Julius Nyerere’s song must not die, let freedom reign

Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. [Courtesy] 

We grew up on songs and dreams, we who were the children and youth of the 1960s, all the way to the early ‘1980s. We believed in angels and in the goodness of people. We often crooned along with the Swedish troupe they called ABBA, singing about angels, fairy tales and bright futures.

 “I have a dream, a song to sing,” they sang, “To help me cope with anything. If you see the wonder of a fairy tale, you can take the future, even if you fail.” It was so tantalizingly exquisite, so futuristically promising. The world could be a good place, despite the imperfections that we saw everywhere. 

No, life was not an endless drama of pain. Destinations of happiness waited for those who dreamt dreams of personal joy and even of happy societies. Here in East Africa, we looked up to Tanzania, under the iconic Julius Nyerere. We lionised and idealised him. As brash undergraduates, we were swooned by Ujamaa and anything sounding socialist. Never mind that we may not quite understand clearly the various strands of socialist and communist thinking. 

Nyerere was our hero, Tanzania the node of African personhood and liberation. It was the one place where being human was celebrated as an end in itself. “Ujamaa is humanism,” Nyerere’s credo went, “Imperialism is bestiality.” We agreed. It was as a mark of that humanism that African freedom fighters chose Dar as their refuge. Dar-es-Salaam was to Frelimo and to the African National Congress what Accra was to Amilcar Cabral’s Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. They all embraced a socialist dream. The active ingredient was public interest. Public interest itself seemed best insured in a socialist cover. 

Our moment of disillusionment came in 1986. As postgraduate journalism students, our class did a road trip to Tanzania. We travelled across the country by bus. The concord, as we called it, took us all the way to Dar-es-salaam through Namanga, Arusha, Moshi, Korongwe and the Usambara Highlands. We came back to Kenya via the Tanga and Lungalunga. We saw a sleepy laid back country. 

Not diminished, however, was our respect for Mwalimu Nyerere’s belief in the public good. His efforts to expand the coordinates of freedom remained sacrosanct. “You can see the wonder of a fairy tale, even if you fail,” ABBA had taught us. Here, you were reminded of the crooner’s words:

I Have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through, reality
And my destination, makes it worth the while
Pushin’ through the darkness, still another mile.

The Tanzanian dream, and Africa with it, was passed on to Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Benjamin Mkapa, Jakaya Kikwete, John Pombe Magufuli and now to Samia Suluhu Hassan. But did Magufuli have a distorted version of the Tanzanian dream? 

They have said that he was the president of the downtrodden. What they don’t say was that Magufuli was steadily degenerating into a strongman and a dictator. The late President’s heavy hand against civil liberties and human rights is being allusively discussed in diverse media forums. It will no doubt be documented in orderly accounts in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, the ball rests with the new president. It is delightful to see a self-possessed head of state.  Mama Samia is not given to the verbal volcanic eruptions that typify leadership in Africa. She speaks with aplomb, dignity and decorum.

President Suluhu is reviewing some of the more extreme positions that her predecessor took. She has appointed a task force to look into the Covid-19 situation. Magufuli was a red-eyed dyed-in-the-wool corona-skeptic. It is common sense that Tanzania has lost lives as a result. People feared Magufuli. They could not advise against his draconian stands. His ban on the media also appeared lifted, for a short while. Then came a “clarification.” They will do better than this.