Tanzania's Julius Nyerere

Dead at 77: Independence leader tried to develop African socialism as a counterweight to capitalism.

October 18, 1999

JULIUS NYERERE was one of the founding fathers of post-colonial Africa. He had the patience of a teacher, which is what his Swahili honorific -- "Mwalimu" -- meant. The irony is that by the time he died Thursday at 77, his East African nation had largely discarded his teachings as irrelevant.

Such a harsh verdict is not surprising. The political conditions that defined the world in 1961, when Mr. Nyerere led his country peacefully to independence from Britain, have disappeared. The struggle between communism and capitalism is over. In Africa, change has come even to South Africa, the last outpost of white minority rule. Yet abject poverty and underdevelopment persist.

Like many other 1960s Third World leaders, Mr. Nyerere thought one-party socialism offered the best answer to those problems. He nationalized foreign banks, plantations and manufacturing plants -- even though he had no trained personnel to run them. He uprooted subsistence farmers from their lands, and sought to achieve literacy and medical care through a network of "ujamaa" villages.

These experiments, combined with his leadership in the nonalignment movement, won Mr. Nyerere plaudits from other socialists, particularly in West Germany and Scandinavia. Their governments flooded Tanzania with money and experts, making the country of 18 million people one of the world's leading recipients of foreign aid.

Long before Mr. Nyerere retired in 1985, it was evident his policies had failed. The one-party system was abandoned, the centralized state economy diversified.

Recognizing his country's backwardness, Mr. Nyerere kept saying Tanzanians must run while the rest of the world walks. Like "uhuru" (freedom) and "umoja" (unity), it became an international mantra. But even as it mourns Mr. Nyerere, Tanzania is still trying to figure out how to catch up.

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