Now that the dust has settled after the death and state burial of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, ex-President of the Republic of Tanzania, it is time for some of the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the most Islamophobic leader in post-colonial Africa to be discussed and put into context.
Nyerere’s death of leukemia in London on 14 October was greeted with almost universal mourning. From the Vatican to Beijing, London to Washington, Addis Ababa to Bandung, the tributes flowed in. It was quickly clear to any keen observer that the eulogising went far beyond simply de mortuis nil nisis bonum (speaking nothing but good of the dead). Indeed, the veneration reached a level that even Newsweek was prompted to ask: “How does a leader wreck a country’s economy and still die an international hero?” The answer is simple: Nyerere was the ultimate warrior for anti-Islamic forces in Africa.
The story of Nyerere is, in many ways, the story of colonialism and the policy of de-Islamising Africa - the only Muslim continent - in the ‘post-independence’ era. Nyerere was not the only rabidly anti-Muslim leader in Africa but he was perhaps the most successful. Like most of the ‘founding fathers’ of the continent, Nyerere was handpicked by the colonial administrators and the church to become a leader of his country. Born in March 1922 in Butiama near the shores of Lake Victoria in the north of Tanganyika, he was one of 26 children from one of his father’s 22 wives. His father, Nyerere Burito, was a junior chief of the Wazanaki tribe, his grandfather having been appointed the first chief of the Wazanaki by the Germans.
So Nyerere, brought up in a household already trained and accustomed to subservience to colonial powers, was provided the rare opportunity of attending a Catholic school. He went to Mwisenge Primary School in Musoma before going to Tabora Government School. In 1943 he joined Makerere University College before becoming the first Tanganyikan to graduate overseas, when he completed a teaching degree at the University of Scotland in 1953. Then followed a stint of teaching jobs at Catholic schools, first at the St Mary Roman Catholic in Tabora then St Francis’ Roman Catholic College.
Nyerere’s swift political rise had all the hallmarks of one blessed by the powers-that-be. In July 7, 1954, he founded the mysteriously well-resourced Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which immediately rose to dominate local politics, pushing other (Muslim-led) political parties out of the arena. TANU quickly became a well-organised party machine, fronted by ineffectual “Muslim dignitaries” but totally controlled by a well-educated Christian Θlite. He became a member of the Legislative Council (1958-60) and Chief Minister (1960-61). In 1961 Tanganyika became independence and Nyerere, a devout Catholic, became the Muslim country’s first prime minister.
During his first three years in power, Nyerere worked hard to create a power base for himself. This meant alienating the Muslim leaders and populace that had so far danced to his tune. But the devious route Nyerere was taking became so intolerable that in 1964 the army mutinied. It would have been the end of Nyerere’s political career, but for the intervention of British troops who re-installed him. For most of the sixties and seventies - while the public image of Nyerere as an “enlightened leader” was being aggressively promoted all over the world by his supporters, mainly Christian - his position was guaranteed by the permanent posting of a battalion of crack British troops in the country.
Nyerere, one of the continent’s most vociferous supporters of a one-party state, never once subjected himself to a free and popular plebiscite; to call Nyerere a ‘democrat’, as some tributes have done, is a joke. The man was the most dictatorial, autocratic and intolerant on the continent. According to the South African commentator Simon Barber, the shortcomings of Nyerere’s “dictatorship were ignored by whites in the west, especially Scandinavians, who believed that while colonialism had been a great evil, liberated blacks were nonetheless incorrigibly stupid and thus in need of firm control, not to mention a spot of detention, torture and arbitrary execution, by their own elite. Nyerere’s rough stuff was off the sentimental radar of the folks who gave Archbishop Desmond Tutu his Nobel prize.” (Business Day, October 27, 1999.)
In 1967 Nyerere launched the most devastating economic experiment in Africa. His imposition of ujamaa, or “familyhood”, was a signal failure. a synthesis of African collectivism, Christian values and welfare socialism kibbutz-style, Nyerere’s creed occasioned the forced relocation of as much as 70 percent of his (mostly Muslim) people into state-run villages. Behind all the rhetorics of ‘socialism’ and ‘self-reliance’, the Arusha Declaration was nothing more than a vicious and brutal social experiment intended to destroy the Muslim fabric of society. Millions of people were herded into collective villages designed by the state. The new kibbutz-like villages were Islam-free secular zones. The environment they created distanced their inhabitants from Islamic history, tradition and culture. Unlike the old villages, the new Ujamaa villages had absolutely no Islamic identity - no mosques, no adhans, no madrassahs and no proper burial grounds.
Young people growing up in this sterile environment were easily converted to Christianity once they went to secondary schools, most of which were run by missionaries. In just over two decades Nyerere managed not only to ensure that real power would always be in the hands of a missionary-educated elite, but also to ensure that Tanganyika’s Muslims were divided, ineffective and irrelevant.
Together with the ‘villagisation’ programme Nyerere introduced massive nationalisation. The effect was to give Nyerere and his cronies direct total control over the country’s economy. What was interesting, however, was that nationalisation was restricted mostly to large and middle-sized concerns which were owned by urban Muslims. In one swoop, therefore, he destroyed the economic power of the Muslims and handed it over to the new, mostly Christian party apparatchiks. Interestingly, the major multinationals were left unscathed; to people like Lonrho’s Tiny Rowland, Nyerere, for all his pretentious and lofty socialist statements, was always good for business.
Nyerere may have been almost immune to personal corruption, but he created one of the most indelibly corrupt societies in the ‘third world’. A few days after Nyerere’s burial, an international report confirmed that Tanzania was still one of the world’s 25 poorest nations and the seventh most corrupt.
Nyerere’s outstanding attribute may have been his ability to disguise his anti-Islam policies as ‘Islamic.’ He called his socialist experiment ujamaa, a word so associated with Islam and Muslims that many Muslims justified the policy as Islamic. He encouraged people to address him as ‘Mwalimu’ (teacher), a term of particular endearment among Muslims. And, although he and party-members wore Chinese-designed suits, ‘Mwalimu’ Nyerere adorned his head with a typical Swahili kofia (hat), an item previously made and worn only by Muslims.
But it was in the implementation of his language policy that Nyerere’s ‘de-Islamising’ policies were most blatant. His adoption of Kiswahili, a language with deep Islamic roots, as the national language to be used in parliament was highly praised. Commentators saw it as yet another sign of Nyerere’s commitment towards creating a one-nation state. This may have been partly true, but Nyerere’s language policy had other objectives also, as was indicated in the areas of research pursued by his numerous well-funded language centres. The aim was always to ‘Bantusize’ the language, or in other words to ‘de-Islamize’ it.
The entire state machinery was behind this process: like the ‘Islam-free’ collective villages, the new language being devised by Nyerere’s experts was to be purged of all Islamic content and context. In the event, it proved impossible to totally de-Islamise one of the oldest and most sophisticated of the Muslim languages in the continent, even though some ‘success’ was recorded.
However hard he tried, Nyerere could not always hide his anti-Muslim sentiments. “Has Nyerere’s political behaviour sometimes reflected his upbringing as a Roman Catholic?” asks Professor Ali Mazrui, a renowned African scholar and acquaintance of Nyerere. “There is a school of thought which explains his recognition of the secessionist Biafra in 1969 as a form of solidarity with fellow Catholics against a Federal Nigeria which was potentially dominated by Muslims. This was in the middle of the Nigerian civil war. The Igbo of Biafra were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.” The leaders of Federal Republic were not.
Some have argued that it was the same anti-Muslim feelings - not concern for human rights - that prompted Nyerere to invade Uganda and topple General Idi Amin in 1979. The argument becomes even stronger if one remembers that all Mwalimu did was to reinstate Milton Obote, no less vicious than Amin, but not quite as ostentatious in his butchery.
Other external policies adopted by Nyerere exposed a similar anti-Muslim bias. His support for Frelimo in Mozambique was connected to the fact that the movement not only marginalised the country’s Muslim majority but brutally suppressed it. In the Horn of Africa, Nyerere actively supported the effort by Ogaden to break away from Somalia.
Nearby he went all the way to consummate a forced marriage between Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form the Republic of Tanzania in 1964. The union ostensibly enhanced Nyerere’s “pan-Africanist” credentials, but it was mostly at the expense of the Zanzibari Muslims. Nyerere, always eager to be portrayed as a champion of human rights everywhere, tolerated the recorded brutalities and inhumanity inflicted on the people of Zanzibar under the regime of the late Abeid Amani Karume.
The large and emotional crowds at Nyerere’s funeral were the cathartic response of a people who never really understood the anomalies, the contradictions and the fantastic failures of a man they were taught to revere as the father of their nation. Nyerere, ever an Anglophile, even translated two of Shakespeare’s plays. One of them was Julius Caesar, a man with whom he identified, and on whom he clearly modelled himself. But, as one writer has pointed out, Mwalimu, under Nyerere, became Swahili for fuhrer.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999