African Witness: Julius Nyerere

Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born in March of 1922 in the village of Butiama near Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria. He was named Kambarage after an ancestral spirit who lived in the rain, and because it was raining very hard on the day of Julius’ birth. He took the name Julius at the age of 20 on the day of his baptism in the Catholic Church.

From 1912 until 1942 his father Nyerere Burito was the chief of the relatively small Wazanaki tribe. From young on Julius had to herd the cattle, sheep and goats of his father, and it wasn’t until he was twelve that he was able to begin his primary education in 1934 at the Mwisenge Primary School in Musoma.

Graduating at the top of his class, he moved to a Government School in Tabora and after finishing his Tenth Standard in 1943, he entered Makerere University College in Uganda. He completed his studies at Makerere in 1945 with a Diploma in Education. He returned to Tabora and then taught history and biology at St. Mary’s Secondary School. He was a very gifted and dedicated teacher and from that time onwards he received the title `mwalimu’ meaning ‘teacher’ in Swahili, a name which would remain with him for the rest of his life.

In 1949 he enrolled in Edinburgh University for a Masters in History, Economics and Philosophy and graduated in 1952. Upon his return from Edinburgh he resumed teaching at St. Francis’ College in Pugu near Dar es Salaam. In January 1953 Nyerere married Maria Gabriel, his fiancée with whom he had gotten engaged before leaving for Edinburgh.

In July 1954 Nyerere became one of the founding members of the Tanganyka African National Union (TANU). In 1955 he gave up teaching in order to dedicate himself to politics and became President of the Party. In 1958 Nyerere was elected a member of parliament in Tanganyika’s first elections and returned unopposed in 1960. On this occasion he was asked by the Governor to form the
country’s first council of ministers and he himself became its chief minister.

In May 1961 Nyerere was sworn in as Prime Minister and in December of the same year Tanganyka obtained its independence. After the decision to make Tanganyka a republic Nyerere was nominated as the TANU candidate for the post of President of the United Republic of Tanganyka and Zanzibar, later renamed Tanzania.

Nyerere remained President until November 1985 when he freely stepped down to hand over power to a younger generation of politicians. Nyerere was one of the very few African statesmen to have voluntarily relinquished his power even in the absence of any immediate threat to his position. This rare feat in African politics alone has earned him many admirers both inside and outside Africa. He retired as a simple farmer in his home village of Butiama and died in 1999 in England where he had gone to seek medical attention.

Nyerere will probably mostly be remembered for his outstanding personality and charismatic leadership. He lived a very simple life. Among his most important achievements we would mention first of all his concern for the rural population of Tanzania in trying to lift them out of poverty, ignorance and disease through a policy of self-reliance and solidarity. In his rural development plan Nyerere lacked trained and skilled manpower. But, before anything else, the nation had to first feed itself and he looked to Mao’s China as a model in this respect. He was deeply committed to establishing an egalitarian society.

Nyerere succeeded in creating a strong feeling of healthy nationalism among Tanzanians through his policy of Ujamaa and nation-building. Out of the 128 tribes he forged a united country by managing efficiently its tribal and religious diversity. He took away the power of the tribal chiefs inviting them to join the National TANU Party and he also sent civil servants, teachers and nurses all over Tanzania, thereby encouraging inter-tribal marriages. He further imposed Swahili as Tanzania’s national language and he put mechanisms in place to balance religious differences and promote religious tolerance, especially among Christians and Muslims, for example, through the Union of Tanganyka and Zanzibar.

Nyerere insisted on a policy of education towards self-reliance. Primary education was free of charge and all children were obliged to attend school. He launched an ambitious plan of general education which included racial integration, expansion of secondary school education and of teacher training programs, and widening the base of human resource management by training in skills and by expanding higher education at the university level.

Nyerere moved the country gradually from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy. The development towards democracy in Tanzania was strongly influenced by Nyerere’s view of African democracy. By advocating for a one-party system in 1965, Nyerere looked first at popular and participatory democracy as a strategy for controlling and checking the abuse of power by the leaders. This ‘one party democracy’ was aimed at unifying the country and enabling the peasants to participate in decision-making on issues that affected their lives. In spite of the fact that a large majority of the people were in favour of continuing with the one-party system, in May 1992 Parliament voted in favour of the establishment of a multi-party system.

In 1995 when Nyerere retired as President, he commented that a political party that had a monopoly of power could easily become complacent and even stagnate. He pointed out that many leaders of the newly renamed Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) or Party of the Revolution were closer to their desks than to the people. Since then Tanzania has had four democratically elected Presidents.

Nyerere’s influence went far beyond the borders of Tanzania, especially as a prominent member and a respected leader of the Commonwealth, the non-Aligned Movement, and the South-South Commission. He played a very decisive role in supporting the liberation struggle in Angola and Mozambique, in fighting against white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and in opposing the apartheid regime in South-Africa.

Finally, of course, not everybody appreciates Mwalimu Nyerere in the same way. Some will point to the fact that his Ujamaa policies were not so effective or to the war with Uganda to get rid of its dictator Idi Amin who had invaded Tanzania, but which had cost the country a lot of resources and as a result put back its economy.  (Jos Van Boxel) 

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