Tanzania in the 1980s: The experimental year

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What you need to know:

  • The 1980s were a split screen in the country’s history as the political leadership continued to claim the country was pursuing the economic goals of Ujamaa na Kujitegemea, even as the country took concrete steps away from a command economy.

The 1980s were ushered with a speech from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere on New Year’s Day, 1980 in which he addressed a range of issues from the adverse economic situation to liberation struggles in southern Africa and the country’s involvement in Uganda where its soldiers had stayed after toppling Idd Amin. Pointing to difficult negotiations between Tanzania and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regarding Tanzania’s economic struggles, an analyst put it thus: “Tanzania is caught between the Scylla of continuing decline and the risk of increasing political instability and the Charybdis of conformity to the Fund’s conditions, with all the serious risks that they entail.” In other words, it was about choosing between equally dangerous situations. The country had no option but to experiment, both with its politics and the economy.

Mwalimu had planned to retire in 1980 but those plans were put aside by the war with Uganda, where, he once said, those who wanted him to stay argued retiring that year would have amounted to “abandoning” the country at a very difficult period. However the process of experimenting with the politics and the economy was well underway.

On the regional stage, Uganda soon went to war which lasted for nearly five years after the disputed elections in 1980. Those who fought and eventually took power in Kampala went on to seriously alter regional politics down the line, especially in Rwanda and Zaire. Kenya too was shaken after then President Daniel arap Moi had survived a coup attempt in 1982. Some commentators have argued that that experience changed him for the worse for the rest of his presidency. In the south, Namibia and South Africa were yet to be liberated.

On the western borders however, there was still trouble. Zaire strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko had accused Tanzania of harbouring rebels bent on overthrowing his government, something Tanzania denied. Rwanda and Burundi continued to be embroiled in never ending cycles of ethnic tensions and violence which would have severe consequences for the country and the region in the 1990s.

The curtain was formally brought down on the first attempt at regional integration in 1984 after the project collapsed in 1977.

On the domestic scene, in 1983, the ruling party, CCM, discussed the introduction of presidential term limits, which culminated in a constitutional amendment in 1984 which limited presidents to maximum, two five-year terms in office. Human rights too became part of the constitution through the same amendments. In 1984, the Union was tested by political and constitutional developments in Zanzibar which resulted in then Zanzibar’s president Aboud Jumbe Mwinyi to be forced out of office and into unplanned early retirement.

By the time Mwalimu was on his way out in 1985, his critics had painted a picture of a disastrous outcome to the country due to his economic policies. Mwalimu had a different take: “I was also more impatient 18 years ago. I set out to build a socialist and self-reliant Tanzania. You ask me, is Tanzania socialist and self-reliant? The answer is no. But I never expected it in 18 years, We were a backward, totally illiterate country…We have virtually wiped out illiteracy. I remember our youth used to ask me at independence, when will we achieve our goals? Perhaps in 30 years, I used to answer.” That goal has remained elusive way beyond the thirty years Mwalimu thought it would take for the country to achieve its goals.

Back in 1983, the country had attempted to address the severe shortage of basic goods through some measures like the economic sabotage legislation which brought temporary relief on the availability of basic goods. Like other attempts of the 1970s such as “Operesheni maduka”, it did not prevent the continued severe economic headwinds the country faced.

President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who had succeeded Mwalimu as president, went far with economic experiments by negotiating a deal with the IMF and allowed the private sector more roles in the economic sector of the country. He was making efforts towards liberalising the economy. A journalist at the time observed that “in a cautious, low key, pragmatic way, the President has already set Tanzania on the path of reform.” However, there were those who thought that financial improprieties were on the rise under the new regime as a by-product of the economic experiments underway.

The 1980s were a split screen in the country’s history as the political leadership continued to claim the country was pursuing the economic goals of Ujamaa na Kujitegemea, even as the country took concrete steps away from a command economy. These experiments continued in the 1990s, however, political earthquakes in the region and a changed global picture coupled with domestic political shocks, would prove to be a troubled decade to a country still experimenting with its politics and the economy.