Julius Nyerere: Legacy and defeated dreams in Tanzania

By Alan Broughton May 8, 2017 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal –– Julius Nyerere is regarded as one of the greatest African political leaders. He was a visionary for African unity, socialist development and self-reliance in the aftermath of colonialism, and still commands great respect. Though much of his vision failed to materialise he leaves a legacy of ethnic and religious tolerance and peace in his East African country, Tanzania. The United Republic of Tanzania is a union between the mainland former British Trust Territory of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, an Arab sultanate in the Indian Ocean comprising the islands of Unguja and Pemba. Tanganyika achieved independence in 1961 after a long but mainly peaceful struggle and Zanzibar rose up in a bloody socialist revolution in 1964. The two countries subsequently amalgamated. There had been many centuries of cultural and trade ties, and the Zanzibar language, Swahili, which had been the medium of trade and other intercourse, was adopted as the national language of Tanzania, a country with 120 different languages. The union has been largely successful though sometimes fractious. Zanzibar is semi-autonomous with its own president.

Support for liberation movements

Nyerere was a pan-Africanist, believing that borders were a colonial construct and should not be used to divide Africans. Tanzania became a safe haven for anti-colonialist activists from those southern African countries that were still struggling for independence or majority rule. These included the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and the settler states Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (Namibia) and South Africa. Nyerere strongly opposed moves at independence to limit citizenship to only the indigenous people, and never allowed the politicisation of ethnicity or race to gain respectability. “We glorify human beings, Sir, not colour…I am going to repeat, and repeat very firmly, that this government has rejected, and rejected completely, any ideas that citizenship will be based on anything except loyalty to this country” (quoted in Shivji 2006, p.236). This policy has endured, making Tanzania one of the few countries in Africa without ethnic rivalry, in great contrast to neighbouring Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. Kenyan politicians excel at creating divisions. Nyerere was an admirer of China and the successful Chinese Revolution and developed a strong relationship with China. This friendship continues. One of the greatest and long-lasting results of this relationship was the construction of the 1,800 km Tanzam Railway (now called Tazara) by the Chinese. The original aim was to link landlocked Zambia with the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam so that Zambian imports and exports did not need to pass through the South African port of Durban in the Apartheid era. China still invests heavily in Tanzanian infrastructure with fewer strings attached than aid from other countries. Nyerere wanted to emulate Chinese socialist policies, though with African characteristics. Some of this was not suitable and little of it has lasted.

The Arusha Declaration

The period of socialist policies was established by the Arusha Declaration adopted in 1967. Included was the public ownership of the principal means of production and exchange – land, transport, banking, insurance, major industry, large plantations, resources, international trade, forests, water, energy, news media, communications. However, the Declaration also provided for protection of foreign investments and the ability to repatriate profits from investments. Progressive taxation (up to two thirds of income for highest earners) was instituted. Minimum wages and severance pay was brought in to curb the ability of employers to exploit workers. Annual leave and employer contributions to retirement funds were legislated for. Wages rose 80% in the first 6 years of independence. Primary school fees were abolished in 1973. All TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) party and government leaders had to be workers or peasants. Those involved with capitalism or feudalism could not hold any leadership position. This included shares or directorships in companies, or owning houses for rent. Nyerere’s aim was to destroy the private economic base of party and government officials and politicians that had started to develop following independence. TANU and its sister Afro-Shirazi Party in Zanzibar were the only political organisations permitted. They united in 1977 to form CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi – Revolutionary Party). Nyerere saw self-reliance as all-important: “Leaders cannot do anything FOR the people. We can only provide the necessary information, guidance and organisation for the people to build their own country for themselves” (speech to TANU National Conference, Mwanza, 17/10/1967, in Nyerere, p.395). Because the ability to tax was limited by the poverty of the people, and overseas loans and aid always came with conditions, self-reliance became the only option for development. The emphasis was put on agriculture, to increase production including for export to obtain foreign currency to finance development. Nyerere stressed the need for hard work and community projects like school, well, small dam and road construction.

Ujamaa in the countryside

Nyerere’s concept of socialism, which he called ujamaa (literally family-hood), was based on the three traditional aspects of the family: mutual respect, sharing of all property, and the obligation for all to work to produce the needs of the family. Nyerere thought it necessary to improve on this tradition in order to lift people out of poverty: harder work, especially on the part of men (Nyerere acknowledged that women were already working hard), increased knowledge, and local cooperation. Thus the three principles of ujamaa were to be applied more widely in rural society. Separate from traditional ujamaa, the parallel tradition of ujima was practised: mutual cooperation between families, such as assistance at harvest or planting times or in times of illness or bereavement, a social security role without the sharing of production. Nyerere wanted to combine ujamaa and ujima in a formalised way. Part of the inspiration came from China where peasants readily and enthusiastically adopted communal farming. Essentially then, this meant in the rural areas where more than 80% of the population lived, farmers working together and living together. Groups of 30-40 families were envisaged, giving up their individual plots of land, by persuasion, not compulsion. This would be done in stages, starting from getting people to move from their plots into groups of houses with their own food gardens around the houses, then creating communal farms, then amalgamating their plots. By living in villages people could work together not just on communal farms but also to build schools, health centres, community centres, water supply, a cooperative store, and even small scale processing industries. They would also be able to pool resources to obtain ploughs instead of relying on the jembe, the hoe, and thus increase productivity. The ujamaa policy was to be encouraged but not enforced. TANU members were to be the leaders in getting the policy adopted in rural areas. However peasants felt it was being imposed on them and were concerned it would upset their livelihoods. Some villagers took up ujamaa only in fear that they could be punished if they didn’t, such as by withdrawal of drought support. They usually didn’t actively resist, but did passively, by electing village heads who were not enthusiastic supporters, and by concentrating on their private plots in preference to the communal plots in critical times of planting, weeding and harvesting. Therefore productivity was always lower on communal plots compared to private plots. National agricultural production did not increase due to ujamaa, one of the key reasons for Nyerere’s advocacy of the policy. Party and government officials were generally not welcome visitors to villages. By 1973 a more authoritarian approach was taken as the number of ujamaa villages started declining. Political career advancement became linked to ujamaa uptake by villagers. Nyerere announced that all rural Tanzanians would live in villages by the end of 1976. In some cases this was carried out by intimidation and coercion. There are reports of armed militiamen destroying farmhouses and demanding the immediate removal of inhabitants to designated areas. Sometimes these areas were unsuitable, being poorly drained, prone to flooding or with poor soil. Shivji writes (2009, p.110): “Villagisation itself was a forced resettlement of millions of peasants without any authority under law”. It was imposed from above; it was not the result of pressure from peasants. Some people however completely voluntarily moved, their resistance weakened by a long drought period. Despite local reluctance, the policy of villagisation was successful and over time accepted and even appreciated, and has endured. People had better access to schools, clinics and clean water supplies and more social interaction. Communal farming however was a failure and had to be abandoned. Most of Tanzania was not feudal as was the case in China where communal farming succeeded. Only Unguja Island of Zanzibar was feudal, a society where Arab landlords controlled most of the arable land. On Pemba Island and the mainland of Tanganyika, farmers had always had full control over the land they worked and were not interested in changing that situation. Villagisation did not contribute to developing socialism, and the consequences are still being felt in land disputes. Those who were resettled want security of tenure and those who lost their land want it back. This has created a legal nightmare.

Mwongozo in the cities

Nyerere envisaged a parallel communalism for urban workers. Following the successful nationalisation of industry as stipulated in the Arusha Declaration, in 1970 Nyerere wanted to bring in participatory management of the new parastatals to secure socialism and prevent the development of a managerial class. Workers’ councils were set up. The policy became known as mwongozo. However, Tanzania’s working class was small and capitalism was poorly developed in the country. Most urban workers also still had access to land and felt they could return to the countryside any time, so their commitment to the enterprise was low. The result was a marked deterioration in productivity and production as workers took the opportunity to personally benefit from the reduction in managerial control. Mwongozo stressed workers’ rights but not workers’ duties. Workplace discipline broke down; both workers and management often came to work late, left early, or did little. This caused serious shortages of essential consumer goods, reduced dividends for government investment, increased costs for the enterprises and raised debts and interest payments. There was also shortage of power, water and access to raw materials. Nyerere tried to restore workplace discipline and undertook a campaign against laziness in 1974. His new slogan was “uhuru ni kazi” – freedom is work, stressing that discipline was necessary for socialist development. It had little effect. Hyden (1980) puts failure down to the pre-capitalist nature of the Tanzanian economy. The working class saw itself as temporary, with a viable alternative livelihood – return to the shamba, the family farm.

Defeat of socialist policy

Idi Amin came to power in neighbouring Uganda in a 1971 coup and Nyerere offered sanctuary to the ousted president Milton Obote and about 20,000 refugees. This decision, an extension of Nyerere’s hospitality to independence fighters, soured relationships between the two countries. Many Ugandan soldiers also sought refuge in Tanzania following an army mutiny against Idi Amin in October 1978. Idi Amin sent the remains of his army into Tanzania chasing them, annexing part of the Kagera region of north-western Tanzania and declaring war on Tanzania. Muammar Gaddafi sent 2,500 Libyan troops to his aid. Tanzania retaliated, joining with the Ugandan Army dissidents and capturing Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in April the following year. A new president was installed, Idi Amin fled to Libya, and Tanzania withdrew. There was a huge cost to Tanzania, setting back development for decades. Uganda finally paid reparations in 2007. By 1979, following the Uganda War, the economy was in turmoil. This was the result of a combination of factors: the cost of the war, trying to build socialism in a semi-capitalist economy and capitalist world, and some failed top-down policies. Co-operatives had been turned into state marketing bodies that became so corrupt they failed often to pay the farmers. There was a big increase in bureaucracy that became self-serving. Factories produced luxury goods instead of basic requirements like farming implements. Too much was imported, the economy dependent on inadequate cash crops for export revenue. World oil prices rose steeply. The demand for sisal, one of the most important export products, fell in the face of competition from synthetic fibres for rope making. National debt blossomed. Nyerere had abolished independent trade unions in 1964 and banned strikes. A new organisation NUTA (National Union of Tanzanian Workers) was set up as an arm of the party and government, so workers could not organise. The idea of socialism lost public support as mere rhetoric: “Nine out of ten people who preach socialism and self-reliance don’t believe in it”; and “But you have to shout socialism and self-reliance if you want to prosper in this country” (dialogue in the novel Distant Destination, p.23). There was an attempted coup in 1982 that nearly succeeded. The government became more authoritarian. There were many restrictions on the freedom to organise and to criticise authority figures. Activist students were expelled from schools and universities. Women’s organisations and student unions went the way of co-ops and trade unions, abolished. The CCM became a state party controlling all aspects of politics with little public participation. It even controlled sporting clubs and religious organisations, everything except business groups. There was no civil society. Constitutional guarantees were ignored. There is no evidence that either the business community in Tanzania or international forces contributed significantly to the economic crisis that led to the defeat of socialism, in contrast to strategies that were used successfully in Chile and now in Venezuela. The bourgeoisie was too weak and Tanzania too unimportant both strategically and for resource extraction. Nyerere eventually recognised that the party had lost popularity and legitimacy. He resigned in 1985. A free press was allowed for the first time since independence. Under IMF pressure demanding payments the new president, Mwinyi, liberalised imports in 1986 and the Mkapa government elected in 1995 fully adopted IMF and World Bank policies, dismantling the Arusha Declaration. The wabenzi class (wabenzi – “owners of Mercedes-Benz cars”, who had enriched themselves during the Arusha Declaration period) had secreted large amounts of ill-gotten money over a long period and wanted to be able to use this for investments; these people, who were part of the government, enthusiastically supported change. The attempt to build socialism ceased in 1985 and from 1995 full neo-liberalism took hold. State bodies were privatised – banking, cigarette making, food processing, oil refining. Price controls ended. Mining companies were given free reign. Labour laws that gave some protection for workers were changed. The changes were brought in gradually during the Mwinyi presidency (1985-1995), starting with the ending of import restrictions on textiles, then rapidly under Mkapa. The one-party state policy was abandoned in 1992, legalising other political parties. However, CCM and its pre-amalgamated forms have been in government since independence. After 2004 land could be bought and sold, resulting in the taking over of large amounts of land by overseas corporations. Previously, as far back as 1923 under British rule, all land was owned by the state and people had occupancy rights; farms could be bought and sold, but only the improvements on the farm, not the land itself. However, the government could alienate land at any time for “public good”, and often did. Poverty and riches both increased. The informal sector, particularly the machinga (hawkers), mushroomed. These desperate people go from car window to car window in the horrendous traffic jams in Dar es Salaam trying to sell anything – postcards, bottles of water, bags of apples, car parts, tissues. Between 1994 and 1998, 150,000 public sector jobs went. This included large numbers of health workers, creating massive shortages in hospitals. The health budget was reduced from 7% of GDP to 6%, which meant patients often had to share beds and pay for the equipment needed for treatments, such as bandages and needles, and drugs. All major social indices fell: education, health, sanitation, water, life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy. The ending of industry protection resulted in the de-industrialisation of the country; clothing, footwear and cooking oil production collapsed. Labour and tenant protection ended. The two most profitable public enterprises, cigarette making and brewing, were also privatised, meaning a big drop in revenue for the government. Private schools were legalised. In education, “cost sharing”, that is, the reintroduction of fees, meant that those who could pay went to private schools and those that could not dropped out of school. The rationale for cost sharing – increased revenue for education – failed to occur for these reasons. The other effect was an increase in religious and ethnic divisions, as schools self-segregated, most private schools being religion based. In 1996 Tanzania was ranked the second poorest in the world. By 1998 40% of the national budget went in external debt servicing. One Tanzanian critic quipped that neo-liberal theory believed “if you open up the doors of a cage, more birds will fly in than fly out!” (Shivji 2006). The Dar es Salaam water supply was privatised in 2003 to a British-German company, City Water, a condition of World Bank debt relief. It was disastrous – shortages, erratic supply and the failure of promised investment to be undertaken. In 2005 the Tanzanian government took it back. Corruption became more entrenched despite stated efforts to combat it. A sign in government offices I saw in 2013 said: “Ninapambana na rushwa. Na wewe?” – “I am fighting corruption. And you?” I thought this might be serious but when I mentioned it to someone he laughed. Corruption emerged in the mid-1960s, creating the wabenzi class, and accelerated under neo-liberalism. The Kikwete presidency (2005-15) came with great hope for Tanzanians but ended with increased poverty for the masses, great riches for Kikwete and his family, and very happy multinational resource extractors. There was strong economic growth, reaching 7% in 2015 and 2016. However, few people benefited from this growth. The current president, John Pombe Magufuli, elected in 2015, started a little differently. He has introduced some policies that run counter to the full neo-liberalism of the Mkapa and Kikwete administrations: an end to tax holidays for multinational corporations leading to an increase in government revenue; a reversal of austerity to some extent; a huge reduction in politicians allowances; cutbacks in wasteful government expenditure (such as meetings in posh hotels and reduction in the cocktail party budget from $100,000 to $7,000); a cracking down on corruption including the identification and removal of the large number of phantom employees; the sacking of some top officials; and ordering privatised industries that had been closed down and turned into warehouses for imported goods to reopen on pain of confiscation. He has also instituted large infrastructure projects in Dar es Salaam – flyovers, six lane highways and bridges across the sea. On the negative side he has evicted thousands of “squatters” from the slums of Dar and bulldozed their houses without compensation. His government has declared 80% of Dar’s population to be illegally occupying land, which amounts to 3.6 million people, implying that all would have to move. He has also put some restrictions on press freedom. His approval rating 100 days into office was an enormous 90%, far greater than the margin he was elected with, but a year later his popularity had plummeted. He was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” even before election, as he was known for getting things done while he was a minister.

Nyerere’s legacy

Nyerere was a rare African leader who voluntarily retired. Others entrenched their power in the face of unpopularity, were deposed in coups or civil wars, assassinated, or occasionally defeated in elections. Nyerere died of leukaemia in 1999. Nyerere, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, were the only African socialist presidents who were not assassinated. Other great African socialist leaders – Sékou Touré of Guinea, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso – met this fate, all with the hands of imperialism involved, principally that of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Samora’s plane crash has not been proven to have been planned, but evidence points to Apartheid South African involvement. Nkrumah was deposed in a CIA supported coup. All these great leaders are remembered in the street names of Dar es Salaam and Moshi. Nyerere is still known as Mwalimu, Teacher, and held in reverence by the Tanzanian people. Used to justify or criticise any argument is: “Mwalimu alisema” – Nyerere said. Every politician and hopeful politician calls on Nyerere’s name, while carrying out the opposite of the policies detailed in the Arusha Declaration. President Kikwete declared that his presidency was built on Nyerere values. Nyerere’s name is used as the embodiment of virtue in public office. Nyerere’s peaceful legacy is used by the CCM to legitimise a crackdown in dissent while party critics use Nyerere’s empathy for the poor to justify dissent. As Evans Rubara (2015) writes: “But one thing is for certain: the peaceful coexistence Tanzania has enjoyed can only be attributed to the great work done by Mwalimu Nyerere. He united the people of Tanzania”, and “Evidently, people near and far still love the late Mwalimu Nyerere. They love him because he was not only smart enough to know what to say, when to say it and how to say it. Mwalimu knew when to demand self-rule from colonial rule, and how to make sure that there was no bloodshed during the transition from colonial to self-rule. He also reflected on his political strengths and weaknesses. Finally, he showed the world that he also knew when to step down. This he did for the sake of protecting the people of Tanzania”.


Nyerere’s vision of African unity and African socialism has not come to fruition but other parts of his vision remain. The greatest legacy left by Nyerere is ethnic and religious harmony in the country of 120 ethnic groups each with its own language, and two major religions – Christianity with its many sects, and Islam. In contrast, politicians in many other African countries have deliberately fostered ethnic and religious tensions for their own purposes, including Tanzania’s neighbours. Tanzania has been peaceful since the independence of Tanganyika in 1961 and the overthrowing of the Arab sultanate in Zanzibar in 1964, apart from the quickly defeated Ugandan invasion attempt in 1979 and occasional conflicts between herders and agriculturalists over land. Tanzanian leaders since Nyerere have negated most of the aims of the Arusha Declaration but not upset the unity of the country. Sometime in the future, Nyerere’s dreams may become fully realised. References Cronin, Jon 2005, “Tanzania ditches private water supplier”, BBC News 18/5/2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4558725.stm (retrieved 15/4/2017). Hyden, Goran, 1980, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles. Mwaffisi, Samwilu, 2002, Distant Destination, Assemblies of God Press, Dar es Salaam. Myamsenda, Sabatho 2016, “Tanzania’s Magufuli: An enigma?”, Pambazuka News, https://www.pambazuka.org/democracy-governance/tanzania%E2%80%99s-magufuli-enigma (retrieved 23/3/2017). Nyerere, Julius K., 1968. Freedom and Socialism, Uhuru na Ujamaa: A Selection from Writings and Speeches 1965-1967. Oxford University Press, London. Rubara, Evans 2015, “Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete: Tanzania’s laughing stock?”, Pambazuka Press, Nov 4th 2015, https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/jakaya-mrisho-kikwete-tanzania%E2%80%99s-laughing-stock (retrieved 15/4/2017). Shivji, Issa G. 2006, Let the People Speak: Tanzania Down the Road to Neo-Liberalism, Codestria, Dakar. Shivji, Issa G. 2009, Where is Uhuru? Reflections on the Struggle for Democracy in Africa, Fahamu Books, Cape Town, Nairobi, Dakar & Oxford. Wanda, Ronald Elly 2015, “Elections in Tanzania: In search of the Mwalimu factor”, Pambazuka News, 19/10/2015, https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/elections-tanzania-search-mwalimu-factor (retrieved 23/3/2017). Wuyts, Marc, 2008, “Reflections: An interview with Issa G Shivji”, Pambazuka News, http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/53440 (retrieved 15/4/2017).