Julius Nyerere reconsidered

Posted: 2 October, 2019 | Category: Book Reviews

“Nyerere -The Early Years” by Thomas Molony (Published by James Currey, 284 pp) reviewed by TREVOR GRUNDY

African leaders who were not corrupt kleptomaniacs but, instead, fairly ordinary men who lived decent lives and ruled alongside opposition parties and a relatively free press, are in for a bumpy ride.

Alive or dead, there’s going to be very little rest for any of them.

That’s because so many decent, liberal and often Christian men and women facing a rising tide of African corruption, violence, voiceless anger and political disillusionment – want to turn them into saints.

It won’t be hard to name them. There are so few.

Nelson Mandela is one. Kenneth Kaunda might be another. Garfield Todd is a possible.

But the leader most far down the rocky road towards canonisation is the subject of this new and utterly absorbing book by the Edinburgh-based academic Thomas Molony.

Nyerere -The Early Years is a well- researched, scholarly, yet highly- readable, work about one of the most remarkable, but least understood, African leaders of the last century.

How welcome it is.

To date, much of the biographical work on Nyerere tends to lack depth, frequently drawing on familiar sources (monitored by Nyerere’s gatekeepers) and can best be described as ‘hagiographic.’ Nauseatingly naive and self-serving Western journalists have helped turn Nyerere into something he certainly wasn’t, a saint.

I recall an editorial in the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) newspaper in 1967, the year Nyerere launched the Arusha Declaration which led to the nationalisation of everything from bakeries to banks, matchstick factories to mills.

In a post-Arusha statement, he warned about sycophancy and what it could do to his young country.

He told his followers not to be pawned because most of their leaders were purchasable. “He further warned,” said the paper, ”that in running the affairs of the nation, the people should not look on their leaders as saints and prophets.”

A group of Roman Catholics in Tanzania have ignored those warning signs. The hearse moves on – thought the red lights – slowly but surely towards the canonization of a man known to millions during his lifetime (1922-1999) as Mwalimu, which means ‘the teacher’ in Swahili, lingua franca of East Africa.

They have helped turn Nyerere into a caricature, a selfless African Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel at a lowly cottage outside Dar es Salaam, musing about Marx, the meaning of life and socialism, occasionally sipping a glass of red wine while turning the pages of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth nodding while making mental notes. With his eager tongue, a formidable intellect and a Harry Potter magic wand made in Peking, he is also presented by Commonwealth groupies as the politician who did the most to mastermind the downfall of Portuguese and British/Afrikaner rule in Africa. All partly – but only partly – true.

The Rhodesian leader Ian Smith several times referred to Nyerere as Africa’s “evil genius.”

Not many of the visiting Western journalists wrote about his disastrous economic policies that turned a 1961 dream of self-reliance into a nightmare of total dependency on Western governments, the IMF and World Bank when he finally quit the stage in 1985.

Neither did they mention the number of political prisoners he held in rat-infested gaols, nor his resettlement programme known as Ujamaa (familyhood) which involved the Soviet-style enforced movement of 11 – 14 million unwilling Tanzanians into remote bush villages run on the co-operative principle often designed by American and British expatriates on huge salaries paid in dollars by the Ford Foundation in USA.

If you want to examine the other side of the Nyerere medal, you need to turn to the writing of Africans, not Europeans. Many of them have picked up on the disparity between what Nyerere thought as a political philosopher and what he translated into grass roots policy in what was to become under his leadership one of the poorest countries on earth.

Africans do this well because they were there.

Europeans, on the whole, were visiting firemen reporting on the Nyerere years from five star hotels in the capital and Arusha.

Well-heeled tourists of the revolution were delighted to see radical land reform programmes and extreme “socialist” measures implemented in Africa – not so keen to see similar experiments in their own countries.

I worked in Dar es Salaam (1968-1972) for one of the English papers he nationalized in 1970. When I re-visited Tanzania in 2002, an MP said to me: “We spend most of the day undoing what Nyerere did. The man was a disaster but there’s no one who’ll say that in public.”

As he spoke, a large colour picture of Nyerere looked down on us from the hotel wall. The MP wouldn’t thank me for naming him.

A convert to Rome

Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born in 1922 at Mwitongo, Butiama close to the shores of Lake Victoria.

His father Nyerere Burito – who had 22 wives and 27 children – was a chief chosen by the Germans to help them rule.

Between 1933 and World War 11 there was next to no development in Tanganyika. Hitler wanted his colonies back and the various British politicians thought it a good idea to return them – an act of appeasement to the German leader. So why spend money on something you’re sooner or later give away?

After 1918, Tanganyika became a mandated territory under the League of Nations.

In African eyes, the British were no more popular than the Germans. The British turned Tanganyika into an undeclared apartheid state that was socially divided between divided Africans, Europeans and Asians.

The Zanaki tribe into which Kambarage (Julius is the name he took after his conversion to Catholicism) was so small and unremarkable that most inhabitants of Tanganyika did not know of its existence.

But Chief Nyerere Buriot was popular with the colonizers. His famous son (I’ll call him Julius from now on) told the American journalist Edgett Smith – “The only thing the British had against my father was his 22 wives.””

Julius was brought up to think and live a tribal life. His father paid for an elder son to go to secondary school. Julius seemed destined to play a minor role as guardian of the family’s sheep and goats. But like King David in the Bible, he impressed Catholic priests who saw in the undersized, studious rather remote young man with enormous potential at a time when the White Fathers were anxious to start localizing the Church throughout East Africa.

Julius’s exposure to Christianity occurred as he was entering his teenage years, a time when the adolescent mind is prone to exploring experiences in the wider world.

From primary school at Musoma, Julius went on to the elite Tabora Government School which Professor Julian Huxley described as “the Eton of Africa.”

Malony tells is that the school’s long-serving Director of Education, Stanley Rivers-Smith, saw the importation of the English public school spirit into Tanganyika as a contribution to the British policy of indirect rule. He stated that the schools for the sons of chiefs “the English “Prefect System” made possible the full realization of the British ideal to delegate authority to those who by hereditary ought to possess and exercise it.”

Julius’s feeling of being a chosen prefect never left him. Neither did a deeply felt belief that as the son of a chief it was essential to play ball with the colonial authorities.

Despite British-style apartheid (their secret was never to give racial segregation a name) boys educated at English style pubic schools in Africa knew they were part of chosen elite and acted as such throughout their lives.

At Kenya’s Independence in 1963, ten of the country’s 17 ministers, nine of the 14 permanent secretaries along with the post of Attorney- General, Chief Justice and Commissioner of Police, were educated at the Alliance High School, another “Eton” in Africa.

Shortly before his father’s death (at the age of 82) Julius coverted to Roman Catholicism and his name changed.

Julius Nyerere

He was the first person in Butiama to be baptized a Roman Catholic. From then onwards he was known as Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

In November 1942 he sat the entrance examination for Uganda’s Makerere College (founded in 1922) and obtained a bursary to study a teacher training course the following year. Makarere graduates became, in the words of one contemporary commentator, ”“a presumptive elite.””

Many a White Father saw this clever young man as a Catholic priest in the making.

At Makerere, Julius showed few signs of wanting to become a priest, though he did spend an inordinate amount of time reading Papal Encyclicals and studying the works of Catholic philosophers.


President Julius Nyerere

Picture: Adarsh Nayer


One of Julius’s student contemporaries and fellow Roman Catholics was Andrew Tibandebage. He tells us that Julius founded a branch of Catholic Action, defined by Pope Pius X1 as “the participation of the laity in the Hierarchic apostolate for the defence of religious and moral principles, under the guidance of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, outside and above political parties with the intention of restoring Catholic life in the family and in society.”

In 1945, Julius graduated from Makerere with a teacher’s diploma.

At the time he told a friend that in his opinion, teachers were undoubtedly the mental equal of chiefs. He banned them soon after becoming PM of Tanganyika in 1961. Sigmund Freud, populariser of the Oedipus Complex involving the relationship between fathers and sons, might have had a thing or two to say about that.

Although the word ” socialist” crept into articles written by Julius at Makerere for students magazines which were sent on to Tanganyika, he was always at pains to distance himself from Communism.

Was it genuine or opportunistic, that distancing?

Nyerere must have known that Africans applying for admission to British universities were screened for signs of Communist sympathies. Britain’s World War Two love affair with “”Uncle Joe (Stalin) in the Kremlin was over and done with. British foreign policy was – on the whole – set with a single purpose and that was to block the advance of the Soviet Union and all the liberation movements sponsored by Moscow throughout in Africa.

He also knew he had a good chance of succeeding. He was the son of a chief, he was one of the darlings of the Catholics in East Africa and he was an educated Africa precisely the sort of person the British were looking for to take over from them following their decision to end the Empire after 1945. He got into Edinburgh and that city and the people he met there left an indelible mark on his future career.

Julius fell in love with the British and their great writers, economists and philosophers.

He went on to use his Edinburgh years to great advantage, bewildering (some might say bamboozling) liberal- minded journalists in the 1960s and 1970s with his formidable intellect which was the result of his reading of Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, T.H. Green’s Principles of Political organization, Benard Bosanquet’’s Philosophical Essay of the State and Harold Laski, the famous London School of Economics theorist.

He had a blotting paper brain.

Hardly a soul at Edinburgh guessed he would turn into Africa’s number one brain box in years to come. As the historian George Shepperson out it in a BBC interview:”We at Edinburgh were very surprised in the mid-1950s when Dr Nyerere’’s name became widespread throughout the world press. We never felt when he was here that he was going to become a leading politician.””

Statesman and journalists were amazed at his knowledge but, says Molony, Nyerere the teacher did not worry about the small details of referencing his sources. In explaining his ideas on African socialism he did not feel to acknowledge that he borrowed freely from the ideas of many authors writing about Britain and Europe, not Africa.

And he knew how to please those who would later backs his leadership, after 1954, of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) which formed that country’s first government in 1961.

Clearly, he delighted the left-wing of the Labour Party and the British Fabian Society when he said the aristocracy was something alien to Africans that Africans are natural socialists and the British monarchy should be dismissed as something sustaining inequality.

In power, he and his advisers (many of them Americans, Swedes, Britons and the always present gate-keeper at State House, Joan Wicken) told the world they would dismantle the power structures of artificial wealth first in Tanzania, and then (by example) in other arts of Africa. Says Molony:”What is at issue when reflecting on the development of Julius’s political philosophy is the influence of the lecturers who guided him towards an effective study of European traditions.”

His ability in 1961 and beyond was twofold – first, he could speak to intellectuals in their language and secondly, he was a figure who could articulate the frustrations of Africans in their own language that they understood.

Simultaneously, says Molony,”because he was able to use the logic of their philosophy, here was a figure who could challenge European domination. As Nyerere put it in his own words, ‘”European colonial powers know that domination is contrary to the democratic principles they profess and they therefore do not like to acknowledge that they have been – and still are in other places, guilty of it.’””

Thomas Molony has written a wonderful book and one that should be on the shelves of universities and secondary schools not only in Africa but in those countries in the Commonwealth where African studies are underway.

Running through this work –rather like a silver thread is Nyerere”s religious beliefs which so influenced his youth and adolescence and which went on to sustain him during difficult years ahead during which he did so much to help liberate different parts of Africa form European rule while bankrupting Tanzania in the process.

This is a book that any serious student of Africa in the 20th century should read in order to better understand the way that the massive influence of the Roman Catholic Church had on the life of Julius Nyerere.

I eagerly await the follow-up (hopefully by the same author).

The title could be Nyerere (1961-1985) – Triumph and Tragedy.

First published in Politicsweb  April 22, 2015