Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Nigeria’s most captivating columnist of the 1970s who rewrote history as editor of Sunday Times of that era, once returned from Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania and thrilled his compatriots with an account of the stoic exploits of this illustrious African leader. Just like his staid gait, Ogunsanwo said, Nyerere had no airs about him to suggest he was the president of Tanzania.
This picture of an abstemious statesman sharply contradicted the Nigerian paradigm. Here, our leaders, even at the local government scene, would loot the public till to build personal empires, to satisfy their palatial palate. The predilection of our leaders for financial rape has always been there and Ogunsanwo was among a small circle of ethical journalists who railed against this evil. So the Tanzania experience had to excite this clourful columnist. Through his celebrated style of writing that nettled bad leaders and won applause from the public, Ogunsanwo said that if he placed the lifestyle of Nyerere side-by-side with what we had in Nigeria, the weight of the East African leader wouldn’t surpass the wealth of a level 9 officer in the Nigerian Civil Service. A shocked Ogunsanwo said something to the effect that the home of Nyerere had uninspiring furniture compared to what a middle level civil servant in Nigeria might offer. Nyerere’s was a study in Spartan decor.
Years later in 1999 when the beloved Tanzania leader died at 77, New York Times correspondent Michael Kaufman wrote what has gone into the books as a most charitable essay by a Western reporter on an African president who mercilessly chided capitalism as a curse on humanity, thus confirming Ogunsanwo’s point. He admitted Nyerere’s “habits of modesty and ethics.”
Kaufman wrote in the influential New York Times on October 15, 1999: “He (Nyerere) never received more than 8,000 dollars (about 8,000 naira then) a year as president. He appeared both abroad and at home wearing a grey or black safari shirt over his trousers and a white crocheted skull cap… In contrast to many African leaders who often raced their capitals in motorcades with phalanxes of motorcycle outriders, he moved around Dar es Salam (the old capital of Tanzania) in an old car with just his driver, who stopped for red lights… When he stepped down as president… he was only the third modern African leader to relinquish power voluntarily… He went neither to jail nor to exile but to a farm in Butiama, his home village near the shore of Lake Victoria.”
Julius Kambarage Nyerere was born on April 13, 1922 in a settlement in the hills of southeast of Lake Victoria. His father was 61 when he married his mother at 15. He went to Uganda’s famous Makerere University and the UK’s Edinburgh University where he earned the Master’s degree in History and Economics. He went into politics after a teaching tenure on his return from Scotland. He led Tanzania into independence from Britain in 1961, becoming the youngest of a group of Africa’s “triumphant” nationalists among them the legendary Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah whose country Ghana attained sovereignty in 1957.
Tanzanians called Nyerere Nwalimu (Teacher), for he led a paternalistic life, an exemplary one that taught them to disavow the corrupting influence of cloying opulence and capitalism. Why should a leader not identify with the sufferings of his compatriots? Why would a leader be seen only through the prism of affluence and not through sacrificial service that should leave him no time to amass wealth or go into so-called business? Why would public office be a showroom of pomp, pageantry and perquisites? Why would you be richer after holding public office than before? A true leader ought to be poorer (lighter) after shedding weight, giving away part of you in order to serve!
These considerations led Nyerere inexorably to the conclusion that Africa did not need the deadly grab-it-all spirit of capitalism and exploitation of man by fellow man. He came up with Ujamma (familyhood) socialism, which emphasized what he called “cooperative brotherhood”. Then came, in 1967, Arusha Declaration, named after a northern town where Nyerere unveiled the new deal to party leaders and faithful. The programme, a follow up to Ujamma “called for a commitment to self-reliance while establishing the leadership code, which obligated government and party officials to give up all sources of income for their salaries.”
The enforcement of this law started right in the president’s household. His wife, Maria, was the head of a woman’s organisation running a poultry business. She abandoned it immediately, to give moral armament to this campaign against corruption and rabid love of power and money. He lived by this declaration he made in Ujamma : “In acquisitive societies, wealth tends to corrupt those who possess it. It tends to breed in them a desire to live more comfortably than their fellows, to dress better and in every way to outdo them.”
On public buildings in Tanzania, Nyerere had these slogans inscribed in his war against ostentation, greed and corruption: Work is the foundation of progress. A poor country cannot rule itself if it relies on foreign help. We must run while others walk.
He invested heavily in the education of his people such that under his rule literacy “rose phenomenally and 83 percent of Tanzania were able to read and write.” It was also in Nyerere’s time that Swahili became a recognized national language. He took an unbending stand on the struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa and on the fight for independence in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia. It earned him much global respect.
So what is Nwalimu teaching us as we mark his posthumous 95th birthday on April 13, 2017?
First, African leaders, as a result of their insatiable greed for power, money and office, are responsible for their citizens’ poverty, misery and death. Secondly, Africa wouldn’t need foreign aid if its leaders and elite don’t corner our wealth to feed their sickening sacerdotal taste. In addition, we should stop blaming Europe for Africa’s underdevelopment: it is African leaders and the elites who are under-developing the continent!
Finally, change in the society does not begin with the citizen; it begins with my leader.
Ojewale is a journalist and writer in Ota, Ogun State.