THE HEART OF AFRICA: INTERVIEW WITH JULIUS NYERERE ON ANTI-COLONIALISM
WITH IKAWEBA BUNTING
New Internationalist Magazine, issue 309, January-February 1999
The briefings and consultations at the Burundi peace negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania, had been going on all day. It was now seven in the evening and we had been at it non-stop for more than 12 hours. This was a tedious and demanding task, listening to each party go through their interpretation of history and presenting their case. There was a lot of repetition, political manoeuvring and tension. Patience was a most valuable asset.
I was beginning to feel the enormity of the task coupled with the strain of such an intense process – and all I had been doing was taking notes. So I knew that a 76-year-old man in the eye of the storm had to be exhausted. But he showed no sign of it.
The old man, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere – former President of Tanzania and one of Africa’s most revered twentieth-century leaders – had been asked by the Organization of African Unity to act as Facilitator, getting the warring parties in Burundi to negotiate a political settlement. I remember that he had a studied reluctance before accepting the task. But since he undertook the work he has never shown a trace of doubt that a negotiated and equitable peace would be achieved. And, as the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) evolves, overtures are being made to involve him in seeking a political solution – he is felt to be the only person who could talk to all sides involved in the conflict and to whom they might all listen.
Now, at the end of this exhausting day, a discussion began on the current war in the DRC. Mwalimu became animated. He began to elaborate on the political implications of the wars in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa (see special feature on the Great Lakes: http://www.oneworld.org/ni/chronicle98/special.htm#lakes ).
He was very disturbed by the growing belligerence of the countries involved and the increase in mass murders. He expressed particular concern about the persecution of the Batutsi based on the mythical racial theory that categorizes them as Hamitic, Caucasian black people who must be exterminated because of their sinister plans to rule Africa. He said he felt a tinge of embarrassment because he had boasted only months earlier that Africa was entering a new era and managing its own problems. `Now the stupidity of fighting over this big forest is going to set us back. Mobutu always gave us problems but we never fought over the Congo.’
Some of the senior members of the team begged their leave but I stayed, soaking up as much as I could, aware that moments like these are jewels to be treasured. Finally he exclaimed: `We are going to have to think about this some more and consider what can be done to stop this awful killing and get some kind of peace in our region.’ I could tell by his tone and body language that this meant `good night’. As I was leaving, Mwalimu – the word means `teacher’ and has been Nyerere’s respectful title among Tanzanians for decades – called me back to say: `You have to get your Pan-African Working Group together and start tackling this problem; let’s arrange another meeting.’
It has been my privilege to be associated with Mwalimu Nyerere for the past 25 years. During a visit to Harlem, New York, in the late 1960s Mwalimu extended an invitation to Africans in the Diaspora to come to Tanzania and participate in building a socialist African state. I came over through a new organization called the Pan-African Skills project and have lived in Tanzania ever since, for a quarter of the century.
Nyerere’s Tanzania was a magnet then for anti-colonial activists and thinkers from all over the world. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, for instance, was deeply influenced by his time as a student at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. Museveni belonged to a study group led by the Guyanan Walter Rodney, who wrote his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa while he was a professor there.
The University of Dar-es-Salaam became the centre for the guerrilla-intellectuals and activists of African liberation movements. FRELIMO of Mozambique, the ANC and PAC of South Africa, ZANU and ZAPU of Zimbabwe, the MPLA of Angola and SWAPO of Namibia all had offices and training camps in Tanzania. The country also gave safe haven to US civil-rights activists, Black Panther party-members and Vietnam War resisters.
It was an exciting place to be. Under a head of state who valued equal rights, justice and development more than the pomp and power of office, Tanzania was at the heart of the anti-colonial struggle.
Over the years I have often been able to sit with Mwalimu and reflect on Africa’s struggles for self-determination and development. Now, in December 1998, prompted by the New Internationalist special issue on The Radical Twentieth Century, Mwalimu Nyerere and I sat down over two days at his home in Butiama, Tanzania, and reflected on his role over the past 50 years as an activist and statesperson in the anti-colonial cause.
Ikaweba Bunting (IB): What was the anti-colonial movement’s greatest contribution to humanity?
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere (MJN): There are two fundamental things that the anti-colonial liberation movement contributed to humanity. The first is simply that the suffering of a whole chunk of human beings through the actions of others was halted. The arrogance of one group of people in lording it over the human race and exploiting the poorer peoples was challenged and discredited – and that was a positive contribution made by the liberation struggle to all humanity.
Second, the liberation movement was very moral. It was not simply liberation in a vacuum. Gandhi argued a moral case and so did I. Liberation freed white people also. Take South Africa: there, the anti-apartheid victory freed whites as well as black people.
IB: When did you first encounter the idea of liberation from colonialism?
MJN: I cannot say I encountered the idea of liberation in a totality like a flash of light. I did not have an experience like Paul on the road to Damascus. For me it was a process – something that grew inside of me. Our elders fought and were defeated by the Germans and the British. We were born under colonialism. Some of us never questioned it. Those who got educated began to think about it. What many of us went through was simply a desire to be accepted by the white man. At first this is what it was – a kind of inert dissatisfaction that we were not accepted as equals.
World War Two and what it was fought for – democracy and freedom – started the process for many people, especially those who were in the Army. For me the transformation came later. At Makerere in 1943 I started something called the Tanganyika African Welfare Association. Its main purpose was not political or anti-colonial. We wanted to improve the lives of Africans. But inside us something was happening.
I wrote an essay in 1944 called The Freedom of Women. I must be honest and say I was influenced by John Stuart Mill, who had written about the subjugation of women. My father had 22 wives and I knew how hard they had to work and what they went through as women. Here in this essay I was moving towards the idea of freedom theoretically. But I was still in the mindset of improving the lives and welfare of Africans: I went to Tabora to start teaching.
Then came Indian independence. The significance of India’s independence movement was that it shook the British Empire. When Gandhi succeeded I think it made the British lose the will to cling to empire. But it was events in Ghana in 1949 that fundamentally changed my attitude. When Kwame Nkrumah was released from prison this produced a transformation. I was in Britain and oh you could see it in the Ghanaians! They became different human beings, different from all the rest of us! This thing of freedom began growing inside all of us. First India in 1947, then Ghana in 1949. Ghana became independent six years later. Under the influence of these events, while at university in Britain, I made up my mind to be a full- time political activist when I went back home. I intended to work for three years and then launch into politics. But it happened sooner than I planned.
[Note: Independence came in 1961, and Nyerere became President. Six years later, he issued the Arusha Declaration, which nailed Tanzania’s colours firmly to the mast of socialism and self-reliance. The great Caribbean historian CLR James once called the Arusha Declaration `the highest stage of resistance ever reached by revolting Blacks’.]
IB: Does the Arusha Declaration still stand up today?
MJN: I still travel around with it. I read it over and over to see what I would change. Maybe I would improve on the Kiswahili that was used but the Declaration is still valid: I would not change a thing. Tanzania had been independent for a short time before we began to see a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our country. A privileged group was emerging from the political leaders and bureaucrats who had been poor under colonial rule but were now beginning to use their positions in the Party and the Government to enrich themselves. This kind of development would alienate the leadership from the people. So we articulated a new national objective: we stressed that development is about all our people and not just a small and privileged minority.
The Arusha Declaration was what made Tanzania distinctly Tanzania. We stated what we stood for, we laid down a code of conduct for our leaders and we made an effort to achieve our goals. This was obvious to all, even if we made mistakes – and when one tries anything new and uncharted there are bound to be mistakes.
The Arusha Declaration and our democratic single-party system, together with our national language, Kiswahili, and a highly politicized and disciplined national army, transformed more than 126 different tribes into a cohesive and stable nation.
However, despite this achievement, they say we failed in Tanzania, that we floundered. But did we? We must say no. We can’t deny everything we accomplished. There are some of my friends who we did not allow to get rich; now they are getting rich and they say `See, we are getting rich now, so you were wrong’. But what kind of answer is that?
The floundering of socialism has been global. This is what needs an explanation, not just the Tanzanian part of it. George Bernard Shaw, who was an atheist, said, `You cannot say Christianity has failed because it has never been tried.’ It is the same with socialism: you cannot say it has failed because it has never been tried.
IB: After independence you pursued an African socialism while in Kenya Jomo Kenyatta embraced a more conservative nationalism. The two of you came to symbolize opposing visions of development. Were you conscious at the time of the need to chart a different course that might inspire other new African nations?
MJN: Anti-colonialism was a nationalist movement. For me liberation and unity were the most important things. I have always said that I was African first and socialist second. I would rather see a free and united Africa before a fragmented socialist Africa. I did not preach socialism. I made this distinction deliberately so as not to divide the country. The majority in the anti-colonial struggle were nationalist. There was a minority who argued that class was the central issue, that white workers were as exploited as black workers by capitalism. They wanted to approach liberation in purely Marxist terms. However, in South Africa white workers oppressed black workers. It was more than class and I saw that.
Jomo Kenyatta was clearly capitalist and we were trying a different course. But I must confess I did not see myself as charting out something for the rest of Africa. One picks one’s way. I never saw the contradictions that would prevent Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania from working together. I was naÂ‹ve, I guess. Even now for me freedom and unity are paramount.
I respected Jomo (Kenyatta) immensely. It has probably never happened before in history. Two heads of state, Milton Obote [Uganda’s leader] and I, went to Jomo and said to him: `let’s unite our countries and you be our head of state’. He said no. I think he said no because it would have put him out of his element as a Kikuyu Elder.
IB: In 1990 you were quoted as saying that you thought the absence of an opposition party had contributed to the Tanzanian ruling party’s abandonment of its commitments. Do you think it was a mistake for so many new African nations to opt for a one-party state?
MJN: I never advocated this for everyone. But I did for Tanzania because of our circumstances then. In 1990 the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) abandoned the one-party state for a multi-party system. But we do not have an opposition. The point I was making when I made the statement was that any party that stays in power too long becomes corrupt. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union, the CCM of Tanzania and the Conservative Party of Britain all stayed in power too long and became corrupt. This is especially so if the opposition is too weak or non-existent.
IB: What were your main mistakes as Tanzanian leader? What should you have done differently?
MJN: There are things that I would have done more firmly or not at all. For example, I would not nationalize the sisal plantations. This was a mistake. I did not realize how difficult it would be for the state to manage agriculture. Agriculture is difficult to socialize. I tried to tell my government that what was traditionally the family’s in the village social organization should be left with the family, while what was new could be communalized at the village level. The land issue and family holdings were very sensitive. I saw this intellectually but it was hard to translate it into policy implementation. But I still think that in the end Tanzania will return to the values and basic principles of the Arusha Declaration.
IB: Why did your attempt to find a new way founder on the rocks?
MJN: I was in Washington last year. At the World Bank the first question they asked me was `how did you fail?’ I responded that we took over a country with 85 per cent of its adult population illiterate. The British ruled us for 43 years. When they left, there were 2 trained engineers and 12 doctors. This is the country we inherited.
When I stepped down there was 91-per-cent literacy and nearly every child was in school. We trained thousands of engineers and doctors and teachers.
In 1988 Tanzania’s per-capita income was $280. Now, in 1998, it is $140. So I asked the World Bank people what went wrong. Because for the last ten years Tanzania has been signing on the dotted line and doing everything the IMF and the World Bank wanted. Enrolment in school has plummeted to 63 per cent and conditions in health and other social services have deteriorated. I asked them again: `what went wrong?’ These people just sat there looking at me. Then they asked what could they do? I told them have some humility. Humility – they are so arrogant!
IB: Do you think Third World independence actually suited the industrialized world, leaving it with the economic power but without the political responsibility?
MJN: It seems that independence of the former colonies has suited the interests of the industrial world for bigger profits at less cost. Independence made it cheaper for them to exploit us. We became neo-colonies. Some African leaders did not realize it. In fact many argued against Kwame (Nkrumah)’s idea of neo-colonialism.
The majority of countries in Africa and the rest of the South are hamstrung by debt, by the IMF. We have too much debt now. It is a heavy burden, a trap. It is debilitating. We must have a new chance. If we doubled our production and debt-servicing capabilities we would still have no money for anything extra like education or development. It is immoral. It is an affront. The conditions and policies of the World Bank and the IMF are to enable countries to pay debt not to develop. That is all! Let us argue the moral case. Let us create a new liberation movement to free us from immoral debt and neo-colonialism. This is one way forward. The other way is through Pan-African unity.
IB: Should African resistance movements have embraced Pan-Africanism more readily? Do you think we should be working now towards a federal United States of Africa?
MJN: Kwame Nkrumah and I were committed to the idea of unity. African leaders and heads of state did not take Kwame seriously. However, I did. I did not believe in these small little nations. Still today I do not believe in them. I tell our people to look at the European Union, at these people who ruled us who are now uniting.
Kwame and I met in 1963 and discussed African Unity. We differed on how to achieve a United States of Africa. But we both agreed on a United States of Africa as necessary. Kwame went to Lincoln University, a black college in the US. He perceived things from the perspective of US history, where the 13 colonies that revolted against the British formed a union. That is what he thought the OAU should do.
I tried to get East Africa to unite before independence. When we failed in this I was wary about Kwame’s continental approach. We corresponded profusely on this. Kwame said my idea of `regionalization’ was only balkanization on a larger scale. Later African historians will have to study our correspondence on this issue of uniting Africa.
Africans who studied in the US like Nkrumah and [Nigerian independence leader] Azikiwe were more aware of the Diaspora and the global African community than those of us who studied in Britain. They were therefore aware of a wider Pan-Africanism. Theirs was the aggressive Pan-Africanism of WEB Dubois and Marcus Garvey. The colonialists were against this and frightened of it.
After independence the wider African community became clear to me. I was concerned about education; the work of Booker T Washington resonated with me. There were skills we needed and black people outside Africa had them. I gave our US Ambassador the specific job of recruiting skilled Africans from the US Diaspora. A few came, like you. Some stayed; others left.
We should try to revive it. We should look to our brothers and sisters in the West. We should build the broader Pan-Africanism. There is still the room – and the need.
Ikaweba Bunting is currently Oxfam’s Communications Officer for East Africa based in Nairobi. He also belongs to a Pan-African Working Group.
Copyright (c) 1999 New Internationalist. All Rights Reserved.
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