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Lament for Independent Africa's Greatest Leader



Oct. 6. 1999

LONDON- Tanzania in East Africa has long been one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. But there was a time when it was described, in terms of its political influence, as one of the top 25. It punched far above its weight. That formidable achievement was the work of one man, now lying close to death in a London hospital.

How it came to be so is one of the more interesting political histories of our age. A man born of peasants in a remote village climbed the educational ladder of the local Catholic missionaries, went to Edinburgh university, became a teacher and then blossomed into being the leader of Tanganyika's (as it was then called before its union with Zanzibar in 1964) budding independence movement. His extraordinary intelligence, verbal and literary orginality (he later translated Shakespeare's Julius Caesar into Swahili) and apparent commitment to non-violence made him not just an icon in his own country but of a large part of the activist sixties' generation in the white world who, not all persuaded of the heroic virtues of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, desperately looked for a more sympathetic role model.

Measured against most of his peers, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, he towered above them. On the intellectual plane only the rather remote president of Senegal, the great poet and author of Negritude, Leopold Senghor, came close to him.

Not only was Nyerere financially open, modest and honest, he was uncorrupted by fame or position. He remained throughout his life, self-effacing and unpretentious. Above all, he inspired his own people to resist the tugs of tribalism and to pull together as one people. To this day Tanzania remains one of the very few African countries that has not experienced serious tribal division. (Its continously fraught relationship with the Arab-dominated off-shore island of Zanzibar is another matter.)

Later, discarding his earlier more pacifist convictions, he was to become the eminence grise of the southern African liberation movements in Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa extending a wide open embrace to their operations. For this his country paid a heavy price, both in material terms but also because Nyerere's role as interlocutur with the West demanded enormous amounts of time and energy that often led him to neglect his domestic responsibilties. It also pushed him to take short cuts in judicial procedures that ended up incarcerating without trial in miserable conditions opponents of the leadership of these movements.

Indeed, the liberation struggle brought out a weakness that had showed itself soon after independence- a conviction that he did know better than anyone else, that elections for his position were not necessary and that those for members of parliament be circumscribed by allowing only balloted competition within the party not between parties. Yet whenever he met foreign visitors who offered criticism he defended himself with charm and humour. Nyerere was not an egomaniac who banged the table and surrounded himself only with sycophants. He was simply the self-assured headmaster that he had been since his teaching days and thought he knew best. But it was this flaw that has been part of the undoing of his country. Tanzania remains one of the very poorest countries in the world. The Nyerere era is over and his legacy as far as ordinary people working in the towns or out on the fields in the countryside are concerned is not self-evident apart from rapid progress made, with the use of aid money, in the spread of primary education and pure drinking water in remote villages. Whereas a once equally poor nearby country, Botswana, has progressed rapidly to the point where it is bearly recognizable as the impoverished backwater it was only thirty years ago, Tanzania remains mired in the rut of underdevelopment and only recently, since Nyerere voluntarily retired in 1985, has begun to make up for lost time.

For most of Nyerere's long period in office his country was in economic difficulties. Inherited poverty, appalling weather, world recessions, crazed neighbours and war in southern Africa were all parts of the problem, but in there end there was not a good excuse for such continuous failures.

The hard grind of ensuring what little there was ran well, be it an agricultural extension service inherited in good working order from the colonial administration or the Tanzam railway that the Chinese built as a gift, was sacrificed to grandiose ideas. Not useless prestige projects in Nyerere's case, but the more insidious ideas of ideology.

Nyerere's Christian socialist ideology dreamed of new ways of organizing society when there were hardly the rudiments of modern structures. He held that Tanzanians, of whom only a handful had more than a few years of professional experience, could run, transform and propel their country into a new orbit in which old habits, traditional or British-imposed, could be jettisoned wholesale. Tanzania became riddled with state industries, state banks, state plantations, state marketing boards which lost money hand over fist.

His biggest mistake of all was what he called "ujamaa"- a kind of African, Israeli kibbutz-inspired collectivisation. From his early days he had visions of an earthy village socialism in which modern techniques, such as the use of tractors and fertilizers, could be managed by village teams and used in communal fields, with the village selling and buying from the outside on a coooperative basis.

He began his experiments in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s he decided he had preached enough. The order was given that the peasants were to move. It was a momentous exercise, uprooting people whose families had farmed the same scattered plots for hundreds of years. Many moved voluntarily, persuaded by Mr Nyerere's rhetoric. Others had to be pushed. The planning was shoddy. Villagers were herded together and yet often there was no running water, no good agricultural land and no road.

Later Nyerere was to admit that even in his home village, which he often liked to visit, ujamaa had not really taken hold. In the end he was forced to put ujamaa on a back burner, but the damage had been done.

Many of us will mourn Julius Nyerere when he is gone. He was, without any doubt, second only to Nelson Mandela, the most inspiring African leader of his generation. Yet, when all is said and done, it was not enough to be truly remarkable, to leave an imprint that will go down in history. Alas, he too often inspired the wrong things.He was too beholden to his own self-righteousness and strong convictions. And since his opinions, sometimes good, too often wrong, could never be tested or seriously queried by ballot or by a fiesty, free press, his ideas were never effectively challenged. That did him, as a person, probably no good and it did Africa less.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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