Issa G. Shivji writes of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere's conceptions of nationalism in Africa, ideas which encompassed both the political through liberatory principles and the universal through transcending narrow identities. Debates around the economic success of his policies notwithstanding, Nyerere's greatest legacy, Shivji writes, was his sweeping vision of African unity.
Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere was a great nationalist of the first generation of African leaders who struggled for independence. His nationalism was rooted in pan-Africanism, which is what gave it a universal dimension transcending narrow territorial, ethnic or racial nationalisms. In his address to celebrate the 40th year of Ghana’s independence, Nyerere said:
'For centuries, we had been oppressed and humiliated as Africans. We were hunted and enslaved as Africans, and we were colonised as Africans… Since we were humiliated as Africans, we had to be liberated as Africans.'
This way of conceptualising nationalism is both political and universal. It is political in that it privileges the common experience of oppression of a people and their struggle for liberation as opposed to identity. It is universal in that it transcends narrow nationalisms based on identities of race, religion, tribe, ethnicity and even countries. In the case of Africa, in fact Nyerere characterised African countries as artificial entities, as vinchi (statelets) – as he derided them in Kiswahili – carved out by imperial powers. His clarion call therefore was for African liberation and African unity. Only thus could the African people overcome both oppression and humiliation.
This pan-Africanist nationalism found its succinct expression in the Arusha Declaration of 1967. Its rallying cry, whose echo resonated with the African masses all over the continent, including in the diaspora, was:
'We have been oppressed a great deal, we have been exploited a great deal and we have been disregarded a great deal. It is our weakness that has led to our being oppressed, exploited and disregarded. Now we want a revolution – a revolution which brings to an end our weakness, so that we are never again exploited, oppressed, or humiliated.'
This was a powerful statement. C.L.R. James described the Arusha Declaration as ‘the highest stage of resistance ever reached by revolting Blacks’, but as he said, a statement of intentions. It is true that Nyerere’s government went beyond intentions in taking concrete measures including nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and instituting the leadership code prohibiting party and state leaders from indulging in capitalist and feudalist practices such as owning shares in companies, taking directorships in private capitalist enterprises, receiving two or more salaries and owning houses for renting.
There has been considerable debate on whether or not the economic polices followed under the policy of Ujamaa or socialism were successful, whether the leaders were truly socialist or not and whether there was a genuine participation of the workers and peasants in the decision-making organs of the party and the state. Whatever the merits in this debate – no doubt some of the analysis of Tanzania’s ujamaa was powerful and irrefutable – the greatest legacy of Nyerere lies not so much in his economic policies but rather in his grand vision of pan-Africanist liberation in which African people could say: 'We have stood up!'
There are two fundamental premises of Nyerere’s nationalism. One, that African states should be able to make their own decisions, that is, to be able to exercise their sovereignty meaningfully and, two, the unity of Africa. The two are inseparable. In fact, Nyerere’s call for the unity of Africa was connected with his passion for the right of African states to exercise their sovereignty. He rightly believed and constantly argued that African mini-states would not be able to defend their sovereignty and independence without uniting. In this, he was one with Kwame Nkrumah. Unfortunately, these paragons of pan-Africanism did not succeed in actualising their vision during their lifetime. But like all great visions, today their arguments are as fresh, and perhaps, have greater relevance after the rude interruption of neoliberalism of the last two decades.
More than its economic impact, neoliberalism in Africa was a political and ideological onslaught on nationalism. For a while, it helped to rehabilitate imperialism morally, enabling it to go on a political offensive. Neoliberal policies were a frontal attack on the sovereignty and independence of African states as these states lost the basic right of a sovereign state – to make its own policy. Ironically, the neoliberal period laid bare the limits of territorial nationalism and vindicated Nyerere’s pan-Africanism – without unity, Africa would not be able to defend its independence.
Globalisation and neoliberalism have come full circle. In its extreme form of casino capitalism, neoliberalism entered a terminal state last August. As capitalist powers rewrite the rules of the game, African masses and their organic intellectuals are beginning to question the game itself. This was not possible during the neoliberal triumphalism when we were told by the Thatcherites of this world that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA). The TINA syndrome gripped African rulers, and the prospects of integration into globalisation mesmerised them. Nyerere’s successors were no exception. They joined the neoliberal bandwagon with a vengeance. The ideology of neoliberalism seemed so strong then that the Arusha Declaration was not only forgotten but unceremoniously buried as politicians set to liberalise and privatise, turning over public assets to rapacious private interests at fire-sale prices. Public goods – education, health services, water and electricity – were all turned into commodities to be sold for private profit. State coffers were emptied as politicians turned public offices into a vehicle for accumulation. Politicians became rentiers as rentiers became politicians.
As neoliberal chickens come home to roost, the popular masses are re-membering, to use Ng’ugi’s felicitous phrase, the Arusha Declaration. Whereas only two years ago, no one remembered the 40th anniversary of the Arusha Declaration, this year, at the 10th commemoration of Mwalimu’s Nyerere’s death, Azimio la Arusha and miiko ya viongozi (the leadership code) was on everyone’s lips – from the lumpens of Dar es Salaam to the learned of the university. Even the officially organised ceremonies were forced to have a token presence of the critics.
On TV talk shows and in newspaper columns, ordinary people repeated tirelessly: Mwalimu gave us dignity; the Arusha Declaration cared for us, the oppressed and the disregarded. There could not be a better tribute to Mwalimu Nyerere’s great legacy – pan-Africanist nationalism. For truly, as he once put it graphically, African nationalism can only be pan-Africanism, otherwise it is ‘equivalent of tribalism within the context of our separate nation states'.
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* Issa G. Shivji is the Mwalimu Nyerere University Professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam.
* Shivji is the author of 'Where is Uhuru? Reflections on the Struggle for Democracy in Africa'.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.