Nyerere’s legacy: where is Tanzania heading?

Friday, 9 August 2019
Nick Westcott

I visited Tanzania last month for the first time in five years, and the first time since John Magufuli was elected President.  I have been visiting the country regularly since 1976, spending a year living there in 1979 as a student, and three years in 1993-6 as a diplomat.  I have followed its fortunes through the decades with close interest, meeting all its Presidents (except the incumbent) at one time or another.

While I was there on this occasion, the journalist Erick Kabendera was disappeared: that is, he was picked up by police and kept incommunicado for several days until he was suddenly re-appeared in court and improbably charged with economic crimes and tax evasion. This is not a lone incident: since 2015 it has become common for independent journalists to face harassment and even death, and for the government to obstruct news or even the publication of standard national statistics that it dislikes.  It is worrying both many Tanzanians and many of Tanzania’s friends overseas - including Tanzania’s own investors and business partners.

It is worth asking where this comes from.  Since independence in 1961, Tanzania has been a beacon of the liberation struggle in Africa and of peaceful political stability.  The country’s moral and political compass was set very firmly by its first President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, whose picture still hangs on many government, hotel and shop walls alongside President Magufuli, and all Nyerere’s successors have appealed to and pledged to uphold his legacy.

So what is that legacy? Nyerere was unusual among African Presidents in leaving a substantial body of writings that set out his political thinking and which enable us to see its evolution.  It is important to register that his thinking changed over time.  He adapted his ideas in the light of experience.  Some elements remained a bedrock: a powerful moral tone, an intolerance of corruption, a central role for the state, but with a real accountability to the people; and above all the value of unity - at the national level, in the union with Zanzibar, and across Africa as a whole.

He started as an unabashed African Socialist.  Capitalism and colonialism had gone hand-in-hand, and had destroyed many of the traditional communal values of African society.  These needed to be restored and built upon.  He justified the one party state as necessary for building national unity and avoiding fissiparous political divisions.  He also advocated ujamaa villagisation as a path to economic and social modernisation.  But over time he came to see the drawbacks of both policies and began to adapt his own approach; while sometimes intolerant of criticism, he tended to respond with argument rather than force.  Although CCM had robust internal competition and accountability, any single party that remains in power continually tends to become politically complacent and financially corrupt.  The target tends to become climbing to the top of the party tree and reaping the benefits along the way, not serving the people. And villagisation and state production proved socially disruptive and financially disastrous.  Economically, Nyerere’s prescription just did not work.

In response, Nyerere did two things: he put in place succession arrangements that allowed him to step back from running the government, though retaining oversight as chairman of the party, and he allowed his successors to liberalise both politics and the economy.  In the 1990s, multi-party politics was re-introduced, a number of loss-making parastatals that were draining the government’s resources were privatised, and the country began to encourage outside investors.  Nyerere’s personal interventions became increasingly rare, limited largely to upholding the sanctity and importance of the political union with Zanzibar, and working for peace in neighbouring Burundi.

His genuine legacy, therefore, is to value unity but recognise diversity, not to overstay your welcome in power, and to be guided by principles but adapt your policies in the light of experience.

Are the events of recent years the fulfilment or the negation of that legacy?  Like his predecessors, President Magufuli puts great emphasis on respecting Nyerere’s legacy.  Selected at least in part for his well-known personal probity, he entered office breathing fire and fury against corruption in the state machine, and his dramatic interventions appeared to shake state utilities, including water and power, out of their torpor and corrupt practices to deliver to the public what they were supposed to do.  Basic infrastructure, including roads and energy, has been developed and delivered.  All this was overdue.

But in other respects, the administration seems stuck in the early Nyerere-ite mode of suspicion, even hostility, to international capitalism and all its works, and to open markets even within its region, preaching a narrow view of self-reliance similar to that which led the country into near bankruptcy in the early 1980s.  And in political terms, the president seems to adopt an intolerance of criticism and opposition that Nyerere in his later years had abandoned.  CCM itself seems increasingly frightened of democracy, fearing that given a free choice and transparent information the people just might choose someone else.  Sadly, such transparency and freedom is the only thing that keeps democracies honest.  To constrain the opposition and harass the free press will in the end destroy democracy and even the CCM itself.

We have seen elsewhere that some political leaders decide they should be the sole arbiter of political decisions, and stay on in charge long after their sell-by date, presiding over ever-more corrupt and incompetent governments and leading their countries to wrack and ruin.  I need not name names.  But in almost all cases, it does not end well.  The same can apply to parties as to leaders.

Tanzania is a country of huge potential.  It is rich in land, in material resources, and in people.  To make the best use of them, for the benefit of its inhabitants, it must also be rich in wisdom as well as morals.  As everywhere, including here in the United Kingdom, these resources are best developed by a fruitful, harmonious and respectful cooperation between insiders and outsiders.  There is competition, but it is best complemented by collaboration.

Tanzania has benefited greatly from a regular political succession in its leadership.  But it would be a betrayal, not a fulfilment, of Nyerere’s legacy to fail to allow the Tanzanian people a free and informed choice about the party and the policies they want.  Mwalimu would probably be angry as well as sad to think his successors had learnt the wrong lessons he was trying to teach them – that they preferred a closed to an open society, to look to the past and not to the future.  Sometimes the people learn these lessons better than their leaders.  Which is why listening, even to messages we may not like, is important to our long-term survival.


Nick Westcott is the Director of the Royal African Society. 

Read recent articles about Tanzania on African Arguments.