Nyerere, Julius 1922–
Julius Nyerere 1922–
Former president of Tanzania
When he stepped down as president of Tanzania in 1985, one of the few African rulers ever to relinquish power voluntarily, Julius Nyerere cemented his reputation as one of the continent’s greatest leaders. The first African from his former British colony, Tanganyika, to attend a university in the mother country, he returned to spearhead his nation’s struggle for independence, becoming its first president. Re-elected four times, he also earned the right to be called Mwalimu, the Teacher, by his countrymen, Nyerere’s 24-year leadership was highlighted by the peaceful union of Tanganyika and neighboring Zanzibar into Tanzania and his commitment to remake the nation into a self-sufficient egalitarian socialist society based on cooperative agriculture.
Though his economic policies fell short of his far-sighted goal, Nyerere managed to introduce free and universal education, greatly raising the nation’s literacy rate, and vastly improved health care for the majority of the population. He also instilled a sense of national pride among Tanzania’s diverse tribes, sparing it the vicious tribal conflicts of so many other African countries. Besides being a major force behind the modern Pan-African movement, Nyerere of African Unity, united five African nations to successfully pressure the white-supremacist government of Rhodesia into becoming black-ruled Zimbabwe, and ousted Idi Amin, the tyrannical dictator of Uganda, from power. His accomplishments and stature have led many to call him “the conscience of Africa” and have made him one of the Third World’s most prominent statesmen and spokesmen.
It was raining so hard the day Nyerere was born in March of 1922 that he was named Kambarage after an ancestral spirit who lived in the rain. Home was the village of Butiama, southeast of Lake Victoria and west of the Serengeti Plain in the British colony of Tanganyika. Years later, when he was baptized a Catholic, he took the name Julius. Nyerere’s father, Nyerere Burito, was village chief of the Zanaki, one of the smallest of Tanganyika’s 126 tribes. Young Nyerere, one of eight children from his father’s fifth marriage, had a traditional tribal childhood—growing up in a leaky mud hut, having his teeth filed in the Zanaki manner, and spending much of his younger years hunting. Being the son of the chief, he went to school at 12 for instruction in Catholicism, Swahili, and English. He scored first in the 1936 territorial examinations and was enrolled in the Tabora Governmental School, originally built for the sons of tribal chieftains.
On graduating, he entered Makerere College in neighboring
Born Kambarage Nyerere, March of 1922, in Butiama-Musoma, Lake Victoria, Tanganyika; took the name Julius when baptized a Catholic; son of Nyerere Burito (village chief of the Zanaki tribe) and Mugaya; married Maria Gabriel Magige (a teacher), January 24, 1953; children: five sons, two daughters. Education: Makerere College, Uganda, graduated in 1945; Edinburgh University, Scotland, M.A., 1952. Politics: Chama cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary Party). Religion: Catholic.
Biology and history teacher at St. Mary’s College, Tabora, Tanganyika, 1946-49; history teacher at St. Francis’ College, Pugu, Tanganyika, 1953-55. Elected president, Tanganyika African Association (TAA), 1953; transformed TAA into Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and served as president, 1954-77; appointed to temporary position on Tanganyika Legislative Council (TLC), 1954; addressed United Nations Trusteeship Council, 1955; elected member of TLC, 1958-60; chief minister of TLC, 1960; prime minister of Tanganyika, 1961-62; president, Tanganyika Republic, 1962-64; president, the United Republic of Tanzania, 1964-85; founder and chairman of Chama cha Mapinduzi, 1977-90.
First chancellor, University of East Africa, 1963-70; chancellor, University of Dar es Salaam, 1970-85, Sokoine University of Agriculture, 1984—; chairman, Organization of African Unity, 1984.
Awards: Third World Award, 1981; named Distinguished Son of Africa, 1988; honorary degrees.
Addresses: Home —Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Office — P.O. Box 71000, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Uganda, where he organized the campus chapter of the Tanganyika African Association (TAA), begun years earlier as a social group for African civil servants. After his 1945 graduation from Makerere, he taught history and biology by day at St. Mary’s College, a Catholic school in Tabora, and English to the townspeople during the evening. Many nights he stayed up late discussing politics and Tanganyika’s future with his friends.
With a grant from St. Mary’s and a government scholarship, Nyerere traveled to Scotland in 1949 to attend Edinburgh University, becoming the first Tanganyikan to study at a British university. During his years abroad, he became enthralled with the socialist ideology of the British labor movement. Returning home with a master’s degree in history and economics in 1952, he married Maria Magige the following year and began teaching history at St. Francis’ College in Pugu, just outside Dar es Salaam, the colonial capital and largest city of Tanganyika.
Small, unpretentious, soft-spoken, and quick to laugh, Nyerere impressed his less-educated countrymen with his willingness to talk and work with them as equals. In addition, he was a dynamic orator and unusually politically perceptive. Three months after arriving at St. Francis’, Nyerere was elected president of the TAA. Shortly thereafter, in July of 1954, he transformed the TAA into a political party, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and began agitating for Tanganyikan independence. Under his leadership, the organization espoused anticolonialism but stressed peaceful change, racial harmony, and social equality for all.
Recognizing his growing stature, Tanganyika’s British governor, Sir Edward Twining, appointed Nyerere to a temporary vacancy on the colony’s Legislative Council in 1954. The following year TANU sent Nyerere to New York to address the United Nations Trusteeship Council. Granted a hearing, he asked that the UN set a date for Tanganyikan independence and recognize the principle that the colony’s future government be led by Africans. Though the British government rejected his demands, the debate established Nyerere as his country’s preeminent nationalist spokesman.
Returning to Tanganyika, he resigned his teaching post to devote himself fully to campaigning for independence. For the next several years he tirelessly toured the countryside preaching anticolonialism without racial strife while building TANU into a powerful political organization, the membership of which grew from 100,000 in 1955 to a half million in 1957.
This hard work paid off in 1958 when TANU candidates won all the seats available to them on the Legislative Council in the colony’s first free elections. In the unrestricted election of 1960, TANU candidates won 70 of the total 71 seats, and Nyerere became chief minister. The understanding and mutual trust that developed between Nyerere and the new British governor, Sir Richard Turnbull, during independence negotiations helped make the bloodless transition period one of the most peaceful of any African nation. Other key factors were the large number of tribes in Tanganyika, which made it difficult for any one to dominate affairs, and the relatively small number of whites living in the colony.
Nyerere became prime minister in May of 1961 when Tanganyika achieved self-government; complete independence came that December. Six weeks after independence, Nyerere resigned his post to devote himself to fortifying TANU to aid “the creation of a country in which the people take a full and active part in the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease,” he was quoted as saying in a biography by William Edgett Smith. Within six months, the new TANU-led government had abolished the powers and salaries of the country’s hereditary chiefs.
But Nyerere could not stay away long. He was elected president of the new republic in November of 1962, receiving 98.1 percent of the vote. Pondering the meaning of a one-party democracy, he wrote a pamphlet, “Democracy and the Party System,” explaining that parties like TANU “were not formed to challenge any ruling group of our own people; they were formed to challenge foreigners who ruled us. They were not, therefore, political parties, i.e., factions, but nationalist movements.”
Following the election, TANU opened party membership to non-Africans and began the “Africanization” of the country’s civil service. Several hundred British employees were cashiered with severance pay and left Tanganyika so that by the end of 1963, roughly half of the senior- and middle-grade posts were held by Africans, many insufficiently trained. Western nations stepped up their criticism of Tanganyika’s one-party system. “Africanization” officially ended in 1964.
The new president turned his attention to African affairs, seeking means to better unite the continent’s newly independent nations. He was one of the founders of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and the driving force behind Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda forming the East African Community in 1967, a common market and administrative union that operated a wide range of shared services for the three countries.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing at home. Zanzibar, an island 24 miles off the coast of Tanganyika, received its independence from Great Britain in December of 1963. One month later, the island’s African majority successfully revolted, seizing power from the traditional ruling Arab minority. Scarcely a week later, in January of 1964, a small group of Tanganyikan soldiers mutinied, causing Nyerere to flee the State House. Simultaneously, similar military coups erupted in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. All three governments immediately called on Great Britain for military assistance against their own armies. With British help, the attempted coups were quickly extinguished.
But Zanzibar’s continued instability worried Nyerere. Its new government quickly accepted aid from China, East Germany, and the U.S.S.R., becoming in the eyes of the West the “Cuba of East Africa.” In April of 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form a new country, the United Republic of Tanzania, with Nyerere as its president. The union was widely interpreted as a victory for Western interests in the region.
Nyerere was re-elected president in 1965 with 96 percent of the vote. On a state visit to China that year, he was impressed by its progress since liberation and struck by the relevance of Chinese problems to those of Tanzania. Close relations ensued between the two countries, and the Chinese agreed to finance and build a new railroad to connect the Tanzanian capital and major seaport, Dar es Salaam, with the neighboring, landlocked country of Zambia.
Nyerere’s shift toward the East continued when he broke off diplomatic relations with England in 1965 over Rhodesia—Britain had allowed white settlers in that African colony to declare independence, thereby thwarting the wishes of the black majority. Nyerere organized five African nations to officially oppose white-minority rule in that runaway colony as well as in South Africa, Namibia, and the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. To that end, Tanzania became the home base for nationalist freedom movements in those lands. By 1992, all but South Africa were independent and governed by black leaders.
Condemning white racism, oppression, and misrule while ignoring similar actions by black rulers was not within Nyerere’s conscience; in 1972 he denounced Uganda’s Idi Amin when the brutal dictator expelled all Asians from that country. When Ugandan troops invaded and annexed a small border area of Tanzania in 1978, Nyerere appealed to the OAU for action, without success. The following year, 45,000 Tanzanian troops supported Ugandan exiles seeking to liberate their homeland. Within months Amin was toppled and former Ugandan president Milton Obote returned to power. Africa had successfully policed itself.
From the beginning, Nyerere’s goal had been to build his largely rural, impoverished country into an egalitarian socialist society based on cooperative agriculture. His 1967 Arusha Declaration set out the principles by which he meant to accomplish this. It collectivized village farmlands, established mass literacy programs, instituted free and universal education, and nationalized the country’s banks, commerce, and major industries. At the same time, the declaration established a strict code of ethics for political leaders, prohibiting them from receiving more than one salary, owning rental property, or holding shares in private corporations. Nyerere also stressed that Tanzania must become economically self-sufficient, depending on its own peasant agricultural economy rather than foreign aid and investment.
Calling his experiment in African socialism ujamaa (Swahili for familyhood), Nyerere emphasized economic cooperation, racial and tribal harmony, and self-sacrifice. But his dream came at a cost: More than 13 million peasants were resettled, sometimes forcibly, into 8,000 cooperative villages so that medical services, water, and schools could be more easily provided. State-run corporations, called parastatals, set and controlled imports, exports, agricultural production, and ran the newly nationalized industries.
Results were discouraging. Agricultural production plummeted, with the yield of some crops like sisal and cashews declining by 50 percent. Food became scarce, and agricultural imports skyrocketed in order to feed the growing population. Peasant farmers were never able to accept the new collective farms, and by 1985, nearly 85 percent of them had returned to subsistence farming. Of the 330 companies nationalized, in industries ranging from clothes to cloves, nearly half went bankrupt; the survivors were working at only 20 percent of capacity. Declining government revenues coupled with increasing expenditures caused inflation-producing budget deficits. The national currency fell in value, per capita income was $250—one of the lowest in the world—and Tanzania’s gross national product (GNP) decreased annually. Only the infusion of $10 billion in foreign aid from 1970 to 1990 kept the economy afloat.
Critics blamed poor management and a bloated, inefficient state bureaucracy, which controlled the failed parastatals, for turning the country into “an economic basket case,” according to an international banker quoted in a 1985 issue of Time. Supporters ascribed the failure of ujamaa to collapsing world market prices for Tanzanian agricultural exports like coffee, tea, tobacco, and cotton, while prices for the country’s imports, including oil and machinery, rose sharply. The dissolution of the East African Community in 1977 and war with Uganda two years later also greatly taxed the national treasury.
Yet in many ways Nyerere’s policies vastly improved the lives of his countrymen. Tanzania has one of the highest adult-literacy rate in Africa, primary school enrollment has jumped from 25 percent of the child population at independence to 95 percent, 50 percent of the population now has clean water, the number of hospitals and rural health centers—as well as doctors—has zoomed, infant mortality has declined, and life expectancy has increased from 35 to 51 years. Tanzania’s citizens possess national pride, there is little tribal strife, and the country remains politically stable, a rarity on the African continent.
Though his dreams of a Pan-African union and ujamaa did not materialize, Nyerere remained a popular figure in Tanzania and throughout Africa. Re-elected president in 1970, 1975, and 1980, he retired in 1985 but continued as chairman of the Chama cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary Party), created by the merger of TANU and Zanzibar’s ruling party, until 1990. Being one of the few African rulers to voluntarily relinquish power only reinforced his moral stature and worldwide perception of his personal integrity. And typical of Nyerere’s overriding commitment to Tanzania was his choice of successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, former president of Zanzibar, a move designed to preserve the unity of the nation.
Nyerere’s 24-year rule was unsullied by scandal or corruption, a rarity on the African continent, and his devotion to egalitarian ideals was never seriously questioned. Apparently uninterested in seeking personal wealth, he maintained modest housing and had earned a presidential salary lower than that of his cabinet ministers. “He is above corruption,” stated a political opponent quoted in Time on Nyerere’s 1985 retirement. “He never sought power for power’s sake. He is a real man of the people.”
Uhuru na Umoja (Freedom and Unity), 1967.
Uhuru na Ujamaa (Freedom and Socialism), 1968.
Ujamaa (Essays on Socialism), 1969.
Uhuru na Maendeleo (Freedom and Development), 1973.
Smith, William Edgett, We Must Run While They Walk: A Portrait of Africa’s Julius Nyerere, Random House, 1971.
Christian Century, March 1, 1972.
Current History, April 1985; May 1988.
Economist, June 2, 1990; August 24, 1991.
Harper’s, July 1981.
Newsweek, October 26, 1981.
New Yorker, March 3, 1986.
Time, November 4, 1985.
U.S. News & World Report, March 26, 1979.
—James J. Podesta
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Nyerere, Julius 1922-1999
Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of the East African country of Tanzania, was born on April 13, 1922, in a town called Butiama, located on the eastern shore of Victoria Falls. His father, Nyerere Burito, was the chief of the Zanaki tribe and had twenty-five other children. Being raised in such a large family allowed Julius to experience directly the benefits and costs of “communal living”—an idea later made central to his political philosophy. Life in such a family structure also affected the development of his educational philosophy, in which Nyerere sought to combine the epistemologies of Africa and Europe. From Europe, where he studied at Edinburgh University, Nyerere absorbed the socialism of the British Fabians. From Africa, where he combined his early communal life with a Catholic primary school education, Nyerere developed a philosophy not unlike that of the American William James in terms of an emphasis on pragmatics. These experiences constituted the foundation of his personal philosophy, perhaps best epitomized in the pamphlet “Development is for Man, by Man, and of Man” (1978): “Man does not develop himself in a vacuum, in isolation from his society and his environment. And he certainly cannot be developed by others. Man’s consciousness is developed in the process of thinking, and deciding, and acting. His capacity is developed in the process of doing things.”
Nyerere thus challenged the idea that a scholar should not get involved in the practical affairs of politics. As a committed activist, he had a number of critics, both European and African. The former were upset because Nyerere was a leader of the African liberation movement that sought to remove the injustices inherent in the British colonial system. The latter were upset because they feared that Nyerere was an example of yet another African whose body was in Africa but whose mind was conditioned in Europe and whose ultimate loyalties were therefore suspect.
Nyerere’s political decisions were not, however, entirely predictable. He was not an ideologue, although he was an unabashed socialist and his plans for land redistribution did not endear him to Western powers. His support of the overthrow of Uganda’s President Idi Amin was condemned by many African political observers as a cave-in to the demands of the American/Israeli interests rather than African interests. Yet the decision was cheered by the European/Western press, which described it as a noble act of gratitude for foreign economic assistance to Tanzania. The same set of observers winced when Nyerere offered unconditional support for the armed struggle to free Southern Africa. Some observers have minimized this militaristic side of Nyerere’s presidential reign and have instead focused on his pragmatic embodiment of the nonviolent spirit of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
The Gandhian influence was also reflected in Nyerere’s support of the unification of the offshore island of Zanzibar with the mainland, as well as in other personal efforts of reconciliation between the East Indian immigrants and the indigenous African communities.
Nyerere did not take his African constituency for granted. He championed the incorporation of the local language, Kiswahili, into every facet of Tanzanian life. One legacy of that decision is the appearance of the Kiswahili language in the widely celebrated holiday of Kwanza among African Americans in the United States today.
Like many other post-independence leaders, Nyerere’s exposure to Western education was both a blessing and a curse. Its blessings were evident in that it equipped him with the skills necessary to negotiate the treacherous waters of independence from Britain, and a curse because it sometimes tied him too closely with the oppressors of his people.
Nyerere’s handling of the ever-present duality was reflected in his early support of both the Commonwealth (of former British colonies) and the OAU (Organization of African Unity). The support of both required a considerable degree of deftness because the organizations’ goals were often incompatible. Such political deftness earned Nyerere the respect and admiration of many world leaders. His decision, in 1985, to relinquish the presidency and to retire to his farm for a life of reflection and international peace-making activities—a role later played by South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela—further enhanced his international reputation.
South African leader Nelson Mandela was one of several future leaders whom Nyerere nurtured as president of Tanzania. Robert Mugabe, whose own efforts at land redistribution resembled Nyerere’s, was another who was given refuge as a leader in the liberation struggle of Southern Africa.
Julius Nyerere died in London on October 14, 1999, after a short battle with leukemia. He left behind a wife and seven children and a well-deserved legacy befitting the title Mwalimu (teacher).
SEE ALSO Amin, Idi; Commonwealth, The; Decolonization; Development; East Indian Diaspora; Fabianism; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; James, William; Liberation Movements; Mandela, Nelson; Organization of African Unity (OAU); Pan-African Congresses; Pan-Africanism; Socialism, African
Kassam, Yusuf. 1995. Julius Nyerere. In Thinkers on Education, ed. Zaghloul Morsy. Paris: UNESCO.
Nyerere, Julius. 1978. Development is for Man, by Man, and of Man. In Adult Learning: A Design for Action, eds. B. Hall and J. R. Kidd. Oxford; New York: Pergamon Press.
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Julius Nyerere was the first prime minister of Tanganyika when the country attained self-government in 1961 and the first president of the United Republic of Tanzania (1964–1985), the name of the country following the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964. He was born in a chiefly family among the Zanaki people of North Western Tanganyika. He studied at Makerere University in Uganda where he trained as a teacher. He later studied history and economics for his master's degree at the University of Edinburgh.
Nyerere was a nationalist figure during the colonial times who brought together a number of different nationalist factions into one political organization termed the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). Nyerere became a well-respected leader among his fellow Tanzanians, as well as across Africa and internationally. He played the role of a unifying leader to the diverse population of Tanganyika and later Tanzania, both as a nationalist leader and in his roles of president. He earned the title mwalimu (teacher) in Tanzania, a title with which he came to be referred internationally.
Nyerere is remembered for specific virtues and principles that he upheld and practiced as a leader. He was a great orator. He was often described as a humble leader, which earned him great respect worldwide. Nyerere had great concern for egalitarianism and was passionately committed to equality as the basis of African socialism. As a result, he rejected any assertion of privilege to the educated few and the elites.
In 1967 he released the Arusha Declaration, in which he defined African socialism and discouraged the emergence of an African capitalist class, while emphasizing localization through state and cooperative ownership. He established collective communities, Ujamaa, (villagization) as the backbone of the practice of African socialism, which was people centered with a collective effort toward development. As cooperative villages, peasants in the Ujamma villages were expected to live together, work collectively in the agricultural farms, and market their produce collectively with the aim of benefiting all members.
Nyerere often spoke of uhuru na kazi, meaning freedom and hard work as defining characteristics of independence and development. He gave meaning to his policy for the development of Tanzania through many speeches, which he delivered within Tanzania, across Africa, and at international forums. Nyerere's speeches touched on issues of development, democracy, freedom, education, and peace.
His speeches are indicative of his belief in the mutual reinforcement of freedom and development; he argued that freedom depends on development and development on freedom. He advocated for people-centered development, often reiterating that "development means the development of people." On education, Nyerere advocated education as a lifelong pursuit that leads to self-reliance and liberation. He supported the liberation struggles of other African countries and provided domicile in Tanzania for a number of African liberation movements, including the African National Congress (ANC), and Mozambique's Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) or Mozambique Liberation Front.
Nyerere retired from the presidency in 1985 and from active politics in the early 1990s. He devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of peaceful resolution to conflicts in Africa, serving as the chief mediator in the Burundi conflict in 1996. He died of leukemia on October 14, 1999, in London. Nyerere's life, teachings, and career remain an inspiration in the search for freedom and justice in Africa.
Legum, Colin, and Geoffrey Mmari, eds. Mwalimu: The Influence of Nyerere. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1995.
"Nyerere, Julius." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nyerere-julius
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