Julius Kamberage Nyerere

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Julius Kamberage Nyerere

Julius Kamberage Nyerere (born 1922) was a Tanzanian statesman and political philosopher who became the first president of Tanzania. His carefully reasoned and well-presented policies for the development of Tanzania led to a reputation as Africa's most original thinker.

During the often turbulent era of the 1950s in Africa, as the various colonies worked to gain independence from their European masters, the United Nations Trust Territory of Tanganyika was a significant exception to the norm in its quiet progress to freedom. This was largely because of the leadership of Julius Nyerere. His recognition of the political realities within Tanganyika and his refusal to be associated with any schemes of racial bigotry made him a figure of world interest. His continuing leadership of his country after independence within these lines led to his recognition as one of Africa's most creative politicians.

Julius Nyerere was born in March 1922 at Butiama, the son of Nyerere Burito and his eighteenth wife, Mugaya. Nyerere Burito (1860-1942) was one of the several chiefs of the Zanaki, a small tribal grouping of less than 50,000 individuals. The Zanaki were a poor people, and the chiefs were little richer than their subjects. Julius Nyerere early demonstrated a lively intellect; he was sent to the Native Authority School at Musoma, where he impressed his teachers enough to be encouraged to attempt entry to the important Tanganyika Government School at Tabora. He gained admission in 1937, and again he earned the commendation of his teachers.

In one episode at Tabora, Nyerere acted in a manner that foreshadowed his political course. When appointed prefect of his house, he learned that prefects received special dining privileges, as well as extensive disciplinary powers over fellow students. In the interests of equality, Nyerere successfully agitated to have the special privileges abolished. Nyerere entered Makerere University College in January 1943, where he became one of a group of lively young East Africans discussing the political problems of their countries, which then were all under British rule. He was especially noted for his debating abilities. All during these years Nyerere showed a consistent interest in the Roman Catholic religion; he was baptized in December 1943.

Political Beginnings

Receiving his diploma of education in 1945, Nyerere returned to Tanganyika to teach history and biology at St. Mary's College, Tabora, a Roman Catholic secondary school. He began his political life by joining the Tanganyika African Association, an organization founded in 1929 by British officials to provide a discussion forum for African opinion. He was elected treasurer of the Tabora branch. The association, however, was not a very vital body, since most educated Africans in Tanganyika were in government service, which by British decision precluded them from any overt political activity.

Nyerere decided that he needed more education; in 1949 he entered Edinburgh University, where he decided against working for an honors degree, instead studying a broad range of subjects. Nyerere later said, "I evolved the whole of my political philosophy while I was there." He received a master's degree in 1952 and returned to Tanganyika, where he was appointed history master at St. Francis' College, Pugu, near the country's capital, Dar es Salaam.

As one of the few Africans with a Western education in Tanganyika, Nyerere was soon caught up in political life. In April 1953 he was elected president of the Tanganyika, African Association, devoting his energies to an effort to revitalize that organization into an effective medium for African interests. Perceiving that this was a hopeless task, he organized a new group and on July 7, 1954, announced the formation of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). It was the first African political body within Tanganyika; Nyerere was unanimously elected president.

The early years of TANU were difficult ones; Tanganyika's lack of educated Africans free of government restriction and its poor communications system hindered organizational work. But limited progress was made, spear-headed by a group comprising Nyerere, Paul Bomani, Oscar Kambona, and Rashidi Mfaume Kawawa. An opportunity opened for the party because of Tanganyika's relationship to the United Nations. One of the international body's periodic visiting missions went to Tanganyika in 1954. Some of its members were sympathetic to African aspirations; they recommended setting a date for the territory's independence. The British naturally reacted against what they considered ill-informed interference, with one result of the dispute being TANU's decision to send Nyerere to present the party's case before the Trusteeship Council in New York. The reasoned eloquence of his statements about Tanganyika's future drew considerable attention, although no immediate results ensued.

By this period Nyerere was devoting so much time to politics that he found it necessary, in 1955, to resign his teaching post. He did this with considerable regret, for he loved teaching, a fact illustrated by the name most commonly applied to him today within his country, mwalimu, the teacher. Without fixed employment, and lacking any personal fortune, Nyerere spent a very difficult period of his life as he traveled widely within Tanganyika to further organize TANU. He also had two additional appearances before the United Nations, in December 1956 and June 1957, where he reinforced the favorable impression made in 1955.

The British could not help but recognize Nyerere's growing influence. In 1957 he was appointed to the Legislative Council, which remained under British control, but when he was unable to make any progress for the policies of TANU, Nyerere resigned in disgust.

In 1958 TANU had to make an important decision. The British had scheduled elections for Tanganyika under a scheme which reserved seats for members of the country's African, Asian, and European communities. Voting, however, was to be by a common, and therefore largely African, electorate. Many members of TANU were against this effort to impose minority representation, but Nyerere carried his point of view for participation in a stormy conference at Tabora. The result was to ensure a peaceful progress to independence. TANU swept the 1958 and 1959 elections.

Toward Independence

This success was matched with an important change in the British leadership of the territory; a new governor, Sir Richard Turnbull, succeeded the more conservative Sir Edward Twining. Turnbull was prepared to support Tanganyika's drive for independence, and he preferred to work in close collaboration with Nyerere so that a stable country would emerge. Their joint efforts culminated in the elections of 1960, when TANU won 70 of 71 seats in the legislature; Nyerere was asked to form the new government, thereby becoming Tanganyika's first elected chief minister. Independence followed quickly on Dec. 9, 1961.

But the success of TANU made obvious many defects in the structure of the party. Nyerere realized that TANU's real work would come with independence; therefore in a dramatic move he resigned as head of the government in January 1962 to devote his activities to rebuilding the party. His work was successful, and he was overwhelmingly elected in the 1962 elections as the first president of Tanganyika, which became a republic on Dec. 9, 1962.

Political Philosophy

During the years of political struggle, Nyerere had developed the outlines for the policies which his economically poor country should follow. With the motto of Uhuru na Kazi (Freedom and Work), he at once mounted a major attack on what he considered the three major enemies of his people—poverty, ignorance, and disease. Nyerere believed that it was unwise for a poor country to depend on the uncertain aid of the richer nations for progress. Instead, Tanganyikans were encouraged to utilize their own strengths, especially their ample manpower, to develop their country themselves.

A series of self-help schemes in road building and other construction projects during 1963-1964 exemplified this approach. In this struggle for human dignity Nyerere found no place for an elite of officeholders, and various schemes were initiated to break down any emerging class barriers within the country. This line of development was most forcefully stated in Nyerere's Arusha Declaration of 1967.

In January 1964 Nyerere had to face the most serious crisis of his political career. The Tanganyikan army mutinied, demanding higher pay and the full Africanization of the officer corps. Nyerere was forced into hiding, and stability was regained only when British forces were called in to restore order. Part of the reason for this unrest was the Zanzibar revolution of January 1964, when revolutionary groups overthrew that island's Arab-led government. The new radical government, with heavy Communist leanings, was subsequently encouraged to unite with Tanganyika. The result was the united country of Tanzania, with Abeid Karume of Zanzibar serving under Nyerere as first vice president.

Looking Back

By 1967, with western nations such as the United States cautious about investing in Nyerere's socialist country, TANU adopted the system of broad government control called the Arusha Declaration, designed to regulate economic and social development. This measure called for complete government control of all means of production and distribution, demanded broad development projects, presented a code of ethics for the nation's political leaders, and emphasized the two main themes of egalitarianism and self-reliance along the lines of Ujamaa. Nyerere and TANU hoped to break down emerging class barriers and promote universal human dignity.

In the 40th anniversary Africa Report published in 1994, Nyerere reminisced about the future of Africa and his country's political path during his 24-year tenure when his people enjoyed more equality, rights, stability, common language (Swahili) and national identity than most other Africans.

He cited the dramatic change from an impoverished nation that had only 12 doctors for nine million people when he took office. By his departure in 1985, he said it was transformed to a country, although still poor, with "thousands" of Tanzanian-trained doctors. All children were receiving seven years of education where before fewer than half received schooling, and nine out of 10 Tanzanians were literate. He told of a people no longer subservient who had learned to stand upright and could look their former colonial rulers straight in the eye.

But by 1992, Nyerere was on the political sidelines, although he had remained head of the ruling party until two years before. By then, the country was moving away from his brand of African socialism embodied in the principle of Ujamaa (familyhood) and moving toward privitization.

Nyerere saw many of those previous gains such as schooling for all children slipping away after the country lost control of its economy to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund beginning in the early 1980s.

Looking toward Africa as a whole, Nyerere said its countries needed time to develop their own "people-centered" democratic political systems, able to forge their futures cooperatively across national boundaries, rather than be pressured by rich European countries to adopt those systems.

Further Reading

Nyerere's own writings offered the best guide to his political philosophy: African Socialism (1961); Freedom and Unity (1967); Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (1968); and Freedom and Socialism (1968). William Edgett Smith, We Must Run While They Walk: A Portrait of Africa's Julius Nyerere (1971), was a penetrating biographical study. Much information on his life was available in Judith Listowel, The Making of Tanganyika (1965). Recommended for general historical background are B. A. Ogot and J. A. Kieran, eds., Zamani: A Survey of East African History (1968), and I. N. Kimambo and A. J. Temu, eds., A History of Tanzania (1969). Relevant articles can be found in the Economist November 2, 1996 and Africa Report September/October 1994. An article on the Arusha Declaration can be found on the internet at http://www.journalism.wisc.edu/olw/worldnews/Africa/tanzania.html (July 29, 1997). □

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