“Mwalimu” Julius Nyerere, in the name of the tradition!

nyerereThe first president of Tanzania was one the most brilliant men of his generation. Baba wa Taifa built a nation on the model of the African village. It is the story of an early Afrocentricity, with its successes and its failures that we are going to talk about.

At the climax of the history of Tanzania, we find the Swahili civilization, a set of wealthy and sophisticated Black cities, which were – despite a wonderful resistance – destructed by the Portuguese enslavers in the 16th century. The country was then the principal victim of the Arab slave trade which made millions of victims in the 19th century. It is a devastated territory which suffered the ferocious law of the German colonists, through the repression of the Maji Maji uprising and its 325,000 deaths in the beginning of the 20th century.

swahili civilisation
Vestiges of the Swahili civilisation on the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya

Son of a traditional chief, Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born in 1922 in Tanganyika – continental part of Tanzania – occupied then by British segregationists. He studies education at the famous university of Makerere in Uganda and inherits the Swahili name Mwalimu (teacher). He begins his political activity at Makerere, and during his studies in Scotland he analyses in depth the economic structure of the traditional African society.

Nyerere avec ses partisans Admirons la décontraction de l'homme et sa proximité avec le peuple
Nyerere and his partisans. We can admire his relaxation and his proximity with the people

Back to Tanganyika, he takes the lead of the TANU party (Tanganyika African National Union) and asserts himself locally and internationally as the leader of the nationalist movement. The English colonists, after having forced him to resign from his position of teacher, finally start to negotiate with him and begin the peaceful decolonization of Tanganyika, while they crush in rivers of blood the liberation movement Mau Mau in nearby Kenya. Julius Nyerere becomes the president of Tanganyika in 1962. He is Baba wa Taifa (the father of the nation). The president would then develop and apply an original and new vision, centred on the African experience and which breaks resolutely with the colonial thought.

The president makes Swahili the official language of the country. KiSwahili, a Bantu language, language of trade of the whole East Africa in the Imperial Period, is defined by Nyerere – a man from the Zanaki people – as the first official black language of a decolonized African country. In 1964, the Africans start a successful revolution in the neighbouring island of Zanzibar to overthrow the repressive Arab descent ruling class. Nyerere takes advantage of the situation to unify TANganyika with ZANzibar. He gives birth to TanZania in 1964.

Independance day of Tanganyika
Independance day of Tanganyika
Le président Nyerere unissant Tanganyika et Zanzibar pour fonder la Tanzanie
The president Nyerere unifying Tanganyika and Zanzibar to found Tanzania in 1964

On the continental plan, he brings his unconditional support to the ANC in South Africa, to the nationalist movements of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and intervenes militarily in Uganda and in the Seychelles. As a determined pan Africanist, he is favourable as Kwame Nkrumah to the birth of an African Federal state. Nyerere is one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963.

But it is especially on the economic plan that Mwalimu is going to engender a legendary revolution, an Afrocentricity before the African-American scholar Molefi Kete Asante theorizes this concept. This return centred on the African tradition, was symbolized in Tanzania by a word: Ujamaa


The thought

Stated in 1962 in his manifesto Ujamaa, the basis of African socialism, Julius Nyerere details his vision that we can resume as follow:

  • The traditional African society assures the security and the material and moral protection of all its members. It is therefore a socialist society, contrary to capitalism where each one struggles alone without a safety net. The accumulation of wealth, appropriate to the western traditional capitalism, translates consequently the lack of confidence in a society where one lives in the anxiety to lose everything. Thus the African does not need to accumulate wealth in an excessive way.
  • The traditional African society is egalitarian, and all the members of the clan are rich or poor. The distribution of the wealth is fair.
  • It is not wrong to be rich and to live comfortably in the traditional African society, if this wealth is shared and if it is not used to dominate others.
  • The exploitation of man by man to make one’s fortune in an ostentatious way is unacceptable in the traditional African society.
  • Land does not belong to anyone. It is a gift from God, it is essential to life. In the traditional African society, the chief distributes the plots of land equitably, without possessing them or selling them. The landowners in the western capitalist tradition are Lazy people who monopolize God’s property, rent it or sell it to make profits.
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  • The traditional African society is a society of the hard work. Nyerere says “In the traditional African society (…) One of the most socialistic achievements (…) is that we did not have that other form of modern parasite–the loiterer, or idler, who accepts the hospitality of society as his “right” but gives nothing in return (…) Loitering was an unthinkable disgrace.“.Or according to a local proverb Mgeni siku mbili; siku ya tatu mpe jembe (treat your guest like a guest the first two days; on the third day gives him a hoe)
  • The basic structure of the traditional African society is the extended family. The extended family or Ujamaa in Swahili is thus the socialist African doctrine, the economic and social doctrine of the TANU, which it is necessary to apply in all Tanzania and even in the whole Africa.

The application

Baba wa Taifa expresses what will be Tanzania in the Arusha Declaration in 1967. He asserts the socialist objectives of his country and professes the rights of the human being. From then on, Julius Nyerere puts all the companies of the country or almost under the direction of the State. It is a nationalization which affects all the sectors. The protection which confers Ujamaa is translated by an access without charges to the basic services.

Des femmes pratiquant l'agriculture collective dans le cadre de l'Ujamaa
Women practicing collective agriculture within the framework of the Ujamaa

Under Mwalimu, the healthcare is free, the health system is developed, the life expectancy improves, and the infant mortality declines. The education is free, the literacy jumps up to 85 %. Trusting the great wisdom of the rural populations, he tries to merge the villagers scattered in big organized villages, where they will benefit the services of the State, and will receive an improved training in agriculture.

The failure of the Ujamaa

The nationalization pulls the increase of the number of state employees and an important salary mass which the State has to pay. These state employees and executives of the party, which are not all honest, are engaged for some in the corruption. They are called Wabenzi by the people, i.e. those who like and ride Mercedes Benz. In the villages, the populations do not all understand or adhere to Ujamaa and some refuse to settle in the new villages. The president mobilizes the army to move them by force, violence bursts with deaths at the end of it. In the new organized villages, the absenteeism in fields beats records, the food basic cultures are abandoned.

As a result: the national debt explodes, the administration is dysfunctional, the new villages do not reach their objectives of agricultural production, and the price of food crops jumps up. Tanzania passes from the status of the bigger exporter to that of the bigger African importer of food.

The economy collapses, Ujamaa is a failure on the economic plan. The president is forced to appeal to the financing of the IMF which imposes his famous capitalist restructurings which have hurt the African societies. Resistant to the capitalist doctrine, Julius Nyerere does not represent himself to the elections of 1985, to let his successor apply the plans of the IMF. He will stay until his death in 1999, the principal moral authority of the country, giving his opinion on the policy and supporting his two successors he saw in charge of the country.

Why has the Ujamaa failed?

Le socialisme de Nkrumah, avait pour différence la rigueur de l'administration et une politique industrielle ambitieuse
The socialism of Nkrumah, had for difference the strictness of the administration and an ambitious industrial policy

How such an ambitious ideal, which formidably worked in the African past, has known such an economic setback? Litters of ink flowed to analyse and explain Julius Nyerere’s economic failure. We can modestly hold some elements. In the first place, the insufficiency of the human work, as well on the villagers to convince them to adhere to the politics that on the bureaucrats who were not watched enough and that it was almost impossible to dismiss as Nkrumah successfully did with his socialism in Ghana.

Secondly, the speed of the application of Ujamaa which should have perhaps been a patient and long-term work and among which the sudden changes which it brought embarrassed populations rooted in their habits. Thirdly, the insufficiency of the investment in the industrial sector which would have allowed to revitalize better the organized villages, while this sector was the center of the strategy of Nkrumah, successfully. Finally, the absence of African money which would have allowed Tanzania to improve its finances and to redirect its policy, without having to pass by the IMF which ended Ujamaa.

Statue du Mwalimu Julius Kambarege Nyerere à Dodoma, capitale de la Tanzanie
Statue of the Mwalimu Kambarege Nyerere at Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania

What is left of Julius Nyerere?

If on the economic plan Baba Wa Taifa failed, for the rest this man stays literally a monument in Tanzania. His integrity, his sincerity, his charisma, his will to do well, and his humanism are admitted by most. He is the father of the nation. In Africa he left a continental organization today, the African Union, which has at least the merit to exist. But especially he gave us the most powerful black language in the world. kiSwahili, which has most assets today to become the continental language, owes its expansion to Nyerere.

Finally, he left to Tanzania a politically stable and democratic nation, with a feeling of national unity around the Swahili and around the inheritance of Ujamaa, in a region of the African Great Lakes and an African continent generally tormented. Monuments to the glory of Julius Kambarage Nyerere throne in the country. It is the whole Africa which will have in the decades to come to celebrate this man.


By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

Notes :

  • Ujamaa, the basis of African socialism ; Julius Nyerere
  • La politique des villages Ujamaa en Tanzanie, la fin d’un mythe ; Alain Cournanel
  • Deconstructing Ujamaa : the legacy of Julius Nyerere in the quest for social and economic development in Africa; Bonny Ibhawoh & J.I. Dibua
  • Wikipedia
  • The Arusha declaration by Julius Nyerere
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