MWALIMU JULIUS KAMBARAGE NYERERE
by David Martin*
On 22 October 1959, the visionary young African leader made a commitment on behalf of his people, who had not yet reclaimed their own country:
“We, the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate and dignity where there was before only humiliation.”
When Mwalimu Nyerere made that speech to the Legislative Council two years before his country’s Independence, almost all of Africa was still under colonial rule, except nine countries (Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia).
Political pressure for Independence had begun and the “wind of change” was gathering strength, but most of the southern African political parties and liberation movements which later fought and won majority rule were still banned or had not yet been constituted.
Mwalimu’s dedication and commitment to the liberation of the sub-continent, to African unity and to pan-Africanism remains unsurpassed.
True to his vision, it can be said that he “carried the torch that liberated Africa”.
Therein, in the view of many non-Tanzanians, lies Nyerere’s greatest contribution. All of the countries of the continent — with the exception of Spanish Sahara — are now fully independent. When Nyerere had spoken to the Legislative Assembly in 1959 only nine countries were independent; today the number is 54.
All of southern Africa’s liberation movements at one time had their headquarters in Dar es Salaam. In the heady days of the 1960s through the somewhat calmer 1980s, Tanzania was the crossroads of Africa. Almost everyone who was anyone visited Dar es Salaam during those years to meet Nyerere and the leaders of southern Africa’s liberation movements.
There is a saying in Africa that every time an old man dies a library burns down. Nyerere was such a library and regrettably much of his knowledge has gone to his grave with him, although three volumes of speeches were published and several books written about him.
Revisionist historians will judge the man and his times in their own way. Few will have the historical memory and knowledge to rebut their contentions. It remains incumbent on those who were involved with him to record his side of the story.
Almost all Tanzanians hold him in special esteem. They were stunned by his death gathering in silent groups beneath the official photograph which in Swahili proclaims him as Baba wa Taifa, Father of the Nation. They have many different reasons to remember the man who shaped their lives.
One of his most lasting legacies is the union of the sovereign states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar into the single country called the United Republic of Tanzania. Another legacy was the Arusha Declaration and the leadership code which sought to stem the earliest manifestations of corruption.
A lasting policy, in the days when the World Bank regarded investment in education and health as non-productive, was his determination to provide basic social services for his people.
Ujamaa, the concept of togetherness, was another of his visions with the logic of bringing scattered communities together into centres where goods and services can reach them, though the implementation of others was found wanting.
But domestically Nyerere’s most enduring legacy must be Tanzania’s unity and stability. From over 120 ethnic groups, Nyerere forged a united nation bonded by a single language, Swahili. The pride of nationhood is palpable among Tanzanians.
Nyerere was born at Butiama, a village near Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria, in April 1922. He was the son of Chief Nyerere Burite of the Wazanaki and his mother was to exert a considerable influence on his life.
He attended primary school at Musoma and secondary school at Tabora. He spent two years at Makerere University in Uganda before returning to Tabora as a teacher. In 1949, he enrolled at Edinburgh University in Scotland completing a Master of Arts degree three years later.
A spell of teaching followed at Pugu near Dar es Salaam. But politics were beckoning and in 1954 he became a founder member of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) and its first President.
Faced with a choice between teaching and politics, he chose the uncertainty of the latter. These were to be difficult days for his young wife, Maria. In July 1957, Nyerere was nominated to the Tanganyika Legislative Council but he resigned in December that year in protest at Britain delaying independence.
In Tanganyika’s first elections in 1958, he was elected to Parliament and he was returned unopposed in the 1960 general election. He formed the first Tanganyika Council of Ministers and became the first Chief Minister. In May 1961, he became Prime Minister resigning six weeks after independence to bridge the potential gap between the government and party.
Tanganyika became independent on 9 December 1961 and a year later when the country became a republic, Nyerere, elected by over 96 per cent of the voters, became its first President.
For the next 24 years Nyerere was the fill the African and international stage like a colossus. When he met the astute American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for the first time in Dar es Salaam in 1976, the two men began a mental verbal fencing match.
One began a quote from Shakespeare (several of whose works Nyerere translated into Swahili setting them in an African context) or a Greek philosopher and the other would end the quotation. Then Nyerere quoted an American author. Kissinger laughed: Nyerere knew Kissinger had written the words.
Neither man trusted the other. Kissinger wanted the negotiations kept secret. Nyerere, understanding the Americans duplicity, took the opposite view and as Africa correspondent of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, I was to become the focal point of the Tanzanians strategic leaks. That year the newspaper led the front page on an unprecedented 13 occasions on Africa. All the leaks, as Kissinger knew, came from Nyerere. One political fox had temporarily outwitted the other.
Nyerere was both forthright and disarming. He did not tolerate fools and when a conversation had run its course the Tanzanian leader left his guest in no doubt that the meeting was over.
When he told his mother in 1985 that he had decided to retire as President her response, which he gleefully repeated, was “Julius, you are a silly boy.” Nevertheless, from that day until his death, Nyerere remained the first among equals. His endorsement was to be a vital component for any contemporary Tanzanian politician for, in truth, he never ceased to be Tanzania’s leader.
Another reason to remember Nyerere is the way in which he stood up to the international donors and said “No” when he believed that the course they proposed was not in his people’s best interests.
Nyerere was a charmingly forthright and visionary leader, and a forward-looking politician whose vision and purpose will live on. Tanzania, Africa and the world is a very much poorer place without him.
The late David Martin (14.04.36 – 18.08.07) was a Founding Director of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) of which Julius Nyerere was the Founding Patron. Martin lived in Tanzania for 10 years from 1964 working as senior reporter for a local newspaper before becoming Africa correspondent of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, and later an author and publisher. He talked frequently with Mwalimu during the following 35 years.