- Jun 11, 2015
Only one or two leaders in the African continent's post-colonial history can lay valid claims to a comparable, dignified statesmanly stature and global credibility as Julius Kambarage Nyerere (who passed on Thursday October 14, 1999). The man's simplicity and Spartan lifestyle contrasted markedly with the decadence and opulent indulgences of his peers and "Brother Presidents" in 1970s and 1980s Africa. Born in 1922, one of the enduring qualities of the man known affectionately in Kiswahili as "Mwalimu" (the teacher), is that he counts among a handful of leaders in the world who remained on the progressive side of the dynamics of history.
First, in championing the nationalist fight against British/Western colonization of his East African country, he is remembered as a freedom fighter. In 1964, he formed Tanzania as a union of Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar.
Second, he set a high moral standard whereby the mark of presidential leadership and honor in Africa (and elsewhere in the developing world), is measurable, not in the amount of public funds hidden away in Swiss, American and European banks but in the permanent bank of good and public service left as signatures of honor for posterity. Lest I forget, those stolen funds are never kept inside African banks, lest ordinary African folks like us know how much the self-proclaimed "God-ordained Ruler for all Times, The Shining Light and Robust Rain of The Republic... The Only Way Forward" is worth. Hence, where such putrid Presidents, Eminencies and assorted Excellencies in criminality acted like insatiable brigands and chartered libertines who ravaged the meager resources of their newly independent countries, Nyerere set his eyes of the prize of egalitarianism and provision of affordable basic health services and cooperative farming.
Third, even amidst the glaring weaknesses of his belief in how socialism could improve Tanzania, he had the "vision thing." Where his "Brother Presidents" from other parts of Africa (and the developing world) had blurry visions of nation-building comparable to the clarity of an army of drunks marching through a battery of klieg lights, Nyerere invested and brought an admirable and unique breadth of personal discipline, intellectual clarity, and honesty. Hence, among those presidents, and indeed into the wider civil society, those finer qualities made "Mwalimu" stand out like an 18th century Benedictine monk at a Guns and Roses rock concert.
Fourth, another important legacy of Nyerere's emerged when he showed an example that, despite his being "the Father of the Nation," he should not be President for Life. Regardless of his popularity and viability as a candidate, he gave up the presidency in 1985, and retired to a farm in his native village of Butiama near Lake Victoria. This enabled his successors, Hassan Mwinyi and the incumbent Benjamin Mkapa, to move away from Nyerere's socialistic programs and doctrinaire ujamaa (Swahili for cooperatives) to an essential soko huru (Swahili for a relatively free market).
Despite Nyerere's better efforts, Socialism did not move Tanzania to the corridors of technologically and economically developed countries. Yet, he caused significant illumination of their self-awareness and commitment to democracy at the grassroots level during his tenure as first president of Tanzania (1964-1985).
Fifth, Nyerere gave practical value to the primacy of the individual human rights of all Africans in their own countries, despite claims by oppressive regimes/governments to "inviolable borders and non-interference in internal affairs." Happily, in 1978, Nyerere sent Tanzanian troops to undertake an unusual move in Africa to depose Uganda's dictator Field Marshall Idi Amin, on the argument that the abuse of the human rights of any African should no longer be regarded as "the internal affairs" of the oppressive regime, belonging only to debates in some distant jurisprudence classes. Nyerere was the nemesis of some African-grown oppressors, tin-gods and evil incarnates who ruled over other Africans as heads of state. This legacy will endure, even after his death. Before then, in 1968, he led one of few African countries who supported the quest by Igbos and other south-easterners of Nigeria who had declared the failed Republic of Biafra, based on the twin issues of self-determination and human rights. Also, Nyerere's support for African liberation movements caused him to offer support and bases in Tanzania to members of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (in Morogoro). On June 26, 1959, he spearheaded the launch of the anti-racist campaign in London, the Boycott Movement (re-named Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1960) which led to the galvanizing of international boycott and subsequent sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
Sixth, a champion of the rights of women, he wrote in an essay titled 'Women's Contribution to the Pan African Struggle' that: "If we want our country to make full and quick progress now, it is essential that our women live on terms of full equality with their fellow citizens who are men."
Seventh, he disliked foreign interference and; for example, he argued: "Zaire has been under the United States and the French for the last 30 years. It's a ruined country. So let's have some humility &endash; leave this country alone.... to us this is an insult. This is 1997 &endash; why should it be the French versus the Americans, and the Africans are not allowed to choose their own leaders? Stop lecturing us, and let us develop." These comments came after the toppling of Mobutu, and did not diminish his revulsion at Mobutu's years of depravity in Zaire.
Nyerere's views on taxes touched on a major issue underlining the low level of public revenue and financial planning in Africa. He argued that "Any government that works for the wealthy does not collect tax, it chooses to harass small-time dealers (traders)."
Above all else, where Nyerere's peers and latter-day Generals/Presidents (except for the likes of Mandela) converted their country's central bank governors to their personal exchequers and cash keepers, he was happy to be rich in the goodwill of his people and wealthy in the realms of ethics and probity. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the soldier-presidents, particularly, who turned into violent scavengers on the resources of the various countries in Africa, consider the ethics of the Nyereres of this world to be "bush and senseless." Little wonder that many countries in Africa remained like terribly mismanaged corporations with the Chairmen (dictators/presidents) and board of directors (henchmen/courtiers) wallowing in opulent splendor while the shareholders (the citizenry) are handed balance sheets overflowing with red ink. For example, while Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (officially translated as "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake") sought to be President-for-life, ruined Zaire for over 30 years, owned chateaux on the choice river fronts in Europe and diamond-studded palaces in the choice cities of the world, his country was worth less than one fifth of his personal loot. Nyerere was not only full of disdain for the Mobutu-type, he showed that amidst the rack and ruin, Africa has first-class leaders for whom honor and place in history are worth more than filthy lucre, shekels, silver, and gold.
For that, I say: Rest in Peace, Mwalimu Nyerere, and may your Lineage endure!
Nwangwu, recipient of the Journalism Excellence Award, HABJ 1997, is the Founder & Publisher of USAfricaonline.com (first African-owned U.S.-based professional newspaper to be published on the internet), The Black Business Journal, BBJonline.com and NigeriaCentral.com. He covered U.S president Bill Clinton's visit to parts of Africa, March-April 2, 1998, and serves on Houston Mayor Lee Brown's international (Africa) business advisory board.