Julius Nyerere: a leader to remember


Julius Nyerere was the first president of Tanzania. He ruled for 30 years. He was one of the greatest leaders of modern Africa and a good man. Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana to independence, stated in his autobiography that the independence of Ghana would be meaningless unless it was linked with the liberation of the rest of Africa.
As we look back on the struggle for African freedom, we realise that Nyerere and his country Tanganyika sacrificed more for the freedom of neighbouring countries. It was in eastern and southern Africa that colonialism had its tap roots and took longest to uproot.
As soon as Tanganyika got self-government and before independence, refugees poured in from South Africa, the High Commission territories (Swaziland, Basituland and Bechunaland), Southern Rhodesia, Mozambique, South West Africa and Southern Sudan. Nyerere and his people received them all though Tanganyika was not very wealthy.
Even Malawi received assistance from Nyerere. Henry Masauko Chipembere, in his posthumous autobiography, says that when it was decided to bring Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda home, he and Chief Kuntaja of Blantyre were deputised to go and meet Dr Banda in London from Ghana. The Nyasaland African Congress managed to raise fares for one person only. Chipembere asked Nyerere if he could help. Nyerere sent money for the second fare. When the plane stopped at Dar es Salaam Airport, Chipembere and Kuntaja found Nyerere and his wife waiting to greet him. By that time, Nyerere had become a leader of continental status but he did not find it beneath his dignity to go and meet a member of Nyasaland Legislative Council. Pride was not part of his nature.
Of all the leaders of Africa who led their countries to independence, the leader whose progress I watched at closest range was Nyerere. I was in Dar es Salaam in 1953 working for a shipping company when Nyerere returned from the University of Edinburgh with a master’s degree and resumed teaching at St. Francis College on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.
At that time, Tanzanians seemed to have interest in politics. The Tanganyika African Association (Tam), which was supposed to be a political organisation, was largely moribund. Its leaders appealed to Nyerere to become their president. Nyerere won up Tam and with the assistance of Blantyre-born Dennis Phombeya, he drafted a constitution for a new organisation called Tanganyika African National Union (Tanu) and went about touring the vast country speaking in Swahili the national language.
His employers, Irish priests, under pressure from the government demanded of Nyerere to choose between his job and Tanu. Nyerere quit his job. Within a short time, Tanu became Africa’s most powerful political party having eclipsed Ghana’s Convention People’s Party. Eight years after he had launched Tanu, Nyerere was prime minister of Tanganyika and 10 years after, its president. In east and central Africa, Tanganyika was the first to get independence.
In his first Cabinet, he included two Malawians who had taken up Tanganyika citizenships. Michael Kamaliza from Likoma Island was appointed Minister of Labour. Austin Edward Shabba from Mzimba was Minister of Health while his permanent secretary was Dr Charles Mtawali from Rumphi.
Fifty-four years have passed since I left Tanzania and have never been there again, so I do not know what members of the present generation are like. But among the Tanzanians of those days, tribalism, regionalism and xenophobia were taboo.
Though he was modest, those who tried to play tools with him were shocked. In 1963, the army mutinied and demanded that Nyerere should chase out British commanders of the army and raise salaries. They were unyielding in negotiations. Nyerere called in a British army that came and disarmed the Tanganyika army. Nyerere ordered that all soldiers be sent to their respective homes and apply again. Not all were reinstated. He displayed his next toughness when General Idi Amin, president of Uganda, tried to annex Tanzanian’s towns near Lake Victoria. Nyerere dispatched an army that drove Amin out of Uganda.
Though, like many African leaders, Nyerere ruled Tanzania as a one-party state, hardly any Tanzanians left their country to live as refugees in neighbouring countries. When people were demanding multiparty democracy, he allowed it to operate within insisting on referendum. In Malawi, multiparty democracy followed a referendum that took place as a result of UN and donor pressure.
Mahatma Gandhi, father of Indian independence, was impressed while living in the Transvaal, South Africa with president Paul Kruger’s simplicity. He dwelt in an ordinary house. The only outside symbol of his importance was that there were policemen outside his house. This is the kind of life Nyerere lived. He and his wife Maria never put on as first Gentlemen and First Lady.

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