President Julius Nyerere
A Great Teacher and Devoted African Leader

By Charles E. Simmons


The former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, 77, died last week. As one who led the independence struggle of Tanganyika against Colonial Britain in the 1950's and 60's, He was a person of the caliber of Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. Africans called him affectionately, "Mwalimu," or "Teacher." He was both a dedicated Catholic and socialist, a humble and simple man who often went back to his dusty remote village and tilled the soil along with family farmers. When he took office from the British Colonial governor in 1961, one of his first official acts was to decrease his salary.

Tanzania is one of the nations on the giant continent that has few mineral resources, and a small population and some 120 small ethnic groups or tribes, many with distinct languages. Nyerere's government brought unity to the country by making Swahili, the language spoken throughout the region of East Africa, to be the national language. The new leadership also created further unity by merging the political structure of the tiny island nation, Zanzibar, with the mainland Tanganyika, to become the new nation of Tanzania.

Tanzania's demographics have been a double-edged sword. On one hand the nation was left alone militarily during the last 40 years by greedy imperialists who were seeking gold and diamonds. Yet, the Western powers considered Tanzania a strategic location because of its borders with other southern African nations, so the Big Powers kept their fingers in the pie of political intrigue and economic manipulation. And their fears were correct. Through his leadership of the African Liberation Committee in the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid, Nyerere and Tanzania were among the forefront of those largely responsible for the freedom fighters throughout southern Africa for having a military base and supplies for some 25 years from which to fight the apartheid and colonial forces that included the British, the Rhodesians, the Portuguese, the pre-Mandela South African government, and the complete backing of financial and political interests of the U.S. Those who fought for political independence in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Southern and Northern Rhodesia which are now Zambia and Zimbabwe; Namibia; and South Africa, all must pause today when his body is carried to its final resting place.

Nyerere's success in international diplomacy on the side of the oppressed is one of the factors which led right-wing U.S. politicians to hate the United Nations. Nyerere made serious attempts to create an indigenous socialism in Tanzania within an environment of relative poverty of agriculture and industry that would allow the country to be economically independent. As a result, the nation has one of the best records of literacy and health care on the continent and among the former colonialized nations.

However, Nyerere's critics, particularly those from the Western corporate media, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, claim that because Nyerere focused on domestic needs such as health and education that he was naive. These critics argue that because he valued regional unity above Western individualism that he was misguided. They argued that because he chose self-reliance as the guide to development rather than go hat in hand to beg for high-interest rate loans from the World Bank, that he destroyed the economy. Those IMF executives were not accustomed to seeing a national leader riding in an old car rather than a shiny new Mercedes through the capital city without a motorcade, with only a single driver, stopping for red lights. Nor was Wall Street impressed by the fact that Nyerere gave military assistance to African freedom fighters throughout southern Africa, fighting to end western economic domination and apartheid. Another category of critics from within the freedom struggle, claim that Nyerere went too slow and allowed too much Western influence, and did not take seriously the requirements of building socialism. One of the spokesmen from that group is the late Tanzanian Cabinet Minister, Muhammad Babu, also a noted revolutionary African leader and author of African Socialism or Socialist Africa?. These are important debates for the new millennium that also has major relevance to community activists considering post industrial development in urban and rural America. History will judge.

Nyerere led in the attempts to form regional economic cooperation in East Africa between Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia. The view of those leaders was that each member nation would produce and specialize in what it did best and thereby shift the regions' dependence on Western financial interests that dominate the world economy and set prices in the international market. These efforts to achieve economic independence were opposed tooth and nail by Washington, London and Paris just as strongly as they had opposed the efforts of Marcus Garvey generations earlier. Most of the leaders throughout the continent who made such attempts were overthrown or assassinated by the CIA forces or their local puppets. The long list of dedicated African patriots includes Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, the Congo's Patrice Lumumba, Egypt's Gamel Nasser, and Algeria's Ben Bella. Their loss has much to do with the fact that Africa remains underdeveloped and politically fragmented today. But that will never be conceded by the Western pundits and officers of the World Bank and IMF who speak of African economic struggles today as chronic and hopeless while encouraging more indebtedness and even less economic independence, an arrangement which benefits Western interests handsomely on their way to the bank. In spite of those negative factors, President Nyerere continued to work for self-reliance rather than instant gratification.

It must also be pointed out that Tanzania was a leader of African American and African unity. During the 1960's, Tanzania sheltered many African American freedom fighters who were on the run from the U.S. sheriffs and the CIA. The small East African nation was also home to numerous African Americans who moved there to work on farms and provide professional services. Until the retirement of Leopold Senghor in Senegal a few years ago, Nyerere had been the only head of state in post-colonial Africa who retired from his job without being overthrown or assassinated. His political descendants include the current Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity, Selim Ahmed Selim, who has held top level posts in the Tanzanian domestic and foreign service, and who may one day become the president of Tanzania.

During this month of his passing, as healthy, literate, housed and hopeful African youth in Dar Es Salaam will place wreaths of beautiful flowers on his tomb. And from Kilimanjero to Beijing, and from Lake Victoria to Cairo, simple folk will tell their sons and daughters about a life of devotion to humanity. Whether in Detroit or Los Angeles, it will be worth a moment of silence or words of tribute to a great teacher and son of Africa, Mwalimu, wherever there is a gathering of those who love justice.