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Ten years ago, on 14 October 1999, a giant died and left a cavern in our consciousness, if not in our conscience. Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a man of extraordinary achievements on a a national, continental and international scale, writes Firoze Manji, in this introduction to a special issue of Pambazuka News.

Ten years ago, on 14 October 1999, a giant died and left a cavern in our consciousness, if not in our conscience: Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, known to us all as ‘Mwalimu’, a name that, as Nawal El Saadawi points out in this issue of Pambazuka News, immediately brings to mind the other giants of the liberation movement – Nkrumah, Lumumba, Nehru, Tito, Nasser, Cabral and many others.

Mwalimu’s influence went well beyond the territory that he led to independence. Perhaps a tragedy of all great people is that they are truly recognised for their achievements only after their passing. As Tanzanian people reel under the impact of the concessions subsequent governments have made to the International Finance Institutions, as they suffer the assault of neoliberal policies, it is really only now that many have begun to realise the extraordinary achievements of the Nyerere years. Whatever criticism many of us may have had – and continue to have – about some of his policies during his lifetime, there is no getting away from the transformations that he brought about. One has only to look in neighbouring countries at the scale of theft and pillaging, the failure of the national project, the politicisation of ethnic identity, the open collusion with transnational corporations in the plunder of resources, that characterise neighbouring countries understand what efforts Mwalimu had made to prevent the same happening in Tanzania. one only has to look at the speed with which Tanzania has played catch-up once Mwalimu ended his term as president in 1985, to be reminded how different things were.

“Kambarage Nyerere,” sings Neema Ndunguru in this issue,
“How we wish you were here.
… But dear Mwalimu, why didn’t you tell us, expose and prepare us
For the turmoil and struggles that have now engulfed us?”

Nyerere was not simply a player on the national terrain. He was a pan-Africanist and an internationalist – not only in thoughts and writings, but crucially in his praxis. The support and refuge he provided to the liberation movements was unprecedented. His commitment to welcoming and integrating refugees into Tanazania life was extraordinary. And his willingness to speak out loud against injustices across the world, including – and especially – about Palestine – marks him out from the many so-called leaders who have come to be known more for their betrayal than any commitment to political principles. And consider the extraordinary act of solidarity in seeking to break the isolation of Zambia through the building of the TanZam railway – and extraordinary logistical enterprise that was a demonstration of south-south cooperation involving Zambia, Tanzania and China: there can be few comparable ventures in the history of the continent.

We should not be shy in celebrating his achievements. But at the same time, he would be the first to condemn any attempts to romanticise his period in office. This special issue of Pambazuka News seeks both to celebrate Nyerere as well as to reflect on some of the shortcomings of his policies. Since retiring as president, a whole generation of young people has grown up, many of whom have had little opportunity to read about Mwalimu, to understand why his memory evokes such emotion, and to forge their own views about his contribution.

Pambazuka News is therefore proud to be publishing this special issue on Nyerere’s legacy. And we are grateful to our guest editors, Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam, for their efforts in making this happen. They have brought together reflections of Nyerere on Nyerere, and contributions by a wide range of commentators including Salma Maoulidi, Ng'wanza Kamata, Vencesia Shule, Seithy Chachage, Haroub Othman, Issa Shivji and others.

We plan to publish this collection of articles in a forthcoming book.