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In an interview with Nawal El Saadawy of Egypt's El Mussawar first published on 19 October 1984, Mwalimu Nyerere discusses Palestine, Tanzania's relations with Libya, and Africa's economic woes.

Nyerere's name brings to my mind the names of the leaders of the 1960s: Nkrumah, Lumumba, Nehru, Tito, leaders who, with Gamal Abdel Nasser, led the two huge continents of Africa and Asia towards unity within the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of African Unity. Those years were full of hope; then came the seventies to abort these hopes. Now we are in the eighties and Africa is being buffeted more and more by crises as heavy as the waves of the sea in a storm. Now the continent which is rich in natural resources suffers from problems of food supply. Nyerere rules his country, Tanzania, like the captain of a ship, steering his vessel to avoid the deep currents and the whirlpools. In doing so, he has made his country an island of stability while still continuing to be an African leader who has never stopped struggling.

When you meet him, he is as calm as the waters of Msasani Bay where he lives in Dar es Salaam, and as delicate as a poet. He also writes poetry. He is as simple as a child when he laughs, and as modest as are the truly great. When you sit with him, you yourself feel great; he never seeks to dominate you but gives you all the space in which to be yourself.

He greatly admired Nasser; they worked together for the liberation of the African continent from colonialism. Many times during the last twenty years he has played an historical role in preventing the division of the OAU.

Although his country is poor in financial resources, he has consistently refused to accept foreign aid under unacceptable conditions or at the expense of his country's independence. He rejected West German aid and turned it down for the sake of Zanzibar's independence; he sacrificed British aid for the sake of Rhodesia's independence; he continues to resist Reagan for the sake of Namibian and South African independence. And for the sake of his support for the Palestinians, he sacrifices much. During the October 1973 (Arab-Israeli) war, he spoke up against Israel and closed the Israeli embassy in Dar es Salaam. In 1974, he opened the Palestinian embassy whose flag still flies in the capital.

I sat down beside Julius Nyerere at the hour before sunset on the terrace of his house by the sea, the mango and the papaya trees and tropical flowers around us in profusion. He has lived in his own house in Dar es Salaam for the past twenty years-from soon after independence. Behind me was a blackboard where his children used to write and in the corner was a huge receiver-set through which he can follow debates in Parliament. There were no carpets on the floor; the leather-covered chairs were old. I called him "Mwalimu Nyerere" as his own people do. He is kind-hearted and has a sense of humour. He laughed frequently while commenting on the contradictions of our world. I forgot I was with a head-of-state. The hour-and-half passed by very swiftly. And so I began with my questions.

NAWAL EL SAADAWY: We have followed closely the support you have constantly given to the Arabs. You never stopped supporting Egypt even though you did not like Camp David. You have also always supported the cause of the Palestinians. How do you see their struggle?

JULIUS NYERERE: We have never hesitated in our support for the right of the people of Palestine to have their own land. Our generation was a generation of nationalists struggling for the independence of our own countries- that is what we were there for. But the plight of the Palestinians is very different and much worse. When we were fighting for our independence, I was IN Tanzania, Kenyatta was IN Kenya. Even now, the Namibians and the South Africans are in their OWN country. But the Palestinian plight is more terrible and unjust; they have been deprived of their own country, they are a nation without a land of their own. And therefore they deserve the support of Tanzania and the entire world. The world must hear their voice and give them understanding and support.

As for supporting the Arab world, you must remember that I believe very strongly in unity. Sometimes, I am accused of supporting unity for its own sake but I believe that unity is an instrument of liberation. And the oppressed must not easily give up their unity-only the enemy can rejoice at its loss. One of my major statements on unity was made in Cairo in a speech at Cairo University in 1964. At that time, both Nasser and Nkrumah were getting impatient with the "reactionaries" in our continent but I said we should not have a confrontation with other African countries; they were a part of us and we all had to live with each other.

Many years later, when some Arab countries tried to have Egypt expelled from the OAU, I defended the unity of the OAU. We can criticize Egypt, I said, but we can never expel an African state from the OAU- where will it end? Similarly, during the Non-Aligned Summit of 1979 in Havana, there was an attempt on the part of some Arab countries to expel Egypt from the Non-Aligned Movement. I was asked to join them but I argued that Egypt was a member of the OAU and as such could not be expelled from the Non-Aligned Movement.

We will destroy the OAU, and our unity through it, if we begin expelling each other. Egypt is a vital member of the Arab world and of Africa. Sadat went too far in embracing Israel; he was alone because of this; the Arab countries felt betrayed by him. But Africa too lost Egypt-it made a tremendous difference to us, this absence of Egypt. What is the OAU without Egypt? Egypt was a pillar of the OAU, of the Non- Aligned Movement. Earlier this year, President Mubarak came to visit Tanzania, his visit was a success and I believe he is now playing an important role in the Arab world and in Africa.

NAWAL EL SAADAWY: What about your relations with Libya?

JULIUS NYERERE: We have never cut our relations with Libya; Gaddafi got entangled in the Uganda war against us without really meaning to. Idi Amin was a good actor and pretended Uganda was a Muslim country; amazingly many other countries were also taken in by him. Uganda is not a Muslim country, it is a Christian country, almost as Christian as Southern Sudan. I tried to explain all this to Gaddafi in 1973 when I met him for the first time in Algiers during the Non-Aligned Summit. He had some very vague ideas then about Tanzania. He thought that during the revolution in Zanazibar (1964), Christians had fought against Muslims. I told him that Zanzibar was 99% Muslim and the Zanzibaris, during their revolution, had got rid of their feudalists just as he had got rid of the feudalists in Tripoli in 1969. I wanted to explain this and so get Gaddafi off that hook. He also felt that Tanzania was a Christian country because I am a Christian. But we are very mixed in Tanzania and we have three times more Muslims here than in Libya. But we are also very secular and we do not believe that politics and religion go together in that sense. During the Uganda war, I never wanted to make a big issue out of Libya's involvement in it. Since then, I have tried to get our friend Gaddafi to understand and I think he now has a greater appreciation of what is happening in this part of the world.

NAWAL EL SAADAWY: There is no doubt that African unity is now facing another crisis, especially with the signing of the Nkomati non-aggression pact between Mozambique and South Africa. What are your views on this?

JULIUS NYERERE: Up to 1980, the liberation struggle went extremely well and we achieved the independence of Zimbabwe. We were then very optimistic about Namibia's independence. And in a sense, we had South Africa on the defensive. Now the situation has changed. South Africa is on the attack. It is bad enough that she is on the offensive against her own people inside South Africa and Namibia; but she is also on the attack against the Frontline States, with full American support. The Americans are backing South African aggression against us - they approve of this policy. So the destabilization is succeeding. We do not like what is happening in Mozambique but the South Africans and the Americans are jubilant. We understand why the Frelimo government was forced to reach some agreement with South Africa, but we can no more rejoice at this than could the Arabs over Camp David. The Americans support South Africa and are now saying how wonderful it is that there is an agreement between South Africa and Mozambique! It is a source of humiliation for us but of jubilation for them - this defines their attitude towards us as human beings.

For Mozambique, thing have got worse since Nkomati, and Angola has learnt its lesson from this- that to let the Cubans leave Angola now would be suicide. So there will be no independence for Namibia because of the American linkage (the Reagan government's link between the departure of Cuban forces from Angola and the settlement of Namibian independence as per UN Resolution 435). South Africa's interest in Angola is to get rid of the MPLA government and install UNITA instead, an ambition shared by the Americans. So we will continue the struggle and we will continue to avoid the division of the Frontline States. We do not want the American-supported offensive to divide us as Camp David divided the Arabs. We believe in unity and so we will remain together.

NAWAL EL SAADAWY: The economic problems facing Africa and the Third World are getting worse. America leads the countries of the North in hindering all progress in the South. How do you feel about this now?

JULIUS NYERERE: These problems are enormous and I do not feel optimistic. We are not going to see much movement - or even sympathy - from the North about our problems in the next few years. The arguments for change are there and are well-known but we will not see any change because the Americans(of the Reagan regime) do not want any change. And this suits the other countries of the North. They do not like America's attitude towards their own problems but they are not willing to move ahead without the US and adopt policies for the benefit of the South which the Americans oppose.

This was clear to me at the North-South Summit in Cancun (Mexico 1981). There, some 22 countries of the North and the South met to see whether we could get the main leaders of the industrialized world to appreciate our problems and so do something about them. Prior to Cancun, there had been two meetings, the Commonwealth Summit at Melbourne (hosted by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser) and the meeting of the Industrialized Seven at Ottawa (hosted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), where some basic ideas had been hammered out.

At Cancun, it was clear to me that the major leaders of the North, Canada, France, UK, Japan, fully understood the situation and accepted the need for action on the specific problems of global negotiations and an energy affiliate for the World Bank. There was a general consensus on these points but Reagan, alone, opposed us and that was that. It was then also clear to me that the other members of the North were not prepared to move without the US; the Americans have the veto and therefore we will see no movement.

But I am also pessimistic about the South. Just as the North, so the Third World too is afraid of moving in spite of the fact that we possess so many resources. It is not a question of money either - the Third World has it too. At one time, there was the suggestion of a tri-partite form of cooperation to help the Third World develop through a combination of European technology, Arab money and African raw materials. But we have only ourselves to blame; we lack the will to use our own resources for our own liberation.

NAWAL EL SAADAWY: It is clear that your concepts of socialism and democracy are your own, based on the belief that socialism can be realized without class conflict and democracy without a multi-party system. Are your ideas still the same or have they changed after 30 years of practical experience?

JULIUS NYERERE: My political education was of the Western liberal type up to the time of independence and so I believed in the multi-party model. But in the struggle for independence, we organized our independence party extremely well. We then found ourselves in the ridiculous position of behaving as if we had a multi-party system with only one party!

So we decided, out of necessity, to legalize the fact that we were a single party. Ironically, it was necessary for us to do this in order to introduce some form of democracy into the country because otherwise, our own TANU party would have continued to win all the seats - no other party ever acquired a single member and we were returned unopposed.

In Parliament too, we behaved as if there was another party in the House but there was no debate there at all because there was no opposition. This was a ridiculous situation so we had to legalize the one-party system and then have opposition inside it in order to have democracy and debate. This has had extremely good results. It has given this country one of its major strengths--unity.

Of course unity is based on many different things but the unity we have built through the one- party system has been a very strong one because it has also allowed the party to articulate the reasonable aspirations of the majority of our people. Philosophically speaking, I am not a believer in the one-party system exclusively; my own inclination is towards a multi-party system but I do not regard that system to be the only way to democracy. We have tremendous debate and opposition in our party; we are a mass party, not a vanguard party, and we have the whole spectrum of opinions in our party of two million members. This fact has also helped us to contribute to the struggle for liberation - our mass party gave us the unity necessary for this.

As for socialism, my first contact was with European, mainly British, socialism, not with the socialism of Marx and Lenin. When I started the movement towards independence, we talked of independence, not socialism, about which we had some vague ideas. This was not altogether a bad thing, I believe, because it allowed us to form our own ideas after independence and in the face of the real problems that came to us, rather than through a particular theory. Hence the Arusha Declaration which is a very simple document having two parts: one on socialism and another on self-reliance. It is not a profound theory but a way of dealing with practical problems which arose after independence. For example, soon after independence, we realized that civil servants expected to have the right to earn rent from the houses they had built through receiving government loans. We had to explain that this was wrong and so the Arusha Declaration says that everyone should work for his or her living. This causes a lot of trouble but it is very simple and still very relevant.

The principle of self-reliance came in response to the fact that, after independence, our members of Parliament began demanding money all the time. This was clearly an impossible demand-we all have to depend on ourselves everywhere-in the regions and the villages. So we decided to formulate the need for self-reliance as a principle. So I have nothing to change here -the need for self-reliance at all levels has never been more vital. What has gone wrong with the Arusha Declaration is that it is not being carried out; it remains relevant and I would not change a comma if I were to re-write it now.


Listening to President Nyerere, I remembered the speech he gave last week at the All African Women's Conference in Arusha. This speech reflects to a great extent the fundamental ideas rooted in African culture, ideas which have always emphasized dialogue and discussion rather than mere obedience. In this speech, Nyerere also showed the links that exist between the three problems of an unjust international economic system, of poverty and of the exploitation of women. He underlined the fact that every oppressed group in history has obtained its freedom through its own will and efforts. And so the African woman will have to liberate herself through her own struggle, just as the Third World must fight for its own economic emancipation.

After the Arusha meeting, I returned to Dar es Salaam where I began to hear that Nyerere was planning to resign as President next year and to devote himself to leading the Party, CCM. And so I asked him about this.

JULIUS NYERERE: It is true I am going. I am not very old; I am 62, but that is not the point. The point is that I have been leading my country since the beginning of the struggle for independence 30 years ago and since the union with Zanzibar 20 years ago. So I think by now I have probably done all that I can do to help my country. One could go on but I do not believe that "going on" is the issue. It is so much more important to look at the future, to begin to look forward to a new leadership to deal with the new problems. I was not even intending to stand as President at the last elections in 1980; so I said publicly then that the 1980-85 term would be final. There is a lot of pressure on me but I believe I have to help Tanzania to look to the future and to get away from the fear of "what happens". I do not like this fear. My enemies and the enemies of Tanzania want me to go because then every thing will stop; the socialism, the unity, the liberation. This is nonsense. I would want to retire if only to prove them wrong! But next year, I believe I should take one step back and remain Chairman of CCM until 1987. I believe a younger person should take over as Head-of-state.


Nyerere has said elsewhere that a strong party is important because it is in this way that people can take part in achieving social justice and development. We all have the right to this but history shows that it is not enough to have the right; we must also have the power to exercise our rights, the power that comes only through unity and continuous resistance.

In the plane going back to Cairo, I felt so optimistic. I saw the Nile extending from its source in the heart of Africa to reach Egypt, the African-Arab state. And on the horizon of the eighties I saw our hopes extend, the hope of Egypt returning to her rightful place in the heart of the Arab world - and Africa.


* Dr Nawal El Saadawy is a writer–feminist–activist, (and a medical doctor-psychiatrist by profession) who has just returned to Egypt after three years in political exile. In 1984, she came to attend the All Africa women's meeting, held in Arusha in preparation for the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985. Mwalimu Nyerere officially opened this Arusha meeting and afterwards was interviewed by El Saadawy in Dar es Salaam.
* This article comprises an interview originally published in the Cairo-based Egyptian weekly magazine El Mussawar on 19 October 1984.
* Translated from the Arabic by Nawal El Saadawy.
* This article will be a contributing chapter to a forthcoming Pambazuka Press book entitled 'Nyerere's Legacy', edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.