of most African leaders simply because Tanganyika was a United Nations trust territory and, despite its limitations, this status was far more favorable to a national liberation movement than any other in the colonial world at the time. A national liberation movement of a trust territory had the right to address the United Nations Organization's Trust Council directly and even to appeal to the General Assembly -- a right of which Nyerere made full use.

No doubt it took a certain courage and foresight to challenge the order of the day from the privileged position in which Nyerere found himself after graduating from Makerere college in Uganda and from Edinburgh University, but he was simply lucky in facing relatively weak resistance. As he himself put it, the British officials were "travelling in the same direction" as TANU "but at a different speed."
Whatever Nyerere did for the liberation of his country, he scored far more points in African and world opinion for his ardent support of the cause of Africa's liberation in general and of the armed struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa in particular. All the African liberation movements -- the MPLA, FRELIMO, ZANU, ZAPU, SWAPO, ANC and PAC -- in their time had their offices and military camps in Tanzania. As a result, it has become common to attribute independence and majority rule in these countries not only to the struggle of their own guerrilla armies and mass movements, but also to Tanzania's vigorous assistance and solidarity: "All these countries are now free", wrote one South African journalist, "with their liberation sprung from Dar-es-Salaam." "From Dr. Nyerere's commitment flowed the liberation first of Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde in the early '70s, followed by Zimbabwe in 1980, Namibia in 1990 and eventually South Africa", wrote another.

Their point is clear. Tanzania was and is a very poor country, situated closer to the then racist and aggressive South Africa than some of the other backers of the national liberation movements. Nyerere took risks, and subjected his country to them, in the name of the common cause. He became a leading member of the Organization of Frontline States, was involved in promoting Africa's liberation at the UN, and pushed the Commonwealth, the Organization of African Unity and the Non-Aligned Movement to adopt a more radical line on all issues concerning the liberation struggle. So it is fair to say that Nyerere did more than many other African leaders found safe -- let alone comfortable -- to do for the cause of Africa's liberation.

But was this really enough? So many people and forces can claim to be the fathers of African liberation, after all. Without the Portuguese revolution of 1974, for example, the colonies of Guine, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique might not have achieved independence in the 1970s or even the 1980s. Would black majority rule in South Africa have come when it did without the collapse of the Soviet Union? And what about all the foreign donors to the liberation movements? The Scandinavian governments, for example, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements in southern Africa. Funds and support also came from India and some Muslim countries. The Soviet Union supplied arms, services, training and funds, as did East Germany and various other Warsaw Pact countries. The Cubans supplied military expertise and cannon fodder. Funds also came from some circles in Western Europe and the United States, and it is arguable that the sanctions and other economic pressures exerted by these countries on Rhodesia and South Africa were the most powerful force of all. Even the British secret service, we are told, was "on the left of the British government", for it shared some information with the ANC.

Nor was Tanzania at major risk as a result of Nyerere's support of liberation movements. The country suffered none of the reprisal attacks from the South Africans and Rhodesians that many states further south did. In the Cold War era there was, moreover, a whole range of international political arrangements that would safeguard, if not guarantee, Nyerere's security -- and take over where he failed. Thus when he faced an army mutiny in 1964, he was able to call on British military intervention, which speedily snuffed the threat out. None of this detracts from the principled positions he took, but it was the era of decolonization that made Nyerere, not Nyerere who made the era of decolonization.

It is ironic to reflect that both Angola and Mozambique took far greater risks and made far greater sacrifices than Tanzania in their assistance to South Africa's and Namibia's armed struggles, both from the raids and the subversion they suffered from the South African army and from their own endless civil wars. Mozambique's Samora Machel won some recognition for this sacrifice -- though much less than Nyerere -- but Angola's role seems to have faded entirely from public memory. Perhaps one day Jose Eduardo dos Santos will also be hailed as the "father of Africa", but it doesn't seem likely. No one seems willing to say that South Africa's liberation sprang from Luanda, although this would be at least as appropriate as saying that it sprang from Dar es Salaam.

The Nation-Builder

One of Nyerere's greatest achievements, it is argued, was the welding together of the Tanzanian nation. The Wall Street Journal declared: "Dr. Nyerere may have been a poor economist but he was a skillful nation builder. He fused Tanzania's 120 tribes into a cohesive state, preventing tribal conflicts plaguing so much of Africa." "Above all", writes the earlier quoted newsgroup commentator, "he proved that it is possible to forge a nation whereby vicissitudes of ethnic affiliation are banished from social and political life. He created and promoted a powerful African lingua franca, Swahili, which united and educated people." South African journalist Mathatha Tsedu had even greater praise for Nyerere's achievements in nation-building and in developing a national language:

"Dr. Nyerere and his government decreed that Kiswahili would be the official language of the country, with English running a poor second. The result has been a nation that speaks one language, and people who see themselves as Tanzanians and not members of tribal entities. In a region where tribalism has been so entrenched that when people speak they want to first identify one's tribal affiliation as in Kenya and Uganda and even as far as Nigeria, Tanzania stands as a different entity. And the penetration of this nationalism is wide: media organizations publish in Swahili, and most of the newspapers are in this language."

Again, this praise seems extravagant. Nyerere did well as a nation-builder mainly because he did not spoil what was already there -- for he was able to build on very favorable foundations. While Tanzania's population was (and still is) extremely fragmented ethnically, there was not much disparity in size or economic situation between the various population groups: they were all small, and thus none felt too threatened by another. The fact that Nyerere himself came from one of the smallest of Tanzania's peoples, the Zanaki, proved helpful in this respect to his cause and his country.

The facts are that the process of ethno-cultural consolidation in Tanzania began long before independence, and Swahili became a lingua franca in what was to become Tanganyika as early as the nineteenth century. Swahili was not a twentieth-century creation but the language of the city-states of the East African coast, with a written literature dating back to the fifteenth century. In the nineteenth century Swahili-speaking slave traders from the coast spread the language into the interior, and in the twentieth century it became the language of the colonial administration, with English already "running a poor second" well before Nyerere came on the scene. Nyerere's contribution was to build respect for the language (he translated Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) and promote its modernization by founding the Institute of Swahili. But he did not "create" Swahili and would not have been able to decree it an official language if the conditions for such a development had not already existed.

In other words, although nation-building in Tanzania was not as straightforward as in ethnically homogenous states like Botswana or Lesotho, it was certainly not as difficult as in Kenya or Uganda, and cannot be compared at all to the really tough cases such as Nigeria. Oddly, those who are quickest to praise Nyerere rarely mention his indubitable success in managing the relationship between Tanzania's Christians and its ever growing Muslim population. Zanzibar -- the main center of Islam in East Africa and the center of the nineteenth-century Muslim state that included the whole of the East African coast -- became independent in December 1963, two years after Tanganyika. A month later an uprising brought to power the radical Afro-Shirazi Party, whose views were much closer to TANU's than those of the previous government, headed by a representative of the nineteenth-century sultan's dynasty. To maintain stability after the two countries merged required a lot of tact and restraint from Nyerere, who enjoyed authority but no real power in Zanzibar.

To his credit, Nyerere, a devoted Christian, invariably preached racial and religious tolerance. In some ways the Afro-Shirazi Party was even given precedence over TANU. A common party document stated: "TANU has not yet resolved one of the main questions -- the question of the elimination of feudal administration. This question was fully resolved by the Afro-Shirazi. This is why TANU took the decision about the socialist development of Tanzania."

Which brings one to the nub of the matter: History will always remember Nyerere as one of the major proponents of African socialism -- and African socialism was as thunderous a failure in Tanzania as it was everywhere else. The problem is that neither Nyerere nor his admirers have ever accepted that it was a failure at all.

In its 1961 statutes, TANU proclaimed that its main goal was "the creation and strengthening of the socialist democratic state." The program of building the Tanzanian version of African socialism -- ujamaa -- was introduced in February 1967 at Arusha, in what became known as the Arusha Declaration. Nyerere, who originated the term, explained that this "African word" was specially selected to stress the African roots of the policy. According to him, the original meaning of the word -- an extended family -- implied that the building of socialism was based on the communalist African past and was to be implemented according to Africa's own blueprint. In fact, Nyerere's socialism was not very different from the standard East European pattern, except that he placed far greater emphasis on exhorting his people about the need for self-reliance and hard work than on socialist economics. He believed that socialism was equality, and as a first step he froze the salaries of senior civil servants for thirteen years, while regularly increasing the salaries of the lower ranked officials.

Nyerere did not nationalize land, but he did initiate "ujamaa villages" -- i.e., collective farms -- for he thought that bigger agricultural units assisted by the state would be more productive than small, poor households. A whole system of incentives and disincentives was used to make people move into these villages. Nevertheless, many had to be pressured, and in some cases virtually forced, to join. There were, finally, about seven and a half thousand such "villages" by the end of the 1970s -- but no matter what assistance and incentives the government provided, the majority of them were not productive. The idea of collective farming, far from being universally rooted in the African past, was alien to the majority of Tanzanian peasants, and the very fact that people had to be moved en masse wrought great damage to the fabric of a rural life that was still recovering from the depredations of the colonial era.

The second pillar of Nyerere's socialism was self-reliance, kujitegemea in Swahili. He never trusted either the East or the West. While he liked some patterns of development more than others (he was deeply impressed by Chinese achievements, for example), what he wanted was a state that would be totally self-reliant and independent of any outside influence. He thought that nationalization was the key to self-reliance. Accordingly, immediately after issuing the Arusha Declaration Nyerere decreed the nationalization of all foreign banks, insurance companies, big firms, sisal plantations, tobacco companies, breweries, and cement and other factories. This was so unexpected that it startled even some of his friends abroad. The idea was, of course, that nationalized enterprises would create a powerful and economically independent state. Nyerere did not take into consideration the simple fact that he did not have enough qualified personnel, let alone managers, to run this sector. Even at the end of his rule these state industries were working at only 30-50 percent of their capacity, and only 190 of the 415 large state corporations were profitable. The effect on the economy and on personal income was devastating.

Nyerere's pursuit of a predictably disastrous economic strategy was not simply a matter of economic ignorance -- at least he had studied economics at Edinburgh. True, socialism was very much the fashion in Africa at the time, but it should be noted that by the end of the 1970s neither China nor the Soviet bloc was trying to pressure African countries into "socialist" reforms. Such states generally ran into difficulty -- and expected aid from the socialist camp -- but both China and the Soviet Union had more than enough on their hands already.

The damage wrought by these policies was enormous. Before Nyerere started "ujamaaization" there were several large and productive cooperatives in Tanzania, the best known example being the highly profitable Coffee Marketing Association in the Kilimanjaro area. These cooperatives were all destroyed in the cause of promoting "ujamaa villages." But Nyerere seemed almost oblivious to the economic harm caused by his policies. At one point, annoyed by British inaction over Rhodesia, he broke off diplomatic relations with Britain, Tanzania's main aid donor, and then with various other Western countries, causing a virtual cessation of foreign aid into the country, with damaging effects. Those losses were compounded when, as a result of ideological disagreements with its neighbors and partners in the East African Community, Tanzania closed the border with Kenya, terminating the essential common transport and communications service. The results were, again, disastrous.

Then there was Tanzara, one of the biggest railway projects on the African continent, linking Tanzania and Zambia. Tanzara was a joint Chinese-Tanzanian-Zambian project designed to reduce Zambia's economic dependence on Rhodesia and South Africa and thus make it more independent politically. An ideological project based on good intentions, Tanzara too was an economic disaster. Hugely expensive and inefficient, it never fulfilled its goal.

As one surveys the immense wreckage, one is forced to the realization that for Nyerere -- and perhaps for other leaders of his generation in Africa as well -- economic realities hardly seemed to exist. It was as if the lesson learned from the independence struggle was that reality could be changed by mere rhetoric, the assertion of will, and "mass mobilization." Over and over again one finds a belief that the future could be constructed from mere words -- by motions passed, declarations made and plans drawn up. The systematic introduction of highly unrealistic economic plans that were never achieved continued even after Nyerere stepped down from power.

An Unrepentant Teacher

Nyerere is often praised for resigning in 1985, first, because he complied with the constitution, becoming the first African leader to step down voluntarily, and, second, because he purportedly realized that his socialist theories and practices were mistaken. In fact, he only admitted to three mistakes: the abolition of local government in the name of speeding up Tanzania's transformation; the abolition of the "cooperative movement" -- meaning cooperatives that existed before the ujamaa era; and the introduction of the one-party system. And even these admissions were heavily qualified.

To be fair, it was a pretty gentle process that made Tanzania a one-party state. During the days of anti-colonialism TANU did not have any opposition of which to speak, and rivals who emerged on the way were quickly outmaneuvered from any positions of leadership or significance. Between 1964 and 1977 there were two parties -- TANU and Afro-Shirazi -- working closely and comfortably together. In February 1977, however, the two decided to merge in order to form a "vanguard" party -- Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the Revolutionary Party. There is no doubt that this evolution protracted Tanzania's economic disasters, for, with no political competition, the CCM was able to continue quite blithely with unworkable socialist policies. In 1981, when the disastrous economic results of "ujamaaization" were already quite clear, the party came up with a new document, "The General Line of the CCM", which stipulated that "the main task of Chama Cha Mapinduzi now is to unite all socialist and progressive forces of the country and direct them to the struggle for the building of ujamaa in Tanzania." Even in 1987 the party continued to develop "the theory of ujamaa" and passed a program for its implementation from 1987 to 2002. Needless to say this remained yet another meaningless document, but one cannot but be struck by Nyerere's determination to press ahead with policies proven to be disastrous.

Even so, Nyerere never came to believe that a single-party system was wrong in itself. "I really think that I ran the most successful single-party system on the continent", he said many years later. He continued:

"You might not even call it a party. It was a single, huge nationalist movement. . . . I don't believe that our country would be where it is now if we had a multiplicity of parties, which would have become tribal and caused us a lot of problems. But when you govern for such a long time, unless you are gods, you become corrupt and bureaucratic. . . . So I started calling for a multiparty system."

A strong current favorite in the West, Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, says almost exactly the same thing. He does not want any political parties in his country at all, until such time as "the people" will want them -- but at least he allows competition between personalities standing on very different platforms, whereas Nyerere wanted just a "single, huge nationalist movement." By the end of his life Nyerere readily recognized that more and more people throughout the African continent were demanding a multiparty system -- but even then he remained convinced that during his time in power the single-party principle had been exactly what the country needed.

As far as socialism was concerned, Nyerere left not the slightest doubt that in his eyes both the principle and the implementation of it in Tanzania had been irreproachable. "Where did you get the idea that I thought ujamaa was a miserable failure?", he asked a journalist who interviewed him at the end of 1996. "A bunch of countries were in economic shambles at the end of the 1970s. They are not socialist." According to Nyerere, Tanzania's problem was not socialism but poverty. In any case, his references to socialism now made no mention of nationalism or ujamaa villages. It turned out that for Nyerere socialism was now really all about values such as "justice, a respect for human beings, a development which is people-centered, development where you care about people. . . . The market has no heart at all since capitalism is completely ruthless, [so] who is going to help the poor?"

Until the end Nyerere was proud about how well he had served Tanzanians. As he told the World Bank:

"We took over a country with 85% of its adults illiterate. The British ruled us for 43 years. When they left, there were two trained engineers and 12 doctors. When I stepped down there was 91% literacy and nearly every child was at school. We trained thousands of engineers, doctors and teachers."

Then he added bitterly, "In 1988 Tanzania's per capita income was $280. Now, in 1998, it is $140. . . . Enrolment in school has plummeted to 63%." For, following Nyerere's departure from power, Tanzania had collapsed into the arms of the IMF and the World Bank, and Nyerere blamed these agencies for his country's impoverishment, disregarding the fact that such outcomes merely constituted the day of reckoning caused by his own unsustainable policies.

In retirement, Nyerere remained faithful to the ideals of self-reliance and unity that he promoted while in office. "We have to depend on ourselves", he told the South African parliament during his visit to the country in October 1997. Sub-Saharan Africa was on its own, he argued, because it lay outside the orbit of the world's major power blocs, none of which had "an internal urge" to help it. As for the World Bank and the IMF, Nyerere anticipated much of the current criticism of those institutions, seeing them as intrinsically hostile, and even responsible for Mobutu's crimes against his people and for the fact that he stayed in power so long.

The Interventionist

Remarkably for someone whose philosophy was that African states should be proudly self-reliant and not tolerate intervention in their affairs, Nyerere had a not inconsiderable history of intervening in other countries militarily. In the last years of his life he mediated the crisis in Burundi. One must have courage and determination, let alone moral authority, to attempt such an undertaking. Nyerere's mediation was unusual, for he did not even try to appear neutral. He wanted Burundi's military government out and was once quoted as saying that he would be prepared to intervene in the country with military force. Unfortunately, the opposition forces were fragmented and fought one another -- a problem that Mr. Mandela is now trying to disentangle.

The most widely known of these interventions was his 1979 intervention in Uganda. The general perception was -- and still is -- that this was well justified. Not only was Tanzania provoked by the intrusion of Uganda's forces onto its territory, but Idi Amin, Uganda's leader at the time, was universally recognized as a tyrant and a savage butcher of his own people. Thus, when Nyerere's victorious army pressed on from the border and helped the Ugandans evict Amin, Nyerere was widely seen as a liberator.

Of graver concern, Nyerere used his army to re-instate Uganda's former president (and his own personal friend), Milton Obote, although there was scant evidence that Obote had overcome the deep unpopularity that had led Kampala's crowds to cheer the news of his eviction from power in 1971. The army then supervised the elections. Opposition parties claimed a foul, and a bloody civil war followed in which thousands were killed before Obote was once again ousted from power, and Yoweri Museveni was left to pick up the pieces in a completely shattered country.

Similarly, Nyerere sent Tanzanian troops to help topple regimes that he disliked in two other neighboring countries -- in the Comoros in 1975 and in the Seychelles in 1977 -- though in neither case could he claim (as he had been able to in the case of Idi Amin) that these states were aggressors against Tanzania. One cannot but be struck by the utter certainty Nyerere felt about his own opinions and his willingness to force them on other people.

Given this willingness to impose his will both on his own people and even on his neighbors, the question arose as to how Nyerere would react when such initiatives failed to work out. In fact, he never accepted an ounce of blame for any of his mistakes. Invariably somebody else had to take the responsibility, be it the colonial powers, the imf, the World Bank, the bad rulers of neighboring countries or even his own people. In the 1977 document, "The Arusha Declaration Ten Years After", he attributed the failures of ujamaa to his compatriots' inability to work hard and sacrifice. Having selected his own successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, and having stayed on as chairman of the CCM for many years after resigning from the presidency, in 1995 he suddenly accused both his party and his government -- and, indeed, the whole nation -- of corruption. Naturally, he never accepted any responsibility for Uganda's travails after he had re-imposed Obote.

There are many things for which Nyerere is respected. He was one of those rare politicians who managed to earn a reputation for sincerity and integrity while in power. He was often brutally honest, and he was incorruptible -- indeed, his lifestyle was modest to the point of austerity. In politics he was well meaning, accessible and non-divisive. His sins were simply that he was idealistic, impractical and willful. Compared to such leaders as Mobutu, Amin, Bokassa, Macias Nguema, Mengistu Haile Mariam and even to many other less monstrous, but equally corrupt, African leaders, Nyerere was a bright light on the African horizon. Stanley Meisler, a long-time Tanzanian observer, wrote: "I do not want to belittle Nyerere. His Tanzania is warm, calm, gentle and united."

The question is whether this is a sufficient reason to turn a politician into a saint. For in the eyes of many African commentators Nyerere could do no wrong. Nationalization? "Resources had to be centrally controlled by the government in order to ensure that distribution for internal and external purposes was guaranteed." The failure of ujamaa villages? That was due to the increase of the number of families in a village and the "invasion of rich families who wanted to make a quick buck from being a client of government." Re-instating Obote? "That [the regime] later crumbled, leading to guerrilla war, cannot be blamed on Dr. Nyerere." The disintegration of the East African Community? It would be wrong to blame Nyerere for the fact that Tanzania was the main sufferer as a result. And so on.

Where does this myopic vision come from? First, Africa badly needs its own heroes. Too many leaders have turned out to be grave disappointments, and some have been monsters. It needs not just heroes but saints and martyrs if it is to restore its belief in itself. And there are not too many candidates for sainthood apart from Nyerere.

Second, African independence and resistance to white minority rule has involved an enormous act of assertion by peoples and individuals, many of whom have been deeply damaged by what they have endured. The miseries and mistakes of the independence era lie heavily upon the continent -- and on the black diaspora -- and they threaten to squash that collective self-assertion. Celebrating Nyerere is a short-term way of keeping that self-assertion alive, though its long-term dangers are obvious. For what Africa needs above all is honesty about itself, its mistakes, its history -- and even about its great men.

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