Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a Tanzanian independence leader, political theorist, president, teacher and a founder of OAU.
Born and raised in Tanzania, Nyerere returned there to teach after university studies in Uganda and Scotland. Known as Mwalimu (“teacher”), he helped create TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) and pursued independence on a non-violent, multi-ethnic basis, becoming President of Tanzania (mainland Tanganyika and Zanzibar) in 1964.
Believing that decolonizing African minds was a prerequisite to true political and economic decolonization, Nyerere launched national reform and development based on a unifying African philosophical and political framework, Ujamaa. Ujamaa emphasized economic self-sufficiency, national unity, socioeconomic equality, familyhood, self-sacrifice, large-scale land reform, independence from foreign aid, collectivized agricultural production, nationalized industrial production, mass literacy campaigns, free education, universal healthcare and women’s rights. Nyerere Africanized the civil service and implemented Swahili as the official language, preempting the ethnic conflict that plagues many African countries to date. Tanzania and Ethiopia remain the only large multi-ethnic African countries that use native African languages in government and education.
Nyerere was also a founding figure of OAU (now AU), and under him, Tanzania became the main training ground for freedom fighters from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, etc. Among the finest African political philosophers, he wrote several political theory books and also translated Shakespeare into Swahili.
Despite tremendous progress, two major events in the late 1970s led to economic woes in Tanzania: falling global commodity prices (particularly of coffee and sisal, two important exports) and the costly Uganda-Tanzania War to topple Idi Amin. Seeing failures of some economic policies and wanting a younger generation to lead, Nyerere voluntarily stepped down, with no plundering and land-grabbing to his name, unlike most African leaders of the time.
A man of sharp intelligence, unbending principle, minimalistic tastes and quick laughs, Nyerere served his people selflessly. He died in 1999.
By Rahim Mawji