Mwalimu Nyerere with former Cuban President Fidel Castro talking to a Cuban aid worker during a visit to Ruvu, Tanzania, in 1972 (Photo: Bertmann/CORBIS       

In his beautiful love letter to former Tanzanian President the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in last week’s The East African, Philip Ochieng observes:

The Tanzanian nationalist leadership was much longer-sighted. At independence, it consciously sought to transform the elite nationalist unity into a real mass or inter-tribal unity. The war on tribalism that it launched was thus a thousand times more genuine and more intense. At the instigation of Mwalimu Nyerere himself, there was a massive campaign to raise one national consciousnesses. In its attempts to dismantle the colonial structure of thought and action, Tanzania is the only African country that nearly succeeded in annihilating tribalism. 

Now, it is a matter of historical consensus that Mwalimu Nyerere’s great achievement was the success he had in moving his people away from the narrow, tribal self-definitions to a broader, more nationalist identity that makes us think of ourselves as Tanzanians first and everything else second. This was/is his great victory. And the forty years of peace we continue to enjoy is a testament to the enduring legacy of this vision. 

But what has been clear for a long time now is that his ‘Ujamaa’ policies were disastrous. Even Mr. Ochieng himself admits that ‘[they] were not a recipe for rapid development.’ Nevertheless he excuses Mwalimu thus:

His failings were not a result of any deliberate anti-people policy. He fought will full energy every manifestation of arrogance, corruption, tyranny and chauvinism in leadership […] his failings stemmed from the subjective inadequacies of an ideology and his system’s inability to come to full grips with all the extremely powerful objective forces-national and international- that were ranged against his policies.

Since i know Mr. Ochieng to be a fan of Shakespeare, he would do well to recall the Bard’s warning that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yes, Mwalimu’s policies were well-meaning. But his ideological experiments were not the intellectual theorizing of an academic sitting at his desk on his ivory tower. They had real and adverse consequences whose ramifications we are still having to contend with. The policies that came out of the Arusha Declaration sounded good on paper, but in practice they simply could not work. Their failures were almost immediate with with regional leaders using the collectivisation programs to enrich themselves at the expense of local farmers and in the process bankrupting the government. This lead to the forced nationalisation of private property in 1974 with the so-called ‘Operation Dodoma.’  All these programmes did little to improve returns on the huge investments poured into these expensive policies which in turn plunged the country deeper into debt and led to our version of the ‘Great Depression’ in the 1980s.

Mr. Ochieng, who is Kenyan, is blinded by his admiration of Mwalimu and chooses to gloss over his many failures, like a man who is in love with his neighbour’s wife despite being told over and over about the woman’s deep flaws. And just like this dude, Mr. Ochieng is being misleading in his selective praise of Mwalimu. The point i am making is we should tell the truth about our history. Mwalimu was a great leader who was instrumental in the liberation of our country. But he was also responsible for gigantic failures of governance and glorifying him only obscures the man and the context of his times.


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