You won’t learn of a better Pan-Africanist than Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania

Nii Ntreh Feb 21, 2021 at 09:00am

February 21, 2021 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

February 21, 2021 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Julius Nyere, first president of Tanzania. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Independence-winning African leaders were mostly idealists who, despite their very applaudable intentions, were political and cultural idealists who definitely underestimated the task of nation-building especially in Africa where nations were formed out of the interests of European gain.

Julius Nyerere was no different than Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and even Nelson Mandela who was not exactly an independence-time leader but was no different in character and found himself in no different a situation. All of these men were also avowed Pan-Africanists, albeit with some differences.

Nyerere was the founding president of Tanganyika in 1961, the other nominal half of the portmanteau word that is Tanzania. It was in 1964 that the different parts of Tanzania, Zanzibar being the other half, were brought together. He led his country between 1964 and 1985.

A consummate scholar, many experts on Tanzania’s first president would conclude that Nyerere was an incurable academic. He was the author of books on political ideologies and even throughout his terms as president, sought to “rationalise his political actions with an astute exposition of principles”, according to Issa G. Shivji, a Tanzanian author.

Nyerere attended Makere and Edinburgh universities where he studied everything from chemistry to Latin to political economy, attaining both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. He would later recall his time in the United Kingdom as the most important to developing his sense of self as well as political imagination. He became friends in the UK with many Africans including Hastings Banda, Malawi’s first president, and other Black people from the Caribbean who had, like Nyerere, gone to the UK as colonized people.

What living in the UK as a Black student from a British colony did was that it “evolved the whole of my political philosophy”. A biography of the man, Nyerere: The Early Years, written by Thomas Molony, details the facts that Nyerere was influenced by classical European liberalism as well as the Fabian socialists of the UK. He was acquainted with British enlightenment political thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, among others. But he was also African whose sociopolitical existence was marred by the facts colonization of lands and minds.

The man who emerged from the years abroad was an African socialist. It is rather intriguing that he does not seem to enjoy popular appreciation anywhere close to what Kwame Nkrumah does but Nyerere was every bit the Pan-African communitarian ideologue, in thoughts and deeds.

For Nyerere, unlike for many including the venerable Leopold Senghor, the fight against colonization was a fight towards the cessation of ties that were constructed in the asymmetrical tradition of lord and laborer. Senghor, for all his good thoughts and Negritude, was a proponent of maintaining relationships with colonial masters, even in a sense close to the French policy of assimilation. For Senghor, Africa was eternally bound to those who had conquered it while Europeans had also constructed the world in which postcolonial Africans were to live. Nyerere disagreed.

What he insisted upon was the dislocation of Eurocentrism from the African development narrative, which Senghor’s postcolonial philosophy did not. This dislocation should happen in how Africans should perceive themselves. Africans are the products of both pre-colonial slavery and the consequences of colonialism yet they were not to fall prey to the notion that Eurocentrism is inescapable. This means that Africans were to fashion out their own solutions to their problems

This is why although he called himself a socialist, Nyerere rejected Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s brands of socialism. Nkrumah embraced Marx and Lenin even if not wholeheartedly but Nyerere felt that Africans had not attained the capitalist conditions that necessitated class struggle. Nkrumah’s independence fight was also a class struggle where he held other Africans in the Gold Coast – the bourgeois – as enemies of the independence cause.

Such was the originality of Nyerere’s thought that he called his philosophy ujamaa, a Swahili word that translated into ‘familyhood’. This simplistic notion of socialism was, according to Nyerere, the real African way of life. “The African is not ‘Communistic’ [in the European communist ideal] in his thinking; he is — if I may coin an expression – ‘communitary”, he was quoted by the New York Times.

Through state-sanctioned policies in education and economics, Nyerere pushed the idea that Tanzanians needed to find fulfillment in their ability and willingness to be called upon to work in the interest of their immediate neighbors. This was socialism as self-reliance with the community firmly in mind.

Having differed with Senghor and Nkrumah on what relationship Africans could maintain with European thoughts and structures, Nyerere also espoused a humanism that many today would find useful. Unlike many African nationalists of his time, he refused to defined Africanness in connection with skin color.

According to Molony, Nyerere wrote this in a 1951 essay: “We must build up a society in which we shall belong to east Africa and not to our racial groups …We appeal to all thinking Europeans and Indians to regard themselves as ordinary citizens of Tanganyika… We are all Tanganyikans and we are all east Africans.”

Nyerere considered the racialization of African identity, as the popular interpretation of Negritude allows, to be one of the most dangerous problems independent Africa was going to face. For him, Africanness was a shared reality for those who freely made the continent their home and were opposed to the colonization of lands and minds. Before his time, very few leaders, if any, looked at African identity this way.

This notion of shared reality implied a moral duty to Pan-Africanism. Nyerere’s Pan-Africanism was thus a movement towards freedom through African means for people who made Africa their home. It did not necessarily touch on diasporic relations like Marcus Garvey would prefer because Black skin was not what made one an African.

The determination to keep the means of freedom thoroughly African could be seen in Nyerere’s reception to African liberation groups such as the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC) as well as FRELIMO in Mozambique, and his vocal condemnation of Operation Dragon Rouge, a covert American operation in DR Congo that rescued about 1,000 white hostages in 1964.

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