Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, A Father of the Nation

Aderonke Ajibade
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Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a Former president of Tanzania. He was one of Africa’s leading independence heroes and a founding father of the Organization of African Unity. He was the brains behind Ujamaa, an African socialist philosophy which revolutionized Tanzania’s agricultural system. He was the prime minister of an independent Tanganyika and the first president of Tanzania. A prominent pan-Africanist, Nyerere led Tanganyika to independence and later unified it with Zanzibar to form Tanzania. Despite shortcomings of his policy, Ujamaa is credited for giving Tanzania a national identity.


Kambarage (“the spirit which gives rain”) Nyerere was born to Chief Burito Nyerere of the Zanaki (a small ethnic group in northern Tanganyika) and wife Mgaya Wanyang’ombe on 13 April 1922, in Butiama, Tanganyika. Nyerere attended a local primary mission school, and afterwards in 1937 attended Tabora Secondary School, a Roman Catholic mission.

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Nyerere attended Makerere University, in Uganda’s capital Kampala between 1943-1945 and obtained a teaching certificate. In 1945 he formed Tanganyika’s first student group, an offshoot of the African Association, AA, (a pan-African group first formed by Tanganyika’s educated elite in Dar es Salaam, in 1929). He had a goal of  converting the AA to a nationalistic political group. He opened a local branch of the AA and was instrumental in converting the AA from its pan-African idealism to the pursuit of Tanganyikan independence. In 1948, the AA restyled itself as the Tanganyika African Association (TAA).

On gaining his Certificate at Makerere, Nyerere taught Biology and English for three years and went on a government scholarship to study history and political economy for his Master of Arts at the University of Edinburgh. He was the first African from Tanganyika to study at a British university and, in 1952, was the first Tanganyikan to gain a degree. At Edinburgh, Nyerere became involved with the Fabian Colonial Bureau (a non-Marxist, anti-colonial socialist movement based in London).


His study in UK gave him an opportunity to widen his perspective of pan-African issues.
After his studies he returned to Tanganyika and became President of the TAA in April 1953 and during this period, he realised there was a need for African nationalism amongst the population. To this end, in July 1954, Nyerere converted the TAA into Tanganyika’s first political party, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). Nyerere was appointed to Tanganyika’s Legislative Council (the Legco) in 1954 and he gave up teaching the following year to pursue his career in politics.

Tanzania’s Independence

Nyerere promoted nationalistic ideals without encouraging the kind of violence like the one that erupted in Kenya under the Mau Mau uprising. TANU manifesto was for independence on the basis of non-violent, multi-ethnic politics, and the promotion of social and political harmony.

He presented the case for setting a timetable for Tanganyika independence (this being one of the specified aims set down for a UN trust territory). The publicity he gained back in Tanganyika established him as the country’s leading nationalist. In 1957 he resigned from the Tanganyika Legislative Council in protest over the slow progress independence.

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He became President of the Union (a post he held until 1977), entered the Legislative Council in 1958 and became chief minister in 1960. A year later Tanganyika was granted internal self-government and Nyerere became premier. Full independence came in December 1961 and he was elected President in 1962.

Nyerere’s Rule

Nyerere ruled Tanzania from 1964 to 1985. In May 1961, Nyerere became prime minister, and on 9 December Tanganyika gained its independence. On 22 January 1962, Nyerere resigned from the premiership to concentrate on drawing up a republican constitution and to prepare TANU for government rather than liberation. On 9 December 1962 Nyerere was elected president of the new Republic of Tanganyika.


Nyerere was a Pan- Africanist. During his rule, he attempted to integrate into African politics the traditional style of African decision making (what is known as “indaba in Southern Africa). A consensus is gained through a series of meetings in which everyone has an opportunity to say their piece.

Nyerere also expressed a fear that multiple parties, as seen in Europe and the US, would lead to ethnic conflict in Tanganyika. To help build national unity he adopted Kiswahili as the national language, making it the only medium of instruction and education. Tanganyika became one of the few African countries with an indigenous official national language.

In 1963 tensions on the neighboring island of Zanzibar started to affect Tanganyika. A coup on January 12, 1964, overthrew the sultanate and established a new republic called United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Nyerere negotiated with the new leaders in Zanzibar and agreed to absorb them into the union government. The result was the creation of the Republic of Tanzania.  Once order was restored Nyerere announced the merger of Zanzibar with Tanganyika as a new nation; the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar came into being on April 26, 1964, with Nyerere as president. The country was renamed the Republic of Tanzania on October 29, 1964.

Nyerere was re-elected president of Tanzania in 1965 and would be returned for another three successive five-year terms before resigning as president in 1985.  

As President, Nyerere had to steer a difficult course. By the late 1960s Tanzania was one of the world’s poorest countries. Like many others it was suffering from a severe foreign debt burden, a decrease in foreign aid, and a fall in the price of commodities.  He promoted his system of African socialism, and on February 5, 1967, he presented the Arusha Declaration which set out his political and economic agenda. The Arusha Declaration was incorporated into TANU’s constitution.

The central core of the Arusha Declaration was Ujamma, Nyerere’s took on an egalitarian socialist society based on cooperative agriculture. The policy was influential throughout the continent, but it ultimately proved to be flawed. Ujamaa is a Swahili word which means community or family-hood. Nyerere’s ujamaa was a program of independent self-help which supposedly would keep Tanzania from becoming dependant on foreign aid. It emphasized economic cooperation, racial/tribal, and moralistic self-sacrifice.

By the early 1970s, a program of villagization was slowly organizing rural life into village collectives. Initially voluntary, the process met with increasing resistance, and in 1975 Nyerere introduced forced villagization. Almost 80 percent of the population ended up organized into 7,700 villages.

Ujamaa emphasized the country’s need to be self-sufficient and reliant economically rather than being dependent on foreign aid and foreign investment. Nyerere also set up mass literacy campaigns and provided free and universal education.

The focus, given the nature of Tanzanian society, was on rural development. People were encouraged (sometimes forced) to live and work on a co-operative basis in organized villages or ujamaa (meaning ‘familyhood’ in Kishwahili). The idea was to extend traditional values and responsibilities around kinship to Tanzania as a whole.

In 1971, he introduced state ownership for banks, nationalized plantations and property. In January 1977 he merged TANU and Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party into a new national party – the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Revolutionary State Party).

Despite a great deal of planning and organization, agricultural production declined over the 70s, and by the 1980s, with falling world commodity prices (especially for coffee and sisal), its meager export base disappeared and Tanzania became the largest per-capita recipient of foreign aid in Africa.

Nyerere retired as president in 1985 in favor of Ali Hassan Mwinyi. But he refused to give up power completely, remaining leader of the CCM. When Mwinyi started to dismantle ujamaa, and to privatize the economy, Nyerere ran interference. He spoke out against what he saw as too much reliance on international trade and the use of gross domestic product as the main measure of Tanzania’s success.

At the time of his departure, Tanzania was one of the world’s poorest countries. Agriculture has reduced to subsistence levels, transportation networks were fractured, and industry was crippled. At least one-third of the national budget was provided by foreign aid. Howver Nyerere’s policy had its positive side, Tanzania had Africa’s highest literacy rate (90 percent), had halved infant mortality, and was politically stable.

In 1990 Nyerere gave up leadership of the CCM, finally admitting that some of his policies had not been successful. Tanzania held multiparty elections for the first time in 1995.


He had an unrelenting passion of a united Africa. Julius Nyerere also focused his efforts on unifying Tanzania’s multiple ethnic groups through the use of Kiswahili as a national language. He is referred to by his honorific title mwalimu (a Swahili word meaning teacher) because of his passion for teaching and he had a vision of education that was rich with possibility

He was committed to supporting liberation movements in Southern Africa and was a forceful critic of the apartheid regime of South Africa, chairing a group of five frontline presidents who advocated the overthrow of white supremacists in South Africa, South-West Africa, and Zimbabwe.

A committed pan-Africanist, Nyerere provided a home for a number of African liberation movements including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) of South Africa, Frelimo when seeking to overthrow Portuguese rule in Mozambique, Zanla (and Robert Mugabe) in their struggle to unseat the white regime in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

He also opposed the brutal regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. The battle against Amin was expensive and placed a strain on government finances. There was considerable criticism within Tanzania that he had both overlooked domestic issues and had not paid proper attention to internal human rights abuses.


In 1985, Nyerere gave up the Presidency but remained chair of the Party – Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). He gradually withdrew from active politics, retiring to his farm in Butiama. In 1990 he relinquished his chairmanship of CCM but remained active on the world stage as Chair of the Intergovernmental South Centre. One of his last high profile actions was as the chief mediator in the Burundi conflict (in 1996). He died in a London hospital of leukaemia on October 14, 1999. Despite his failed policies, Nyerere remains a deeply respected figure both in Tanzania and Africa as a whole.

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