The Legacy of Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere

Tanzania’s first President, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, is considered one of Africa’s most influential leaders. He was a statesman, liberator, pan-Africanist, a Mwalimu and among Catholics – candidate for sainthood.


Professor Father Juvenalis Baitu is the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) and is now involved in the establishment of a new university in Bukoba, Tanzania.

Professor Baitu is someone who knows Julius Nyerere both personally and as someone who has studied the work and life of Nyerere.

In your own words, who really was Julius Nyerere, and what makes him stand out?

Simplicity. Julius Nyerere was the first President of Tanzania who insisted on being called a Mwalimu –teacher. He declined titles, privileges and enjoyed the simple life even as President of Tanzania. When he retired, he went back to his small village to live a simple life –attending Holy Mass every day.

Talk to us about his Catholic faith

As President, Nyerere would participate in the Holy Mass wherever he was, and during Mass, he would prefer to mix with the people in the pews. He regularly went to Holy Communion and declined police escorts, sirens. If he had to line up to receive Holy Communion – he would do just that.

By the time, he died (in 1999) Nyerere did not seem to have a mansion, or even money stashed away in Switzerland. We do not see that kind of President in Africa nowadays or for that matter elsewhere in the world?

That model of leader or presidents were people consumed with the idea of contributing to the development of the people they were leading. Perhaps our modern leaders in Africa have forgotten about that.

One of the achievements of Nyerere was toning down ethnicity in Tanzania. Tanzania has KiSwahili as a national language. Nyerere used this to unify the people of Tanzania.

As you may know, Tanzania has 120 tribes –big tribes, let alone subtribes. So to lead a country of that nature…. (Nyerere) needed a medium through which he could communicate his ideas of what Tanganyika (as it was known at independence) needed to become. So, the language was extremely important (for Nyerere), and he succeeded in that. KiSwahili united us (Tanzanians), and it brought us together as a people.

Is that being lost today, as we see more and more emphasis on the English language?

From the late 1980s, people who spoke KiSwahili began to think: If I speak Swahili, I am lower than others who speak English. (We have seen) the coming of more English Medium type of schools. Parents who could afford it started sending their children to schools in Kenya and Uganda. Now we have a situation where the current generation can hardly speak a line of Swahili without binging in English words and expressions. Mwalimu (Nyerere) himself was a model. He had proficiency in KiSwahili and competence in the English language. Now we have, in Tanzania, a generation that speaks neither KiSwahili nor English fluently.

Isn’t that a danger in that we could see, in Tanzania, the emergence of tribalism or the negative ethnicity that has caused so much suffering elsewhere in Africa?

Absolutely. I agree with you on that.

As a professor, an academic, you observe African leadership styles. You are a student of Julius Nyerere’s leadership style. Where does Africa lose it and we end up with Presidents who change constitutions in order to stay in power beyond their given mandates? Where do we go wrong?

We go wrong, particularly at the point when we fail to understand who we are and what we should become for our people as leaders. We think that once in power, we now have access to the means of production and distribution, and we forget the people we lead. We worked hard for independence (from colonialism) but have ultimately succumbed to propositions that come with free markets – free markets for whom? Our political leaders gather all the wealth, but the majority of the people they govern remain poor.

Julius Nyerere tried to bring people together through his philosophy of Ujamaa (“familyhood” beyond blood relations; a “communitarian” understanding of African society that promoted social change, self-reliance and egalitarianism). However, Ujamaa had and still has its critics. Ultimately, some critics say it was just a version of Socialism or Marxism–Leninism and was coercive in the application. In the end, it impoverished the people of Tanzania. What would be your comment?

My comment is that Nyerere was neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. He was in the middle. Ujamaa was about the way we Africans have organised ourselves traditionally. Mwalimu intended to bring people together through the language of KiSwahili. He also wanted people to come together in slightly bigger communities or villages so that they could access services, such as clean water, from a central point. But yes, mistakes were made, and the model (Ujamaa) had challenges. Critics are there, but ultimately they do not see what has come of that (Ujamaa): Electrification of communities, schools in central places, the growth of small towns and the road networks (we now have). At that time, bringing people together seemed like something imposed on the people, and people think Ujamaa failed. Actually, with hindsight, we now see the point (of what Nyerere was trying to achieve). More and more, we see what Nyerere had in mind though he did not live to see the appreciation (of what we now see).

Nyerere has also been criticised for the One Party State that anyway, most African countries had. To this day, TANU and its successor the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party have governed Tanzania without interruption.

The idea of One-Party States, at the time, was that of an African Palaver where we talk and talk until we agree (on a way forward). This is what used to happen traditionally. In Africa, today, we have many political parties, but the differences in ideology or party manifestos are rather thin. There are many parties, but fundamentally, they are the same.

African leaders of those days, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda and others believed in pan-Africanism. Is this also something we have lost in Africa?

This (loss) is contributing to tearing us apart because though the value of pan-Africanism remains (as) Africans (we) are victims of processes beyond ourselves. We are following systems that do not work for us. However, not all hope is lost. We have the African Union (AU), ECOWAS, SADCC and other economic bodies (where Africans are) collaborating on the economic front.

We must always remember that Imperialism did not go to sleep after African countries became independent. It continues with a different face. Now, we need a new wake-up call to continually liberate Africa.

The cause for the beatification of Julius Nyerere: How far is this cause, do you know?

Yes, I know. He (Nyerere) is a Servant of God. The process is on, but it takes time. We are praying that at a given time; he will be beatified. However, some forces are against this (beatification) process. In a way, this is good because Nyerere should not just walk through the process as if he were an angel. (In fact) the critics of Nyerere’s beatification provoke more witnesses and testimonies of what and who Nyerere was –and what he stood for.

Even if it was not for the beatification, Nyerere is becoming more significant with hindsight. He is more appreciated now (than ever before), not just in Tanzania but in Africa as a whole.

Source: Vatican News

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