One of the most important and respected African leaders to emerge out of the colonial era has passed away. Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania, died of leukemia at age 77 on Oct. 14.
By Clarence Lusane <email@example.com>, 19 October 1999
It is easy to be loved when one has an endless record of successes. Nyerere did it the hard way. He led Tanzania as its first president from 1962 until 1985 and he is as much noted for his mistakes as for his achievements.
As a contemporary of Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and others from the liberation movement era of the 1950s and early 1960s, Nyerere flowered in a period of transition in Africa that saw black majorities come into power grappling with all the problems of development and democracy that colonialism had left behind. Nyerere's solution was what he called "African socialism." For Nyerere, this meant nationalizing property, banks and large plantations, as well as efforts at collective farming and one-party rule. Although Nyerere's policies did make Tanzanians more literate and healthier than before, they failed to eradicate Tanzania's poverty.
Nyerere sometimes mistakenly supported nationalist-talking African leaders such as the former Ugandan President Idi Amin, who was a butcher of the first order. He atoned for this by sending in Tanzanian troops to overthrow Idi Amin in 1979.
While as president and after his retirement, Nyerere sought to build democracy across the continent, revive self-help as a means of economic development and promote an unyielding commitment to ending all forms of colonialism and oppression in Africa. He played a critical role in the negotiations to establish Zimbabwe, he allowed Tanzania to be a safe haven for Mozambican guerrillas fighting the Portuguese, and he advocated effectively for Western economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. He also hosted the historic Sixth Pan African Congress held in 1974 that brought together people of African descent from around the globe. In the mid-1980s, he chaired the Organization of African Unity. He helped the failing and disrupted organization regain a measure of dignity.
Nyerere was also one of the leading lights of the Nonaligned Movement, a grouping of countries that professed to be neutral during the Cold War. He promoted economic cooperation among developing countries and was critical of global institutions dominated by the West, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which he saw as pursuing policies harmful to the interests of the Third World.
While many of the popular African leaders who rose to power in the 1960s and 1970s slipped into despotism, militarism and corruption, Nyerere defied the odds. In noble fashion, he attempted a democratic project in the best way he knew with as much humanitarian faith as he could muster.
Comparable to Nelson Mandela in many ways, Nyerere voluntarily stepped down from power in 1985 after 23 years in office, stating that he wanted to go back to his farm in his native village of Butiama near Lake Victoria, and where possible and necessary contribute as a diplomat in the region's conflicts. Like former President Jimmy Carter, his popularity rose as he eased comfortably into the role of elder statesman, a role he would play until his last breath. It was in that capacity that he was tapped to intervene as a mediator in the horrific civil war that has consumed the Central African nation of Burundi since 1993, in which an estimated 150,000-200,000 have been slaughtered.
Although he was diagnosed with leukemia in August 1998, he chose to continue the role of negotiator that he had accepted last July. Even as his condition worsened, he strove to achieve a peace.
Nyerere will be remembered by folks from high and low as a fighter for inclusion, justice, economic independence and honor. Upon Nyerere's death, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called him "one of the giants of the 20th century African liberation movement." His mistakes were many, his achievements formidable, his legacy assured.
Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He's the author of several works, including, most recently, "Race in the Global Era: African Americans at the Millennium" (South End Press, 1997).
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