The Common Good
January-February 2000

Goodbye to 'One of Us'

by Alden Almquist | January-February 2000

Nyerere, Africa's father of independence.

When the body of Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere was returned to Dar-es-Salaam from London, nearly a million people massed in the streets to welcome it home. As news of Nyerere’s death from leukemia at age 77 spread throughout the city, offices and businesses closed their doors. Radio stations broadcast a steady stream of songs of praise and mourning freshly composed in his honor. The Republic of South Africa lowered its flags to half-staff and testimonials poured in from around the world.

The object of this veneration began life as a simple herdsboy of the small Zanaki tribe from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. Roman Catholic priests, recognizing his intelligence, enrolled him in school at the age of 12. He went on to Makerere University in Kampala, graduated, and began his career as a schoolteacher; the name Mwalimu, or "teacher" in KiSwahili, stuck for life. In later years he was quoted as saying that he was a schoolmaster by choice and a politician by accident.

Some accident. Nyerere’s deep passion for freedom and justice, together with his discipline and negotiating skills, made him a giant in the continent-wide struggle for African independence. Not only did he lead his own country into independence from Britain and into union with neighboring Zanzibar, but he offered his newly independent country as a launching pad for liberation movements in neighboring countries, hosting independence activists from Zambia, Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), Mozambique, and South Africa.

As co-founder of the Organization of African Unity and a leading figure in the world Non-Aligned Movement, Nyerere played East against West with skill, sending students to universities in the United States and the Soviet Union alike and garnering aid from Western Europe and Communist China. He opposed all tyrannies, and not just colonial ones. When no one would move against the tyranny of neighbor Idi Amin, Nyerere did; he responded to Amin’s border attacks with an invasion of some 40,000 troops that drove Amin from power in 1979, an action that was profoundly politically incorrect in terms of the OAU charter banning any member’s interference in the internal affairs of another.

His domestic legacy was less triumphalist. Impressed by the Fabian socialism he encountered as a university student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he melded it together with African communal traditions to create an African socialism centered on the idea of ujamaa, or familyhood. In pursuit of this vision of a communal society without extreme want or extreme wealth, he ordered the nationalization of most large private enterprises. He also obliged millions of Tanzanians to abandon their traditional homes and lands to be grouped together in large farming collectives where they could gain better access to education and medical services.

The nationalizations were popular, but collective farming was not. Many farmers found themselves worse off than before. Productivity plummeted. Even before Nyerere handed over the reins of power to his successor in 1985, ujamaa had been effectively abandoned. Designed to make the country self-reliant, the net effect was to make Tanzania more dependent—it became the highest per capita foreign aid recipient in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite these economic failures, Nyerere’s public support remained strong. Voters saw what foreign critics did not—a leader that they could trust, one whose principled conduct, respect for consensus-building, and political vision had safely steered them through the shoals of independence and the difficult building of democracy. They had only to look over their borders at Mozambique’s bloody and protracted anti-colonial struggle, at Burundi’s ethnic fratricide, at Uganda’s succession of wars and autocrats, or at Congo’s progressive disintegration under Mobutu’s kleptocracy to know the value of what they had. Above all, they trusted his character, his incorruptibility, his simplicity of lifestyle and of spirit that left mourners telling reporters in the streets that he was "one of us."

The best way to give honor to Nyerere’s memory is by furthering his causes. Respond to the need for food relief for his country or support the campaign for poor country debt forgiveness led by Christians worldwide under the banner of Jubilee 2000. Support South Africa in your prayers as it assumes the mantle of leadership Nyerere bore in his role as elder statesman mediating the conflict in neighboring Burundi. In helping to carry on his work, you will remember him.

ALDEN ALMQUIST is an anthropologist who has worked at the Library of Congress since 1985 as an Africa analyst and literary examiner.

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