Saints and Presidents: A Commentary on Julius Nyerere

by Stanley Meisler

December 17, 1996

At a Korea University conference in Seoul a few months ago, I was placed next to Julius Nyerere of Tanzania at dinner. For those of us who covered Africa more than a quarter of a century ago, Nyerere was like a saint. Incorruptible, frank, good-humored, intellectual, he could charm the most suspicious and doubtful questioners into following the flow of his logic as he expounded the need in Africa for socialism, one-party democracy, self-reliance, non-alignment. He always made sense, at least in theory, and, since we knew he did not line his pockets with gold or pander to tribalism and racism, we always wished him and his poor country well. I turned to him at the Seoul dinner and said, "Mr. Nyerere, when I was a young correspondent, and you were a young president, I interviewed you." "Well," he replied with a laugh, "I got out of my business. I hope you got out of yours."

In fact, the 74-year-old Nyerere is one of the few African leaders to get out of the business peacefully and voluntarily. He gave up the presidency in 1985 and retired to a farm in his native village of Butiama near Lake Victoria. Tanzania coins honor him in Swahili as Baba (Father) of the Nation and First President, and he still wields a good deal of influence in national politics and in the settlement of international crises. But, as I discovered in a recent visit to Tanzania, most educated Tanzanians, though they have no bitterness, look on his reign as a failed one. The headmaster of a secondary school near Moshi took down a couple of volumes of Nyerere's old essays from a bookshelf after I asked about them. "I'm sorry," he said as he handed them to me. "They are very dusty now that we have a multiparty state." No one reads Nyerere any more.

A return to Tanzania after an absence of 25 years left this visitor with an uncanny sense that little had changed. Foreign aid donors had improved some of the roads, and new, monstrously powerful buses hurtled down these roads at criminal speed. Swahili had helped unify the disparate tribes and geography into a nation. The country now had more than 25 private newspapers to supplement the two bland government and party newspapers. But the country remained dirt poor and devoid of development. France and China had built two textile plants for the government but neither functioned. Women bought kangas - cotton wraparounds with bright, flashy designs and Swahili slogans - that were imported from Kenya and India. Nyerere used to exhort his people, "We must run while they walk." But most people had stood still.

What went wrong? It is clear now that while Nyerere spun his ideas a quarter of a century ago, few of his people understood these ideas well enough to implement them. In 1967, Nyerere wrote a paper, "Education for Self-Reliance," that was a masterful critique of the ills of African education. School systems were creating an elite class of graduates who refused to work with their hands and soon lost touch with the societies that spawned them. Tanzania's Chief Education Officer that year quoted huge gobs of the paper to me by heart. But, when I asked him for an example of how he intended to wipe out elitism in the schools, he replied, "Oh, yes, elitism is one of our problems in the schools. But it is not a major problem. There are always a few students who come to school and fool around and refuse to study. We must deal with those few students. We must discipline them - cane them or expel them." He had missed the whole point of the paper.

When I repeated this to Nyerere later that day, he laughed and said, "There can only be one missionary in this country, and I am the missionary. But I can not tell them how to carry out my ideas. If I put in examples (in the paper), the Ministry of Education will follow those and do nothing else. I want them to think of examples by themselves."

The noted French agronomist Rene Dumont, author of False Start in Africa, warned Nyerere in those days that Tanzania was at too primitive a level of development for its leaders to talk about sophisticated economic theories like socialism. But Nyerere did not listen. He nationalized the foreign banks, plantations and manufacturing plants when he did not have trained personnel to run them. He pushed out Peace Corps and missionary teachers from the secondary schools when he did not have enough Tanzania teachers with adequate English to replace them. He pressured farmers into ujamaa villages even though Tanzanians found the idea of collective farming abhorrent. He undercut one of Africa's most remarkable cooperatives - the coffee marketing association near Mt. Kilimanjaro - because it did not fit into his theories. He broke relations with Britain, Tanzania's chief aid donor, because the Organization of African Unity had set down a ridiculous ultimatum on Rhodesia and he wanted the rest of the world to take Africa's word seriously.

There is a new optimism in Tanzania today. Evidently with Nyerere's acquiescence, his heirs have adopted multiparty democracy and the free market system and have engaged in a war on corruption. The old Swahili translation of free market - soko huria - had a negative air in the Nyerere era; it connoted uncontrolled capitalism, in short, capitalism at its worst. So the leaders are using different Swahili words - soko huru - which is supposed to mean free market with limits.

In an upcountry town like Mbeya in the breathtaking highlands of southern Tanzania, when you sip Safari beer with local journalists, mostly stringers for the mushrooming newspapers in Dar es Salaam, you find them eager, enthusiastic, hopeful and grateful for advice. But their training is inadequate, their English kind of halting, and their poverty obvious. My own optimism for Tanzania is tempered by the memory of similar scenes with eager Tanzanians a quarter of a century ago. They were just as enthusiastic then for African socialism as they are now for soko huru. Tanzania is at so low a level of development that capitalism may be no better as a panacea than socialism was.

I do not want to belittle Nyerere. His Tanzania is warm, calm, gentle and united. Standing still in Tanzania was a healthier experience than going backwards in neighboring Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda. Tanzania was far better off with a benign saint for a president than a rapacious tyrant. I still admire Nyerere a great deal. But the Tanzanian experiment offers good evidence that saints do not really make very good presidents.

December 17, 1996
Washington D.C.

see also:

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

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© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved.