More than two decades after the death of Tanzania’s former president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Africa is still grappling with bad and uninspiring governance, and reeling from the scarcity of great leaders on the continent. In such a context, it might be useful to return to the past and draw inspiration from exceptional leaders who led independence struggles, transformed their countries, and inspired their generations and the next. Nyerere was such a leader. Pan African Review’s Mahatma Ulimwengu had a conversation with one of Nyerere’s closest friends, Jenerali Ulimwengu, who shared memories of his experience alongside, as well as his perspective on, this exceptional leader.
Mahatma: What was your personal relationship with Nyerere?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: It wasn’t so much of a personal relationship because he was a national leader. I was one of his followers before he became the leader of the country. He was a campaigner for the independence of Tanganyika. I came to meet him a bit later, before I went to university, in a group of young students in Dar es Salaam where there was a meeting of the National Union of Tanzanian Students. I was representing my school way back in Bukoba in northwest Tanzania.
The debate was about the introduction of national service, a compulsory military service for young graduates. He came to us and I had a first close look at the man and listened to him as he admonished the young students.
Later, after I joined the university, I saw him come to the university from time to time to talk to the student body, students and faculty of course.
Mahatma : What kind of man was he?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: He was a very interesting man. He was electrifying in his speeches and statements. He was very sharp, very authoritative and very clear in the presentation of his arguments and also very firm in his stance about many issues, especially when he was talking about what the Tanzanian young intellectual owed to the country.
He refused the notion that we should consider ourselves the elite of the country. A quote from one of his writings read thus, “The young people who receive this education have a duty to repay the sacrifice that the others have made. They are like a young man who goes away from his starving village and the village gives him all the food to carry on his way to go out and get food for the village. If he goes away, gets the food, settles where he has gone to find his food and eats the food without coming back to his village, he is a traitor.”
Now, the word traitor hit you in the forehead every time you saw that because it was at the entrance of Tabora School. So you kept on being reminded about this: that you are a beneficiary of the sacrifices that your elders, fathers, mothers, parents, family, the third family and the whole nation have agreed to bear to help you get a proper education, and you have to give back, to give back to your society.
Mahatma : You wrote a piece, “What makes Nyerere tick among Tanzanians after such a long time,” and in it, you said the fervour that we have for Nyerere is only matched by our admiration of teams like Manchester United and Arsenal. What is it about Nyerere that has won him so much trust and love?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: He was a very fair man, imbued with a sense of fairness and justice; he was a man who also made mistakes. Presidents also do make mistakes, and he had a share of his own mistakes. But overall, if you took note of what he stood for, I think he was a very inspiring leader: a political leader and a teacher. He stood out.
To say that Nyerere was a great man and a great leader does not mean that he was, for instance, a democrat; he was not. So, for a long time after independence in 1961, he imposed a one-party dictatorial rule which continued until 1992. He defended it very assiduously, so effectively that I think even when he changed track and started telling Tanzanians to accept multi-partysm, they couldn’t quite understand him.
Stability over democracy. Stability and what he thought was economic development. There is a problem there. Is it possible to effect economic development without the freedom of the people who are involved in that effort? Is it possible to impose development from above or do you want your people to be free to decide for themselves and to weigh and gauge the different possibilities and opportunities that are offered to them to haul themselves up by their bootstraps, as it were, to get out of poverty and seek economic development? So there was that problem. There was very little personal freedom, liberal democratic freedoms, as parties were abolished. Only one party was allowed to exist. The media was not free at all. It was all controlled either by the state or by the ruling party, which is the same thing.
So, how would a man who has spent all his life justifying the existence of a one-party state now tell us that it is time to change and embrace a multi-party dispensation? There was a little contradiction there, and I think it was never fully resolved because I was following the responses and reactions during the 1990s debate on multi-partysm. People were incredulous; they grew up in a certain mould where they saw one-party rule as a major prop in making sure that the country remain united. “We have one voice, we speak with one voice, there is no dissension, there are no divisions in opinion”, and so forth. I think that has remained and maybe that is an explanation of why CCM has remained in power all these years.
But in 1990, he saw the changes in Eastern Europe: the convulsions in Romania, the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the Soviet areas of influence, dominoes fell one after the other. The Marxist-Leninist paradigm had shifted sensibly. So there was a time when people needed to take stock of the situation anew and say: “Maybe we have been wrong all along and maybe we should have more liberal democracy, some personal freedoms and political freedoms as well.”
But he remained adamant until his death that changes were bound to happen and they have indeed happened on the African continent as they have happened also elsewhere.
Mahatma : 24 years after his death, is there anything you think Africans have learnt from Nyerere?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: I think there are many lessons to have learnt from Nyerere.
Nyerere kept himself and his government away from certain things. You can tick corruption. He really hated corruption and took measures to make sure that people who seemed to be corrupt were punished. He was totally incorruptible. He had a certain healthy disdain for material wealth. He did not cherish money or material things.
He lived very simply. It is remarkable to see the difference between his motorcade and the motorcades of those people who came after him. He used to travel in a motorcade of maybe three cars maximum.
He was dressed normally in very simple clothes, very easy clothing which was comfortable. Dar es Salaam is a very hot place, and many Tanzanian districts have terrible temperatures. So wearing suits and things like that is completely counter-indicative. He showed it in his own mode of dressing.
He ate very simply. I had an occasion to share his meals in a few places. He held himself in a very simple manner; he was accessible, easy to engage with and not somebody who would be condescending or arrogant when talking to other people, except when somebody was being an idiot. He did not suffer fools easily. That one can be said. He used to ridicule even his fellow heads of state because he had an intellect that was much superior to theirs. But he was a simple man who could engage with anybody, from a young boy to an old village man and from a student to workers on work sites. So he was that kind of person.
Mahatma : Why do you think it’s really difficult for African leaders of his calibre to emerge? You mentioned incorruptible. Why do you think that is such a hard goal to reach nowadays?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: There are several rulers. I don’t call them leaders. Leaders are special people. What we have are mainly rulers. There are good rulers and bad rulers. But we have hardly a leader on the African continent of the type of Nyerere who was also a teacher. So, a teacher and a leader.
A leader is somebody who shows a way. He was always teaching, always explaining what he was trying to get people to do by talking to them constantly and writing and giving lectures to universities. Behind me, you will see several books in which many of his articles and speeches have been reproduced; these have always been a source of great learning and inspiration. He went around the world, and also around Tanzania. He used to spend maybe weeks on end in villages, in Dodoma or Kigoma, for instance. When he went there on special campaigns, he would not leave the village until he had maybe 30 or 40 days of teaching and working, doing manual work.
He used to say: “I spend a lot of my time doing intellectual work. I read a lot, I write, but I also do administrative work, and this tires my brain. So, when I do manual work, when I’m out there laying bricks or cultivating the land, I take that opportunity as a respite from the intellectual and administrative work that I do in the office.”
So, he was that kind of person. He valued manual work and communed with people who did it in the villages, which people, especially ministers who followed him, found very difficult. He would tell them, “Come, let’s work and then we’ll talk over lunch.” They found it a bit hard because they were almost always office-bound, and going to work under the scorching sun of Dodoma, for instance, was a bit difficult for them. But he loved it. He loved mingling with the people at the local village and staying there, not for photo ops, but to sit there with them, talk to them, then go to the field with them, come back with them, eat what they’re eating, and converse and share ideas, perspectives, and also teach them.
He knew what to teach. For instance, what kind of fertilizer was good, was organic, and what was not organic to be shunned and so forth.
Mahatma : So, how would you say Nyerere’s successes have fared in comparison to those who came after him?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: Nyerere was a great leader. A teacher can be good. It depends on the class, whether the class got its lessons right. But he created ethos which brought us up. And this was beneficial to the people.
For instance, when he decided in 1963 that every child in Tanganyika would go to school from primary to university without paying school fees, that was a great liberation for several children who were too poor to pay for themselves.
It is something that we have copied over time, including the late president, John Magufuli, when he went back to that ethos that the government should be able to provide education to all its children.
Nyerere taught us about a sense of fairness, a sense of belonging to a nation and not to tribal groups. And I think for that, he was a great example. He taught us about property and ethical living, not exploiting your position in government or public office to stuff your pockets and the pockets of your family but to treat everybody equally.
When we were in school, Nyerere’s children were going to schools just like ourselves and all went to government schools throughout. There was no difference. And today you can see, I know the Nyerere children who are still alive are not in any way better privileged economically than I am. So, he practised equality just as he preached it.
Mahatma : So, what was his relationship with other African leaders of his time, like Kwame Nkrumah?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: He had a very interesting relationship with Kwame Nkrumah. Kwame Nkrumah was a towering figure. He led the first country to attain independence in 1957. And he had great ideas of what Africa should do after independence, one of which was a unity government for the whole of the African continent immediately. Let’s unite Africa. Africa must unite. Nyerere did not agree with him.
In 1964, during the second OAU summit that took place in Cairo, Egypt, he opposed Nkrumah’s idea of immediate unification of the African continent, preferring a gradual way of bringing the countries together, maybe through the regional economic blocs such as the ones we have now (ECOAS, SADC, IGAD, etc.). So, he clashed with Nkrumah, and they didn’t see eye-to-eye after that. Unfortunately, they didn’t get time to make up before Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, only two years after the busting that happened in Cairo.
Later, Nyerere had to go to Ghana and apologize in a very shielded manner. He apologized for the lack of understanding between the two of them. One has to consider this fact: Nkrumah really saw himself as the redeemer. He called himself Osagyefo, the redeemer, the chosen one, as it were, the special one, just like Jose Mourinho. And Nyerere did not necessarily accept that attribute to Nkrumah.
Nyerere was also a human being; he had his own ambitions. I’m sure he wanted also to be recognized, and at some stage, he was refusing to subordinate his personality to any other leader because he didn’t see anything that Nkrumah had that he didn’t have.
And he did not see necessarily the importance of accepting that somebody, a human being, has become a redeemer. Being a Christian and a very good Catholic, I’m sure for Nyerere the only redeemer would have been Jesus Christ, not Kwame Nkrumah.
Obviously, he also had problems with Idi Amin, who took over power from Milton Obote in 1971. Nyerere completely and categorically refused to recognize him. In 1978, when Idi Amin invaded Tanzania and claimed the Karagira Salient as part of Uganda, Nyerere wanted the UN and the OAU to condemn him, but the two organizations failed to do so. Nyerere decided to invade Uganda in turn and get rid of this monster, which he did.
But he had easy relations with certain people. For instance, Kaunda was a partner in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism in Southern Africa, and Nyerere tried to get Kaunda to resist in very difficult circumstances because Zambia was the true frontline state.
Every time the apartheid regime attacked independent countries in Southern Africa, Zambia suffered, but not Tanzania as much. Nyerere depended on Kaunda to constitute that bulwark against the colonial and racist regimes in Southern Africa. He stood by Kaunda all the time. The Tarzara Great Freedom Railway was built because there was a determination to free Zambia from the necessity to use ports in Southern Africa, which were dominated by the apartheid regime.
So, although he had these relations, they differed. The relationship was not very good with Jomo Kenyatta; it was not very good with Arab Moi, but at the same time he had very good relations with very interesting characters such as Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia and Jafari al-Nimeri of Sudan.
Increasingly, as more and more countries became independent, Mozambique, Angola and Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, he was gaining more space to get people to talk to, to plan the future of Africa together. And in certain cases, it helped liberate countries, even those countries that we didn’t talk about very openly. For instance, Seychelles was a target of the apartheid regime that wanted to destabilize the country and put a government in Mahe that was amenable to it. But Nyerere supported Albert Rene, who was a centre of left kind of political operator, anti-imperialist and pro-socialist. And in line with what Nyerere saw as a fair political system, he helped Rene come to power.
During these 24 years, there was much activity going on about liberation. It was a very crucial time for Africa, emerging out of colonialism, to assert herself, make choices and execute programmes of decolonization and economic development. And it was not always easy.
Mahatma : On that note, what was the significance of the Arusha Declaration?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: The Arusha Declaration was the same thing I was just talking about. Looking at exploitative societies, I can say we have been exploited because we are weak. We are weak because we are not in control of our own natural resources and our own development processes. That was the Arusha Declaration, basically.
Mahatma : So, you think with that declaration he was giving Tanzanians something to look towards?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: Yes, we were told about the exploitative systems. And maybe sometimes he may have got it wrong because the answer was to nationalize, to put all the systems of economic development in the hands of the people. And the people translated into the state. But very soon we came to discover that that meant not socialism but state capitalism.
This is because now the state was the one owning the banks, the financial institutions, the productive units and factories and so on. We used to argue at the time that whereas the nationalization of these resources and the implements to put them in the hands of the state was state capitalism, now what he wanted to do is to socialize them, that is to say, to turn them into assets and productive forces in the hands of the people. And that, I think, never happened.
Mahatma : What informed his thinking on the issue of refugees, and how come more leaders aren’t pursuing his philosophy?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: Nyerere’s way of looking at Africa was very different. He refused the idea that an African could be a refugee on the African continent. He said, “If people move, they move for a cause, for a reason. If people come across borders, and these borders were arbitrarily imposed on us by colonial powers, they are still on their continent. They are still going over to their brothers and sisters. What we should do is receive them; help them settle until they can go back to their countries; those countries that were assigned to them by the colonial powers. But don’t call them refugees.”
Actually, he did not even want to call them refugees. He called them resident guests. And in one singular action, he told people who had come to the stadium to listen to him and who were from Burundi and Rwanda, “Everybody who is here, who wants to be a citizen of Tanzania, please give your names and you will become citizens.” And he did that. That was an extraordinary gesture, a demonstration of what he really believed: that Africans cannot be refugees in their own continent.
The difference between Nyerere and his fellow leaders on the African continent is that he challenged the colonial concept of dividing people into small, vulcanized states and pitting one African against another. For instance, some people speak the same language and belong to the same ethnic group, but because they were colonized by the French, they consider that the people who were colonized by the British are completely alien to the extent that the linguistic interventions come in.
Examples abound. Kojo in Togo is the same as Kojo in Ghana, but the Kojo in Togo spells Kodjo with a D, whereas the one in Ghana has no D; it’s just a J. The same thing for Jawara in Guinea which is written with a D (Diawara) whereas Jawara in Gambia would be written J-A, but both are pronounced Jawara. You can see the difference because even alphabetically if you want to write Jawara in French, the initial would be D, whereas in English the initial would be J, and things like that; stupid things really.
Africans have fallen for that. Africans have tended to believe that what the colonialists were doing with our countries, with our names, with our languages, with our cultures and religions is the way it’s supposed to be. Nyerere was a bit different. He would see through the colonial enterprise and say that we must minimize this importance in our lives as much as possible and make life easier for our people, instead of continuing with the constructs that were imposed on us by the colonial powers. That is the importance of Nyerere.
Mahatma : Nyerere also had a deep distaste for tribalism. So, what was his thinking on the matter in Tanzania or in Africa in general about how easy it is for us to be governed by which tribes we belong to?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: I had a discussion with him at one stage when he came to Algeria as I was working there. I asked him whether he did not believe there was a role that the tribe can play. He said: “There is a role for the tribe to play. That’s an organizational unit. We are organized from villages to clans to tribes and so on. But that should end there. We should not politicize our ethnicity or ethnicize our politics.”
For instance, he used to give an example of himself. He said, “I am a Mzanaki. Mzanaki is a very small tribe in Mara in north Tanzania. I speak my language.” And if you read the book, Nyerere in the Early Years by Tony Maloney, you will find that he was a very strong learner of his own ethnic language, his natural language, which was Mzanaki. He knew it very well. He knew it even when he was a young man. He would speak it in a more elegant manner than people who were much older than him. Now, don’t go from there and say everybody who is Mzanaki is your ally and anybody who is not Mzanaki is not your ally, and possibly he is your enemy. He distinguished between those two positions: being cognizant of your origins, but also seeing at the same time that your origins need not restrict you in your choice of allies and people to cooperate with. You should be able to go beyond your tribal confines and even your national boundaries to cooperate with people who are outside your original state of organization.
Mahatma : So, in Rwanda, Nyerere had clarity on the genocide, saying that Hutus and Tutsis were one tribe and not two and that the differences were manufactured, and used this to warn other countries about the dangers of division. Do you see a similar happening in the DRC? Why haven’t the leaders listened to those warnings?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: Nyerere had a very firm understanding of the happenings historically in the area, in the Great Lakes region, in Congo. He read a lot about the Congo and the terrible crimes committed by King Leopold II, the criminal who was the king of Belgium. He studied the dynamics of the inter-lacustrine zone and knew what was happening in Rwanda and Burundi, the Hutu-Tutsi divide, and what it meant sometimes in their political upheavals until the culmination of the whole thing hit the world like a ton of bricks in 1994.
He would say: “These ethnic differences have been politicized, exacerbated by a colonial regime that wanted to set one group against another. And they did it in Rwanda; they did it in Burundi.” I think, at the beginning, colonizers were favouring the Tutsis because they saw that the organizational structure that the Tutsis had in both Burundi and Rwanda was useful to the colonial project. But towards the end of the 1950s, they turned against the Tutsis and encouraged the Hutus to rebel, not only rebel and overthrow the monarchy but also massacre and kill. Indeed, before the 1994 genocide, there were so many other massacres that took place in Rwanda and Burundi.
So it is the stupidity, the utterly incomprehensible belief that people of a certain ethnic definition or identity who were found by the 1885 Berlin Conference in a place that was given to the Belgians and was called the Congo should now be considered foreigners.
Why? How can you tell them they are foreigners and not citizens? This was what happened with Mobutu in Zaire, Congo.
So, what Nyerere was saying is just simple logic. These people were found there. They have never moved. They didn’t travel from anywhere else.
They were there when the boundaries were being drawn. Now if the boundaries were being drawn and these people were in Congo at that time, you cannot today say they are aliens, that they don’t belong to this country. And the problem with such discrimination is that it can never end. You go on discriminating against that group, that subgroup, and you’ll go on to subsidize the groups, subdividing them into smaller portions. So he warned against that.
And what we saw in Rwanda in 1994, what was going on in Burundi at the same time, and what was happening in the DRC then and even today are a manifestation of the same issue that Nyerere was talking about. Unfortunately, Africans have not learnt enough lessons from all our tribulations over the years.
Mahatma : So, what would you stress to young people, the future leaders of today? What lessons should they take from Nyerere so that one day we can have a leader of his calibre in the future?
Jenerali Ulimwengu: One is to give leadership. The young people of the African continent have the capability, and they have shown this when they have been given a chance, that they can provide leadership. To begin with, since they are the ones who have a stake in the type of Africa that is going to be built, they had better participate fully and demand that they participate fully in the construction of Africa that they are going to live in. After all, they are the ones who are likely to live longer on the African continent than their elders. Their elders are called upon to check out quite soon. But the young people have to build the continent while being conscious that they build the kind of continent they will inherit and live in in the coming 50 years and more.
So, young people should learn to love the continent, cherish it and develop it. Shun any temptation to rob it of its natural resources, to treat its people shabbily and brutalize them. And shun all forms of injustice, exploitation and humiliation of their people.
They should not join the string of foreign powers that have dehumanized, exploited, marginalized and subjugated our people. Rather, they should be joining their people in their struggle for greater dignity, justice, equal treatment and equal opportunities for everybody living in their countries. I think that would be doing justice to what Nyerere taught us.