Racial And Religious Tolerance in Nyerere’s Political Thought And Practice

Salma Maoulidi unpacks Nyerere's legacy in the realm of racial and religious tolerance. "As Nyerere became more exposed to politics and other races," she observes, "he attained the sophistication of tolerating mutual coexistence where acknowledging the humanity of others in lieu of settling scores informed a more encompassing political strategy." However, despite all his efforts and those of the liberation struggles, prevailing racial and religious tensions continue to find expression in post-independence Tanzania. Salma concludes that "Tanzania's inability to overcome the vestiges of racial and religious exclusion exposes the government's and the ruling party's inability (or unwillingness) to address racial and religious discrimination that continues to dominate Tanzania's political culture in a forthright and objective manner."

What does racial and religious tolerance signify to a nation like Tanzania? Is it solely the absence of violent conflicts i.e. kisiwa cha amani ('island/pocket of peace') as described by the current 'political speak'; or is it the absence of grievances explained as peaceful coexistence? Specifically, what is the legacy of Mwalimu Nyerere with regards to the question of racial and religious tolerance in the larger political culture of Tanzania?

The literature revieed for this piece suggests strongly that the question of racial and religious tolerance has been glossed over. The fuzziness with which the matter has been dealt with by successive governments can be summed up as a procrastinator's escapism promising a sure recipe for latent divisions and sowing politics of hatred. Part of the myopia lies in the narrow scope within which the questions of race and religion are tackled by different writers. Equally problematic is the timidity with which commentators have taken up Mwalimu's response to religious and racial challenges.

Building on Nyerere's performance in this realm I investigate the legacy left by Mwalimu Nyerere to a young nation with respect to confronting racial and religious challenges. How did Mwalimu's personal values and beliefs influence his political agenda and trajectory? How far did his preoccupation with a racial or religious agenda contribute to fostering national unity and promoting a national agenda?

Nyerere is credited for the level of racial tolerance reigning in Tanzania not witnessed in other countries in the region (Malambugi; Ssekitooleko; MacDonald; USAID). His politics of moderation and racial harmony ensured that the African majority lived in relative peace and harmony with minorities in the territory. A disposition of racial harmony is, however, deeply rooted in the history/herstory of the vanguard of the independence struggle, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). Her rallying motto was 'Uhuru na Umoja' ('Freedom and Unity'). Rather than encourage racialism, TANU promoted nationalism seeing people foremost as Tanganyikans.

Yet, at the heart of the liberation struggle in both Tanganyika and Zanzibar was the question of race. Therefore, the integrationist racial politics in TANU did not always find wide support among adherents leading to fissures among the leadership and membership. Zuberi Mtemvu, formerly the TANU Secretary in the Eastern province, for example, did not approve of TANU's racial politics. On this account he broke away and the formed African National Congress (ANC), a party constituted on a racial platform. Her rallying slogan was 'Africa for Africans.' Another prominent party at the time, the United Tanganyika Party (UTP) - dubbed the governor's party - advocated for a representative system based on multiracialism.

TANU membership was open to all ethnicities and races and as a party of moderate racial politics, the TANU 1954 constitution stressed peace, equality, and racial harmony, while opposing tribalism, isolationism, and discrimination. TANU members were urged to fight the racialist habits of thought - a colonial heritage. During the 1958 elections TANU presented European as well as Asian candidates in different constituencies: Lady Chesham, a European, represented the Wahehe in the southern constituency of Iringa while Ms. Sophia Mustafa, an Asian, ran for the northern constituency in Arusha.

This was later followed by Ms. Celia Paes, a Goan from Dar es Salaam, formerly the president of the Tanganyika Council of Women and Barbro Johansson, a European who stood for a seat in Mwanza. Together with three African women, these women formed the cream of Tanganyika's elected and nominated representative at independence. Their achievements are eclipsed by prominent non African figures in the first cabinet some of whom became close friends of Nyerere like Amir Jamal, Al-Noor Kassam and Derek Bryceson.

To Nyerere, a self proclaimed African socialist, Socialism and Racialism are incompatible. The basis of socialism is a belief in human equality. Socialism is not for the benefit of black men, nor brown men, nor white men, nor yellow men. The purpose of socialism is the service of man (read humankind), regardless of color, size, shape, skill, ability or anything else.

The Arusha Declaration of 1967, the then blue print for African socialism ('Ujamaa') in Tanzania, does not talk about racial groups or nationalities. It defines as friends those who stand for the interests of the workers and peasants, anywhere in the world. It urges against putting people in pre-arranged categories of race or national origin. Rather, it wants each individual judged according to her or his character and ability similar to Martin Luther King Jr.'s plea for people to be judged by the content of their character.

Of course, there is an evolution in arriving at this point in both the TANU party and in the mind of its leaders. In his formative political career, Nyerere felt bitter about the favours which the Europeans enjoyed. He wanted to fight against discrimination, for African rights, for equal work and equal salaries. He later described these demands as the 'politics of sheer complaint', politics limited by his worldview at the time (Africa News Online, 1999). As he became more exposed to politics and other races he attained the sophistication of tolerating mutual coexistence where acknowledging the humanity of others in lieu of settling scores informed a more encompassing political strategy.

Examples cited where Nyerere's demonstrated the politics of racial moderation include the April 1959 meeting of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of Eastern and Central Africa (PAFMECA) held in Zanzibar where he was instrumental in bringing the Arab and African parties closer together as they struggled with ideological and racial divisions at the height of the independence struggle. Also, during a PAFMECA meeting in Nairobi, Kenya in September 1959, Nyerere diffused racial tensions by declaring that Europeans and Asians were welcome to remain in Africa as equal citizens after independence was achieved.

Anti-racial politics were prominent not only in the party's local agenda but also in its international agenda. On 26 June 1959 Julius Nyerere, along with Father Trevor Huddleston, at a meeting in London, launched the Boycott South Africa Movement re-named in 1960 as the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Also, during the Commonwealth Prime Minister's Conference in London in March 1961 Nyerere joined other African leaders in denouncing the racist policies of the Union of South Africa. He threatened to boycott the body if South Africa remained in the Commonwealth, a threat that persuaded South Africa to withdraw its membership from the body. His anti-apartheid stance would go on to inform the creation of the Frontline States in which Tanzania played a prominent part, an initiative conceived to defeat racism and apartheid by containing it and confronting it both at home and abroad.

But despite all these efforts, prevailing racial tensions found expression immediately after independence. In Dar es Salaam, rioting, looting, rapings and racial killings ensued as the mutineers took over the capital in 1964. British officers and Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) were rounded up and expelled. The consequences in Zanzibar during the 1964 Revolution were more dire as ten of thousands of women, men and children were murdered, raped, imprisoned and tortured simply for being 'the wrong' race, ethnicity or political adherent.

It has been easy in Tanzania to turn legitimate and not so legitimate political grievances into racial recriminations. Zanzibar represents a prime example where this has been done and more so in respect to the overthrow of a legitimately elected government by so termed 'revolutionaries' in 1964. Nyerere, his government, his party and his peers sought to explain a complex political terrain pertaining in Zanzibar in simplistic racial terms i.e. the overthrow of the minority Arab population by the majority African population aggrieved by the former's continued political domination. However the problem lay in the electoral system in place which made it hard for a single party to have a clear majority. Consequently, before independence three successive elections saw the African majority in the isles unable to accede to political power because of the electoral system in place which was based not on the popular vote but on seats won similar to the Al Gore and Bush in the 2000 General Elections.

Particularly, significant is the categorization of races in pre-independence Tanganyika where the key racial groups are presented as African, European and Asian. This would continue after independence where Nyerere too confined racial issues to Africans, Asians and Whites and less so to Arabs and other monitory groups. Such classification is interesting in view of the large Arab population on the Mainland relative to the other two minority groups and is perhaps indicative of the group's perceived political and economic insignificance compared to the situation pertaining in Zanzibar where they were a visible minority. Mwalimu's critics like Amani Thani Fairoz and Khatib M. Rajab al-Zinjibari, however, interpret this as his aversion towards Islam personified in the Arab. I will explore this in greater detail in the next part but at this juncture it suffices to point out that Nyerere's inability to check or condemn the killings that followed the Zanzibar Revolution is perceived as a major failure in upholding his non racial political agenda.

Racial politics persist in Tanzania and are largely informed by ethnicities and the question of resources and the control and ownership thereof. On the Mainland, in particular, racial politics are primarily directed at the Asian population, the economic moguls. During the nationalization campaign in the late sixties they were the primary targets of state take over of private enterprises and homes: it is estimated that more than 75% of the country's retail trade was controlled by Asians. Some owned factories, department stores and small shops; while others comprised the artisan class of carpenters, plumbers or tradesmen. Few become millionaires from large plantations and financial transaction.

Asian Tanzanians have not been able to shake off the image of the scrupulous money lender or economic opportunists in the present multi-party dispensation. If anything, Asians today are accused of using their economic clout to exert political influence. The media has perpetrated this image of the un-patriotic Asian during general elections by creating an impression of mass exodus of Asian bodies and capital. Such images are in sharp contrast to the role played by notable Asians in early political life like Rattansy, Karimjee and Mustafa who were revered for their dedication and sacrifice. Thus the present war on corruption is disproportionately blamed on Asians, heightening their vulnerability as a racial group.

If corruption and greed did not taint Nyerere's political image, religious matters did. This is in spite of the fact that Nyerere, a Catholic, did not shy from wearing the Swahili skull cap to show his level of comfort with Islam. USAID avers that Nyerere adopted polices designed to minimize ethnic, religious and regional tensions and to foster an overarching sense of national unity. Accordingly, Nyerere was strict on the separation of church and state (See Deo Ssekitooleko). His socialist legacy promoted common secular values of unity, togetherness and social welfare geared at building a unified and uniform nation.

Ssekitooleko and Malambugi claim that Nyerere did not allow his religious beliefs to influence national policy, something that allowed Tanzania to experienced stability, outlive all forms of sectarianism and become a secular country where religion and ethnicity are private issues. This is a view that is not shared by all Nyerere critics. In fact a growing number of literature paint a conflicting picture of Nyerere's rhetoric and practice with respect to religious belief, observance and practice as will be appreciated below. It is useful at this juncture to put Nyerere's association with religion into perspective lest we fall into similar trappings as those who would not fault Nyerere elevating him to super human status.

One writer reminds us that Nyerere's sawed-off front teeth indicated his pagan tribal background. His first encounter with major world religions was when he enrolled in school at twelve years old. He would be baptized on December 23, 1943 at the age of twenty, by Father Mathias Koenen in the Roman Catholic Church just before he went off to Makerere. At Makerere he became one of the leaders of the Catholic students, organizing retreats and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Uganda Martyrs. This interest in his faith would grow when he went to Edinburgh University.

Upon his return from Makerere, Nyerere taught at Saint Mary's School, owned by the Roman Catholic Church in Tabora. Similarly, upon his return from Scotland he would again teach at St. Francis Secondary School, Pugu. This was the first territorial secondary school set up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy for Tanganyika. It was the elite Catholic Secondary School that got the selection of all the best students when they completed middle school.

Perhaps, and in view of his humble background, Nyerere felt indebted to the Church: After all, it was his friends, in some cases his mentors at the Church, who had raised the money for his scholarship to Makerere and later to Scotland. At a certain point in his life Nyerere considered becoming a priest but was dissuaded by Father Walsh who advised him to continue pursuing his interest in politics. The church and particular the Fabian movement would continue to have a deep impact and role in his political life.

Even as a politician, Nyerere practiced his Christian faith openly, attending early mass, whenever he could. His passion and interest in Christianity is evident in his scholarship where he is credited with translating some books of the Bible into Kizanaki as well as in Kiswahili. Only MacDonald suggests that Nyerere was paid for translating this work but the account of Father Wille tends to suggest that the nominal sum he got was to compensate him for his job loss at Pugu. Nyerere also translated two catechisms, two explanations of the catechism that the White Fathers had made up in Kikwaya, all the prayers for Mass and all the Scripture Readings for Mass. In 1996 he wrote poetry and spiritual songs inspired by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.

It is, therefore, not far fetched to assume that Nyerere's faith was central to who he is and his politics. Earlier on he is reported to have told Father Wille "I am not a Communist. I believe in God", when accused of belonging to the left. Nor was he fond of members of his cabinet who espoused communism like Abdul-Rahman Babu, Kassim Hanga and their sympathizers. Essentially, his religious values informs his strong stance against discrimination which he likens 'to eating the flesh of another human being', a biblical expression.

In due course, he may have compromised on socialism as a middle way between his religious beliefs and political convictions. An African brand of Socialism expressed in a terminology of creed believes in the equality of men and their right to dignity and respect- that all humans, regardless of their differences, are the purpose and justification for the existence of society, and all human activity in any given society. This philosophy demands that communities everywhere should enjoy and develop themselves within the context of freedom and democracy based upon good governance and social justice, policies that are not in opposition to church doctrine.

It is significant that Nyerere's religious allegiances and actions remain hotly contested. Two trends are discernible: literature condemning his actions and practices and defenses against those accusations. In my view, these trends are unhelpful in that they fail to acknowledge the struggle, personal or public, that Nyerere as a political actor went through to reconcile his beliefs with his political convictions. Moreover, they fail to provide an insight on how a public figure who is a member of a certain congregation works from that realization to infuse a more positive engagement with national issues.

Perhaps part of the dilemma before Nyerere was his perceived support of a religious institution previously associated with maintaining the status quo considering that the churches in Tanganyika, according to al-Zinjibari, rejected TANU, twice in 1958 at Sumbawanga and in 1965 at Mbulu. Instead, they were scheming hand in glove with the British colonial government which groomed Nyerere to be the first president of Tanganyika. In fact just as Nyerere is seen not to distinguish the Arab from Islam, Muslim critics cannot separate his close ties to the Church to the sustained promotion of a Christian agenda in his political and socio-economic policies.

But Nyerere's relationship with the Church is not as black and white as some critics would suggest. In fact, Nyerere grappled with the question of a new role for the church amidst a new era of political dispensation. He wanted the church to serve all people- Christians but also non-believers. Likewise, he wanted the church to serve the whole person, mentally, spiritually, and physically and therefore saw an expanded role for the church i.e. in running schools, hospitals, and income generating projects, not just proselytize.

Certainly, it could not be missed by Nyerere that at one point the Roman Catholic leadership in charge of St. Francis School at Pugu where he was teaching asked him to choose between teaching at their school and his work in politics. It is, therefore, no wonder that in his political life he would challenge the church to remember her responsibility to society calling for the church to recognize the need for a social revolution, and to play a leading role in it (Man and Development, p.98). In this vain Nyerere did not hesitate to nationalize mission schools in an attempt to secularize the institutions in order to expand educational opportunities to non- Christian students. Education would be a key strategy to realize his vision towards a unified nation.

If religion was off limits during President Nyerere's tenure, it is very much present in his life after his passing. A connection with a religious agenda is very palpable in the writings available on Nyerere by both Muslim and Christian writers. Christian (especially church-based) writers want to associate Nyerere's Christian values with his particular brand of politics whereas Muslim writers point out to such influence as blinding his worldview and preventing a more rational form of political culture from emerging. Academic writers on the other hand tend to support a move towards closer scrutiny of Nyerere's policies and deeds, possibly to better appreciate the complexity he represented as a political leader.

More interesting is the tendency to apply religious imagery or to converse in religious discourse of and about Nyerere. For instance it is telling that in one of the countless obituaries posted after his death Nyerere should be described in the following terms, "Julius Nyerere: Political messiah or false prophet?" This image of Nyerere as saviour produced a counter narrative that seeks to replace Nyerere with a Muslim Messiah in the form of Abdul Wahid Sykes emphasizing a male centric notion of leadership on the one hand and exposing entrenched yet silent religious misgivings on the other.

Throughout his life Nyerere was known to most Tanzanian's as Mwalimu (The Teacher). Upon his retirement he was granted the title of Baba wa Taifa (Father of the Nation), a concept of fatherhood probably meant to capture his status as an elder in African society. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss the connotation the term 'Father' has in the Church. Descriptions by veteran journalists like James Mpinga who describes a ritual of Nyerere 'breaking bread' with children in his hometown every morning evokes in the minds of non-Christians the preoccupation of the Church in making Nyerere not a national figure but a Christian figure defeating his own dream of creating a unified nation not overly consumed by religious figures or preoccupations. Of course, ongoing efforts to canonize Nyerere confirm the suspicions that Nyerere was not a disinterested party in religious matters.

Accordingly, numerous publications reviewed zealously credit Nyerere with achievements purportedly forming part of a grand divine plan. Muslims, on their part, oppose the image of Nyerere as the single handed liberator of Tanganyika and question the ambivalent role of missionary educated Tanganyikans in the liberation struggle. Other allegations are less conspicuous. For example, Malambugi alleges that for the sake of religious tolerance, Nyerere helped to formulate articles guaranteeing freedom of religion in Tanzanian constitution.

Of course the above account differs from that given by al-Zinjibari who observes that the Constitution drafted by the British colonialists, which was unilaterally used by the Tanganyikan Government as the Interim Constitution of Tanzania, did not contain freedom of religion as an independent clause to the detriment of the Islamic State of Zanzibar as pointed out Professor David Westerlund:

"In such a religiously divided country, the issue of religion was a sensitive one, and in 1965 the situation was no different from 1961 in this respect. In fact, it could be argued further that it was even more sensitive after the revolution in Zanzibar in 1964, when the Arab Sultan was overthrown and the Islamic State of Zanzibar ceased to exist..."(p. 90).

Church affiliated writers also advance the idea that Nyerere's efforts to cultivate mutual relationships with and between Christians and Muslims religious leaders ensured religious tolerance in Tanzania since independence. However, authors like Fairoz, al-Zinjibari and Said Mohammed, see Nyerere as a serious bulwark against the flourishing of Islam in Tanzania. Foremost they take issue with close association between Islam and slavery in the persona of the Arab in the country's political rhetoric and condemn the elevation of the role of the missionary and its institutions in Tanganyika's liberation.

Additionally, they accuse Mwalimu for relenting to the churches wishes in decisions detrimental to Muslims in Tanzania. To back their claims they list various incidents where Muslim leaders and institutions have been singled out by Nyerere, seriously compromising Muslim progress in Tanzania. Chief among them is the expulsion of numerous Tanganyikan Muslims from the executive leadership of TANU. Also, the incarceration of Muslims political, religious and community figures at various times in Tanzania's political history evidenced an uncomfortable relationship between Nyerere and Muslims.

Nyerere clamped hard on Muslim institutions beginning by banning the All Muslim National Union of Tanzania and later the Muslim Education Union on February 25, 1965, an institution founded to train Muslims who were not allowed into the government primary schools. In 1968 he banned the EAMWS. Whereas political dissent among Muslims was stifled during Nyerere's reign, the right to free expression of the church - the Catholic Church in particular - was unhindered and constituted a formidable source of critique against government policy e.g. in publications like a Letter to my Superiors (See Sivalon; Mukandala et al.; Anderson)

Such singling out can, however, be contested as it was not just Muslims who were snubbed by Nyerere. Such a fate also befell some of his close friends like Oscar Kambona and Chief David Kidaha Makwaia, the latter a Roman Catholic. One of the most influential chiefs in East Africa, Chief Makwaia, facilitated the political rise of his long-time college friend Julius Nyerere by winning him British support as well as by securing the allegiance of Sukuma chiefs to TANU. Upon attaining uhuru Nyerere abolished the role of chiefs, and banished Chief Makwaia to the remote Tunduru District of the Southern Province for undisclosed reasons (Awam Amkpa, 2007). Kambona on his part was exile in Britain able to return to Tanzania after Nyerere resigned both the presidency and party headship.

Nevertheless, an anti-Islam agenda can still be imputed to Nyerere. He is, for instance, quoted in a book Development and Religion in Tanzania by J. P. van Bergen as saying that he established in TANU a department of political education in which he deliberately appointed a Christian minister, Reverend Mushendwa, to head it not because he was a strong politician but because of his Catholic Faith. Also, while Nyerere was well aware of disparities between Muslim and Christians in areas of education, executive appointments and social organizations he did very little to bring about structural transformation such that the disparities not only persist but 40 years after independence continued to be explained as part of the country's historical legacy.

Alhaj Aboud Jumbe, among others, the second president of Zanzibar who fell out with Nyerere in 1984 similarly criticizes Nyerere's religious policies. In his 1994 book The Partner-ship: Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union: 30 Turbulent Year, Jumbe asserts that "Muslim were deliberately under-represented in education" and provides statistics to back up his assertion. He indicates that this "could be a source of future conflict between Muslims and Christians" (p. 120). A United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored Flash Points Study notes that an increasing number of Tanzanians are excluded from mainstream political and economic life, a section of (i.e. Muslims) which perceives its exclusion on the basis of its social and religious identity. Such concerns were also captured at the advent of multiparty politics in 1995 by one M.I. Marisi in a letter to the editor entitled Tusiwatete wanasiasa kwa misingi ya dini ('Let religion not dictate our affiliation to political leaders'). Surely, the voicing of such concerns indicate continued vestiges of religious divisions even after over two decades of single party dominance propounding a people centered socialist ideology.

President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, in a speech delivered at Boston University on September 25, 2006 reiterates the dominant position with regards to Mwalimu's legacy in managing religious diversity in a democratic environment. President Kikwete attributed to the remarkable foresight of Mwalimu Nyerere, specific actions taken to engender tolerance in matters of faith and manage potential cracks to Tanzania mainly through equitable policies, institutional innovations, political messages, and legal constitutional provisions. But sustained objections, raised by diverse voices, put such allegations to question. And as feelings of exclusion intensify and disparities between Muslims and Christians continue unabated, many questions are being asked about this bag puzzle (See al-Zinjibari).

It is inescapable that race and religion are inextricably linked in the minds of Tanzanians i.e. colonialism as being a Christian vestige and slavery an Islamic vestige; or Tanganyika being a missionary bastion while Zanzibar a Muslim bastion. Certainly, Tanzania's inability to overcome vestiges of racial and religious exclusion exposes the government and the ruling party's inability (or unwillingness) to address racial and religious discrimination that continues to dominate Tanzania's political culture in a forthright and objective manner. Can such reluctance be understood as promoting tolerance? More importantly, the fixation with Muslim vs. Christian in a democratic society begs the question of the status of the other Tanzanians who are neither Muslim nor Christian in this equation. Don't they also have legitimate grievances premised on their right of belief or non belief?

Nyerere's policies may have been conceived to promote national unity but undue preoccupation with conflict suppression in order to compel cooperation across ethnic, religious and racial lines may have stifled genuine coexistence and the positive acknowledgement of difference in Tanzania's multi racial and multi religious from evolving. Inherent racial and religious tensions became more pronounced since the early 1990s resulting in the sowing of seeds of discord among the people and communities given that, as argued by Chachage, it defends politics of exclusion and inclusion, privileges and denials whereby citizenship, rather than nationalism, patriotism and pan-Africanism became the real stuff.

Perhaps, then, Tanzania's current political outlook stifles the possibility of a unified nation, one that accepts difference of race, religion as well as opinion as integral to its political legacy. The challenge for future inter and intra racial and religious relations rests on the nation's ability to overcome racial and religious suspicion, as well as acknowledging residual institutional and individual biases impeding in the country's quest to forge a collective future.


  • Salma Maoulidi is an activist and the executive director of the Sahiba Sisters Foundation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
  • This article will be a contributing chapter to a forthcoming Pambazuka Press book entitled 'Nyerere's Legacy', edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam.
  • Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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Source: https://allafrica.com/