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ULIMWENGU: What makes Nyerere tick among Tanzanians after such a long time?


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Practically the whole of Tanzania was involved in high degrees of soul searching about a death that happened 20 years ago, and I was asking myself how the passage of two decades had not watered down the sorrow of that passing.

It is, of course, to do with the demise of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the founding father of Tanzania.

My interrogation had something to do with what I observe around the African continent, where founding fathers have come and gone without leaving the same feeling as we have witnessed this past week in Tanzania.

I could have attributed this enduring adulation directed toward Nyerere to sentimentalism, but I have never known so much sentimentalism among my people except when it is to do with support for Manchester United and Arsenal.

So what makes Nyerere tick among Tanzanians after such a long time? When he left office as president in 1985 a lot of coverage in international media dwelt at length on the economic woes he was leaving his country.

He chose to differ with those assessments, pointing out shining examples of what his administration had achieved, especially in education, health-care services and social services, and vocally berated the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, which sought to dismiss social investment as “non-productive.”


Apart from his economic “failures” for which he was blamed, Nyerere could not have been considered a champion of democracy. It was indeed he that introduced the anti-democratic one-party rule, after the fashion of autocratic contemporaries such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure.

Nyerere went a bit better than his colleagues by advancing sound-sounding justifications for the one-party dictatorship using the examples of traditional societies and our council palavers sitting under the village big tree, et cetera et cetera.

So how can people say they miss him so much, that matters are not what he would have sanctioned had he been alive, that we would have been better with him around, that there would have been greater justice and fairness in the way we are being treated by our rulers, that he would have…?

Well, for one, we all have nostalgic feelings about patriarchs and matriarchs once they have taken the irreversible step beyond the tomb, and anyway it is good manners for well-bred offspring to bow their heads to the memory of the spirits of our forebears, and to pour libation.

There is something hagiographic, if you’ll pardon the term, about the praises that have been showered on the man.

Let me set the record straight. He was no democrat, and a lot of people who had the temerity to stand up to him on issues pertaining to democratic governance were given short shrift.

The preventive detention law crafted by Nkrumah found fertile ground in Nyerere’s Tanzania. Yet the man seems to have survived himself in terms of what Tanzanians, old and young, think of him. And Tanzanians are not the only ones to adulate the old educator.

But why? Is it because he was an astute nationalist leader who led his people on a peaceful, non-violent struggle for independence? Hardly, because there were others who did pretty much the same thing.

Is it because he led the African anti-colonial struggle, especially in southern Africa which ended with South Africa burying apartheid in 1994? Maybe, but other contributions by worthy Africans have not been rewarded by the same respect Mwalimu has enjoyed worldwide.

After 1985 Nyerere chaired the South Commission, which took him to the world as he campaigned for a fairer economic order and urged the South to close ranks and grow cooperation for mutual benefit, and maybe this also made him some kind of world, supranational leader, but does that explain what I am talking about.

No, nothing does but this: Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a philosopher-king who combined great intellectual prowess with a healthy disdain for material wealth and ostentation; a man who could not be bought by money and who lived like a fakir when the lesser mortals of his age hid their philosophical emptiness and intellectual nakedness behind Rive Gauche suits and Hollywood villas.

When every other ruler, from his times to date, was busy stealing, we saw a man who hated thieves.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]

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