A memorial tribute to the late Julius Nyerere, one of Africa's few great statesmen. His relations with the Kenyan political elite deteriorated further and further. He found Attorney-General Charles Njonjo particularly distasteful and arrogant as a person and reckless in his attitudes towards Kenya's neighbours. Nyerere was fond of Mzee Kenyatta, but he thought Njonjo exercised disproportionate influence on the old man.
By Ali Mazrui
When he was President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Julius Kambarage Nyerere's vision was bigger than his victories; his perception was deeper than his performance. In global terms, he was one of the giants of the 20th Century. Like all giants, he had both great insights and great blind spots. While his vision did outpace his victories, and his profundity outweigh his performance, he did bestride this narrow world like an African colossus.
It is also one of the ironies of my life that Julius Nyerere and I first met neither in his country (Tanzania) nor in mine (Kenya). I first met Mwalimu Nyerere at what was then Makerere University College in Uganda. That was more than 30 years ago. He had done his homework before coming to the campus. I was at the time regarded as one of the rising stars of East Africa's academia. As soon as Nyerere and I were introduced in English, he switched into Kiswahili and said "Tunasikia sifa tu!" ["We have only been hearing of your praise!"]. He made my day!
Long before I became a professor at Makerere, Nyerere had himself been a student there. He later went to the University of Edinburgh for his master's degree. Makerere and Edinburgh prepared him for the title of Mwalimu (meaning "teacher") which he was to carry for the rest of his life. Young Julius entered the gates of Edinburgh University in October 1949.
Being both British-educated and having both been greatly influenced by Makerere were not the only bonds which Julius Nyerere and I had. After our first encounter on the Makerere campus, a complicated relationship developed.
As personalities, what did Julius Nyerere and I have in common? He was a politician who was sometimes a scholar. I was a scholar who was sometimes a politician. Indeed, President Obote once asked me in exasperation whether I knew the difference between being a political scientist and being a politician. Some of my public pronouncements in Uganda during Obote's first administration amounted to direct participation in the politics of Uganda. Nyerere shared some of Obote's exasperation with my political intrusion into matters of public policy.
Nyerere was particularly irritated when I published an article in the Journal of Commonwealth Studies in London accusing him of having unintentionally destroyed prospects for an East African Federation by his policies of socialism and economic nationalism. My article was titled "Tanzania versus East Africa: A Case of Unwitting Federal Sabotage". He conveyed his displeasure through the Principal of the University College of Dar es Salaam, Professor Pratt.
Nyerere and I had other areas of shared concern. He translated into Kiswahili two of Shakespeare's plays - Julius Caesar and the Merchant of Venice. He was making available to Africa the genius of another civilisation. It was in the same period that I published an article titled "Edmund Burke and Reflections on the Revolution in the Congo". Burke, the Anglo-Irish philosopher of the 18th Century (1729-1797) had never written on the Congo. What I had done in 1963 was to apply his ideas about the French Revolution of 1789 to the revolution in the Congo in 1960. In my own way, this was the equivalent of translating Shakespeare into Kiswahili.
In another scholarly article, I also "Africanised" the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) by applying his ideas to African affairs. Nyerere and I were trying to build bridges between Africa and great minds of Western civilisation. While Nyerere 'Swahilised' Shakespeare, I Africanised Burke and Rousseau.
With his concept of Ujamaa, Nyerere also attempted to build bridges between indigenous African thought and modern political ideas. Ujamaa, which means "familyhood", was turned by Nyerere into a foundation for African Socialism. Ujamaa became the organising principle of the entire economic experiment in Tanzania from the Arusha Declaration of 1967 to the mid-1980s.
His relations with the Kenyan political elite deteriorated further and further. He found Attorney-General Charles Njonjo particularly distasteful and arrogant as a person and reckless in his attitudes towards Kenya's neighbours. Nyerere was fond of Mzee Kenyatta, but he thought Njonjo exercised disproportionate influence on the old man. Nyerere was not sure whether to be amused or outraged when Njonjo turned any discussion on Kenyatta's mortality into something close to a capital offence!
Nyerere was against turning rulers into gods - "Like the old Pharaohs of ancient Egypt." Making Kenyatta immortal was like turning him into a god.
Nyerere and I remembered the proposal which was made in 1964 to celebrate annually the day of Kenyatta's arrest by the British as "the Last Supper". There was such a strong negative reaction from Christian churches in Kenya against using the concept of "the Last Supper" in this way that the idea was dropped.
My own strongest disagreements with Nyerere concerned Zanzibar and Nigeria. Did Tanganyika unite with Zanzibar to form Tanzania under pressure from President Lyndon Johnson of the United States and Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home of Britain who did not want Zanzibar to become another communist Cuba? Nyerere bristled when it was suggested that the union with Zanzibar was part of the Cold War and not a case of Pan- Africanism.
Nyerere's recognition of Biafra in the middle of the Nigerian civil war was another hot subject. I personally did not share the suspicion that Nyerere recognised Biafra because the Igbo were fellow Roman Catholics claiming to be threatened by Muslim Northerners in Nigeria. But I did believe in one Nigeria and therefore disagreed with Nyerere's policies. Nyerere also bristled if it was suggested that he was ungrateful to Nigeria which had helped him with his own army in1964, and wanted to create a new force.
Nyerere's involvement with Uganda was more direct. In 1971, did Julius Nyerere convince Milton Obote to leave Uganda and go to Singapore to attend the Commonwealth conference of Heads of State and government? Milton Obote had hesitated about going to Singapore because of the uncertain situation in Uganda. Did Nyerere tilt the balance and convince Obote that he was needed in Singapore to fight Prime Minister Edward Heath's policy towards apartheid South Africa? Obote's decision to go to Singapore was disastrous for himself and for Uganda. In Obote's absence, Idi Amin staged a military coup and overthrew Obote. Eight years of tyranny and terror in Uganda had begun.
I never succeeded in getting either Nyerere or Obote to confirm that it was Nyerere who convinced Obote to leave for Singapore. But we do know that Nyerere was so upset by the coup that he gave Obote unconditional and comfortable asylum in Tanzania. Nyerere also refused to talk to Idi Amin even if the policy practically destroyed the East African Authority which was supposed to oversee the East African Community. Was Nyerere feeling guilty for having made it easy for Amin to stage a coup by diverting Obote to Singapore?
I shall always remember Nyerere's speech in Tanzania upon his return from Singapore. I was in Kampala listening to him on the radio. Nyerere turned a simple question in Kiswahili into a passionate denunciation of Idi Amin. Nyerere's repeated question was "Serikali ni kitu gani?" ("What is government?"). This simple question of Political Science became the refrain of denouncing usurpation of power through a military coup. It was a powerful speech to his own people and against the new "pretenders" in Kampala.
I visited Milton Obote at his home in Dar es Salaam during his first exile. Obote and I discussed Idi Amin much more often than we discussed Julius Nyerere.
One of the major ironies of my life is that I was introduced to my own founder president of Kenya, Mzee Kenyatta, by President Obote before Amin's coup.
We were all at a major ceremony of the University of East Africa in Nairobi in the 1960s. I knew Obote far better than I knew Kenyatta. Obote took me to Kenyatta to introduce me!
In 1979, Nyerere paid his debt to Milton Obote. His army marched all the way to Kampala and overthrew the regime of Idi Amin. My former Makerere boss, Prof Yusufu Lule, succeeded Idi Amin as President of Uganda. But Nyerere was so keen on seeing Obote back in power that Nyerere helped to oust Lule. Was Nyerere trying to negate the guilt of having encouraged Obote to go to Singapore for the Commonwealth Conference way back in 1971? Was that why Nyerere was so keen to see Obote back in the presidential saddle of Uganda in the1980s?
Unfortunately, Obote's second administration was catastrophic for Uganda. He lost control of his own army, and thousands of people perished under tyranny and war. Was Julius Nyerere partly to blame?
"The two top Swahili-speaking intellectuals of the second half of the 20th Century are Julius Nyerere and Ali Mazrui". That is how I was introduced to an Africanist audience in 1986 when I was on a lecture-tour of the United States to promote my television series: The Africans: A Triple Heritage (BBC-PBS.) I regarded the tribute as one of the best compliments I had ever been paid. In reality, Mwalimu Nyerere was much more eloquent as a Swahili orator than I although Kiswahili was my mother tongue and not his.
In the month of Nyerere's death (October 1999), the comparison between the Mwalimu and I took a sadder form. A number of organisations in South Africa had united to celebrate Africa's Human Rights Day on October 22. Long before he was admitted to hospital, they had invited him to be their high-profile banquet speaker.
When Nyerere was incapacitated with illness, and seemed to be terminally ill, the South Africans turned to Ali Mazrui as his replacement. I was again flattered to have been regarded as Nyerere's replacement. However, the notice was too short, and I was not able to accept the South African invitation.
It is one of the ironies of my life that I have known the early Presidents of Uganda and Tanzania far better than I have known the Presidents of Kenya. Over the years, Julius Nyerere and I met many times. Milton Obote was one of the formative influences of my early life, inspite of our tumultuous relationship.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (the novelist) and I were marginalised by the Kenyatta regime in spite of the fact that Ngugi and I wanted to become Kenyatta's literary biographers. When Daniel arap Moi was still Vice-President, I was considered a possible speech-writer for him in order to strengthen his credentials for the Presidency. I never played that role. Since he became President, the Moi regime and I have had an ambivalent relationship. I have never been formally introduced to him as President.
With Julius Nyerere and I, it was a bond of genuine ups and downs. Nyerere was once angry with me because I had written a citation for an honorary doctorate which was too long. The honorary doctorate was for an elderly American academic, and Nyerere was awarding the degree as Chancellor of the University of East Africa (which at that time consisted of the campuses of Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam).
As University Orator, I had written the citation, and was reading it as the elderly gentleman knelt before Nyerere. My oration was indeed too long. Nyerere did not speak to me that evening after the ceremony. He deliberately snubbed me. He had been disturbed that the elderly recipient of the honorary degree had to kneel for so long while I delivered the oration praising him. I had not struck the right balance. I felt truly chastised by the Mwalimu.
Let me also refer to Walter Rodney. He was a Guyanese scholar who taught at the University of Dar es Salaam and became one of the most eloquent voices of the left on the campus in Tanzania. When Walter Rodney returned to Guyana, he was assassinated.
Chedi Jagan, on being elected President of Guyana, created a special chair in honour of Walter Rodney. Eventually I was offered the chair and became its first incumbent. My inaugural lecture was on the following topic: "Comparative Leadership: Walter Rodney, Julius K. Nyerere and Martin Luther King Jr."
After delivering the lecture, I subsequently met Nyerere one evening in Pennsylvania, USA. I gave him my Walter Rodney lecture. He read it overnight and commented on it the next morning at breakfast. He promised to send me a proper critique of my Rodney lecture on his return to Dar es Salaam. He never lived long enough to send me the critique.
Nyerere's policies of Ujamaa amounted to a case of Heroic Failure. They were heroic because Tanzania was one of the few African countries which attempted to find its own route to development instead of borrowing the ideologies of the West. But it was a failure because the economic experiment did not deliver the goods of development.
On the other hand, Nyerere's policies of nation-building amount to a case of Unsung Heroism. With wise and strong leadership, and with brilliant policies of cultural integration, he took one of the poorest countries in the world and made it a proud leader in African affairs and an active member of the global community.
Julius Nyerere was my Mwalimu too. It was a privilege to learn so much from so great a man.