Today being Nyerere Day I felt inspired to publish for the first time, in a long time, my thoughts and opinion on a consequential political and social figure of unmatched magnitude in the annals of Tanzanian and indeed African history. You cannot discuss African liberation without discussing Nyerere. You cannot discuss African unity and Pan-Africanism without discussing Nyerere. And more importantly, you cannot discuss Tanzania today without discussing Nyerere.
My first exposure to the name Julius Kambarage Nyerere came in 1997 from my father. I had a school project whereby I had to prepare a report on something significant regarding Tanzania. After consulting my father we decided I would write about the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The topic was chosen because 1. It is the event that led to the creation of Tanzania as we see it today and 2. Because my mother was born on Union Day, in the exact same year. Being eight years old at the time, my father gave me some reading materials but helped simplify things in a way a young mind would comprehend. I did the project and that was it. Little did I know that in just a few short years I would learn to admire and appreciate the man we fondly call Mwalimu.
My second exposure came just two years after, when on the 14th of October, 1999, our regularly scheduled class was interrupted for an impromptu school assembly. During that assembly our head mistress announced the death of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Father of the Nation, which had just occurred in London. Being the young children that we are, the whole assembly line started crying, not because of the magnitude of the person who had just died, but because to us a human being just died. Afterwards we went back to class to finish the day as if nothing had happened.
However, when I got home and for the next 30 days or so, the Tanzanian airwaves were dominated by content regarding Mwalimu and what he meant to the nation. Again it was left to my father to guide me through the myriad of information that was being fed to us through television and radio. This is when I really got to comprehend the magnitude and significance of the man that had been our leader for twenty four years of our country’s history. It would begin my life long obsession with studying the man and it sparked my interest in politics and governance as a whole. Since then, and until now, I would read any material on Nyerere and his government that I could get my hands on to try and understand the man and the challenges he faced leading a new, and not yet mature nation.
What I have come to know and understand about Nyerere is that he was a complex man. Indeed some might say he was an enigma. Mention the name Nyerere and you invoke strong and emotional feelings, both positive and negative. You either love Nyerere or you hate him, there is usually no in between. But for me it’s less about loving or hating the man but trying to put in context his actions and thoughts during a time where he had no precedent to follow nor history to consult. His government was the beginning of Tanzania and many things must have been trial and error with little historical reference to go by. This is not in defence of Nyerere, he himself had apologized numerous times for the error of his ways before he passed. This is to understand that Nyerere did as well as anyone could have done given that same situation. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to dissect and analyse historical figures and events after the fact. This is not to lessen the pain and suffering anyone might have gone through during his reign but to understand that as the first leader of a newly independent nation he had to make tough choices which were bound to hurt some.
If I fault Nyerere for one thing that was in his power it is the issue of Zanzibar and Tanganyika relations. Nyerere was stubborn and sometimes bullish when it came to his thoughts on the relationship between Zanzibar and the now defunct Tanganyika. Indeed the topic of the Union is a controversial one. Nyerere believed that a two government system instead of a one or three government system was the best one to guarantee the interests of both members of the Union. Some believed and still believe that a three government system is the only viable option to guarantee the long term sustainability of the Union. I’m an adamant advocate of the two government system but I also believe that there needs to be a meeting of the minds. We must once and for all find a lasting consensus to the issues that keep rising in regards to the Union. Nyerere ignored these issues and indeed imposed his thoughts on the matter but for a peaceful Union to last we must create a mechanism that looks to resolve any issues that arise rather than ignore them. It is then encouraging to see that the current President of Zanzibar, Dr. Hussein Mwinyi is open to political discourse and engaging different stakeholders in ensuring that even in the current system, any lingering discontent is resolved.
I for one am grateful that we had Julius Nyerere as our first president. Did his quest for the liberation of Africa cost Tanzania money it could have used internally? Yes! Did his philosophy of Ujamaa and self-reliance hurt our economy? Very much so. But did he leave behind a nation united and at peace than almost any other African nation post independence? Absolutely. His use of Swahili and banning of tribal chiefs to unite over a hundred and sixty tribes was a stroke of genius. He was intentional in including as many tribes and religions in key positions so that no one tribal or religious group was more powerful to the point of alienating the others. Tanzania is one of the few African nations that have not experienced civil war or military coup and that has a lot to do with the precedents that Nyerere had set. We have time and time again experienced the peaceful hand over of power because Nyerere himself willingly retired from power contrary to almost all his contemporaries. He advocated for the inception of a multi-party system at a time when even the majority of citizens were still in favour of a one party state. There are no opposition parties in Tanzania today without the efforts of Nyerere. Because of him, the move to multipartism was not covered in bloodshed or struggle but in dialogue and political discourse.