The Legacy of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere: people-centered development

Wednesday October 23 2019

By Prof Azaria Mbughuni @AzariaTZ

There are those who are bent on tarnishing the legacy of Mwalimu Nyerere. The campaign to tarnish the legacy of Mwalimu is based on various claims; one of the most frequent criticism lies in the economic challenges that the country faced during his tenure.

The criticism fails to take into account some of the major gains in the development of people, not things, the sacrifices made for the liberation of southern Africa and its consequences, and more importantly, many critics fail to take into account the larger context of the 1960s and 70s. Looking at what was achieved in the first twenty-five years following independence, it is clear that Mwalimu’s people-centered approach to development was a success.

Nyerere’s contributions to the struggle for freedom and independence is unparalleled in Africa. ANC of South Africa, FRELIMO of Mozambique, ZAPU and later ZANU of Zimbabwe, SWANU/SWAPO of Namibia, all these organizations established a presence in Tanganyika before independence, and starting in 1963, opened up military camps. FRELIMO, one of the most successful groups in southern Africa, was formed in Tanganyika in 1962. Nyerere gave the different groups from Mozambique based in Tanganyika an ultimatum: either unite or leave the country. The outcome was a meeting at Arnautoglu Hall, in Dar es Salaam, that led to the formation of FRELIMO. The establishment of military camps in Kongwa in 1963 was the beginning of liberation armies from southern Africa that eventually ended racist minority rule in southern Africa. FRELIMO, ANC, SWAPO, ZANU, all established military camps at Kongwa.

The SWAPO consultative conference in Tanga, Tanzania was a turning point in the struggle for Namibia. So was the ANC conference in Morogoro, Tanzania in 1969; this was an important moment for the struggle for South Africa. For the South Africans, Namibians, Zimbabweans, and Mozambicans, Tanzania was one of the most important places in the history of their struggles. Nyerere committed Tanzania’s limited resources to the liberation of southern Africa from 1961 through the 1980s. Tanzania was punished politically and economically for this. The economic cost for Tanzania’s role in supporting liberation movements in southern Africa cannot be overestimated.

Britain cut off economic aid to Tanzania in 1965 over disagreements on Southern Rhodesia. The government of Tanganyika had signed a 7 million pounds aid package with Britain; the aid was cancelled because of Southern Rhodesia. Nyerere was committed to the principle of NIBMAR, No Independence Before Majority Rule in Zimbabwe.

And for this reason, he was ready to let go the financial assistance from the West. This was no easy decision for an independent country just 3 years after winning independence. As far back as 1960, Nyerere indicated the desire to leave the Commonwealth if South Africa was allowed to join the Commonwealth. Nyerere took part in formation of the Anti Apartheid Movement in London in 1959 with the help of his close friend and comrade K.W. M. Chiume from Malawi. He gave the keynote speech during a meeting that launched the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. Later, pressure from Tanganyika eventually forced South Africa out of the Commonwealth. No amount of money, aid, would convince Mwalimu to betray his conscience. He believed that all humans were created equal, that human dignity, the dignity of Africa, was worth more than a few pieces of silver.


The economic difficulties Tanzania faced must be placed in a wider context. Let us not forget that Tanzania was not alone in Africa in facing economic difficulties. There are many reasons for this and not much has changed to this day. World oil crisis of 1973 due to Arab/Israel war devastated the economies of countries such as Tanzania.

Tanzania’s foreign reserve was wiped out during the crisis. Natural disasters such as the serious drought of the 1970s in eastern Africa worsened the regional economic situation. The war between Tanzania and Uganda came just as Tanganyika was showing signs of recovery towards the end of 1970s. The Tanzania/Uganda war of 1978-1979 finished whatever the government of Tanzania had in its reserves. Tanzania leaders had to travel to different capitals around the world to get what they needed for the war. Idi Amin who was put into power with the help of British and Israel intelligence had turned his back on his masters. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya committed his resources and army to help Amin against Tanzania.

Nyerere would later refuse an offer of millions of dollars from Gaddafi to free the mostly black Libyan soldiers sent to fight with Uganda against Tanzania. He instead put the Libyan soldiers on a plane back to Libya free of charge. This was a bloody and costly war that raged for almost a year. Tanzania won the war; but the cash-strapped nation was left in an even greater debt.

Tanzania was already in a difficult economic situation at the start of 1980. There are those who like to criticize Nyerere for the economic hardships of the 1970s and 1980s as if the hardships just started suddenly from nowhere and that the difficulties were the result of socialist policies. Again, one is missing the big picture if they do not take into account the broader context. In addition to outside conditions that Tanzania had no control over, such as drought and oil crisis abroad, there was an underground economic war waged against Tanzania that made a bad economic situation worse by 1980.

Lastly, IMF and World Bank policies, i.e. Structural Adjustment Programs, further destroyed whatever prospects countries like Tanzania had in strengthening their economies by mid-1980s.

Mwalimu Nyerere did make some errors along the way as he searched for the right approach to move Tanzania forward. Yet, it is clear that his positive contributions far outweigh his shortfalls. Tanganyika had a population of about 10 million people at the time of independence. Mwalimu Nyerere has been quoted saying that he inherited a government on the eve of independence with 12 doctors and 2 engineers. The adult literacy rate was 17 percent and life expectancy was 43 years.

After over forty years of British rule, Tanganyika had 4,907 students enrolled in government schools and 115,000 in mission schools. How do you build a nation under these circumstances? The British built an economy in Tanganyika based on export of raw materials. The country depended on foreign markets well beyond their influence. There were little funds to embark on grand development projects. Mwalimu was clear that the answer is the people. You start with the people!

Build unity and focus the meager resources on proper education and improving the lives of the majority. There are misguided few who think that an African country could have performed miracles in a period of ten, twenty, and one can even say, sixty years after independence, to advance their nations to meet the development standards seen in Western nations. Such comparison will fail miserably for many reasons. One of the reasons was that countries such as Germany, Denmark, and United States took a long time to build up their economies into what they have become recently. Tanzania and African countries have to be assessed based on the unique set of challenges that Africans faced. In a newly independent Tanganyika, Mwalimu Nyerere focused his efforts correctly on building a sense of nationhood, oneness, and focusing on developing the people.

The accomplished made between 1961 and 1985 were impressive considering what Mwalimu inherited at the time of independence and the forces working against him. Adult literacy rate at the time of his retirement was about 90 percent at the time Mwalimu retired, life expectancy went from 43 to 51 years and there were well over 3.5 million students enrolled in government schools. The peace and unity enjoyed by Tanzanians at the time of Mwalimu’s retirement did not fall from the sky; it was the result of hard work! It was the result of people-centered development policies that gave the majority a sense of dignity, pride, and patriotism.

Nyerere pointed out correctly: he was interested in the development of people, not things. You can have skyscrapers, luxury cars, great monuments, but if such things are owned and enjoyed by a few while the majority remain in poverty, then such things/development are ultimately meaningless. There is no doubt about it, Nyerere was a giant among giants. History will absolve him and place him in his rightful place as one of the most remarkable African and world leaders of the 20th century.