Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and the ‘politics of religion’

THIS being the last week of October 2023; this will also be my last presentation  in commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the death of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere; in which  I  will to draw  our readers’ attention  to some of  his  teachings, mostly for the benefit of the present generation of Tanzanians who were born after his death; but also as a useful reminder to our older generation.

This is in  pursuance of what  the Holy Bible tells us,  in Ecclesiastes, 8.9 :  “Miss not the discourse of the elders, for from them thou shalt learn understanding, and how to answer questions as the need ariseth”.

Mwalimu Nyerere was, certainly, one such elder, whose discourse we should not miss; especially because of his rather special personal endowments, which are described in the writings of some of the people, mainly foreigners,  who came into close contact with him during his period of leadership. They have variously described him as follows:- “a charismatic and visionary  leader”;  and  as  “a  humanist, original thinker; teacher, and statesman;  also as a “political prophet,  an iconic leader, and had  a combination of deep  intellect,  and high integrity.

He is described also as “an accomplished orator, and a unique mobilise of people, through persuasion and the power of argument.   A scholar, who spent much of his time reading and writing books; a modest man in his personal life, who hated pomposity in his official life. And further that “he was deeply religious, a devout catholic”.

But, of course, like every other individual, he had his own faults and failings; and has been condemned  for what his critics describe as his “disastrous” economic policies  such as the “Ujamaa” policy.

One such critic was  Kenyan Professor Ali Mazrui, but he respectfully moderated his criticism  by describing it as a “heroic failure”. Julius Nyerere  was a teacher by profession;  and, through his numerous speeches and writings  he has left behind  a distinctive, indelible mark  of his  professional  teaching skills.

They together cover a large variety of subjects; ranging from politics and religion, to education, knowledge and learning.  From leadership ethics, to good governance.  They also touch on humanistic ideals; and on many other subjects.   However, because of the strict editorial limitations, we can present herein only a small selection of his teachings.

Many among our readers will probably remember some of his single-sentence philosophical ‘clips’, which are still alive and valid today, as they were at the time when they were spoken or written,  in the past decades; and thus provide reliable proof of his ingenious teacher  craftsmanship.

These include phrases such as :- “Freedom and Unity”; “It can be done, play your part”; “We must run while others walk”;  It can be done,  ‘I will try and try plus others which are better rendered in their original  Kiswahili, which include:-“Kuongoza ni kuonesha njia”;   “Heshima ya mtu ni Utu, siyo mali wala cheo”; “Kupanga ni kuchagua”;  “Kijitegemea ndio msingi wa maendeleo”;  “Fedha ni matokeo, siyo msingi wa maendeleo”;  etc. “Freedom and Unity” was the most significant independence ‘clarion call’; designed to “teach” the people of the new nation, the need, and supreme  importance,  of maintaining unity as an independent  nation. And this is what explains why it appears on the country’s Coat-of-Arms.

The other two  sayings, namely   “kupanga ni kuchaga”, and  “It can be done, play your part”, were separately  expressed in the course of  President  Nyerere’s  speech which he delivered in the National Assembly  while introducing the government’s  ‘First  Five-Year  Development Plan’, in May  1964: “Kupanga ni kuchagua” was intended to highlight the  great difficulty that the government faced in selecting what to include in (or exclude from)  that Plan, in view of the  numerous  needs and requirements for the new country’s development.   While “It can be done, play your part” was designed to urge the all the people to participate fully in its implementation.  Because the Plan appeared to be (and actually was) pretty ambitious, in view of the large number of programmes that were included, the statement “we must run while others walk,” was intended to justify this ambition.

I learnt that the saying “I will try and try again” which was often used by  Nyerere  for the purpose of encouraging (or teaching)  the  people  not to give up,  whenever  they are faced with hurdles,  or  initial  failures,  in their search for a decent  life.  Instead, they should always “try and try again”.

This saying  was a borrowing from a Kizanaki language song that tells the story of a determined young man who,  one day, was seen  marching  out of his house carrying a spear. When he  and was asked by his  close  associates who saw him  where he was going, and what he was going to do there;  the young man replied “I am going to kill an elephant”.  In obvious surprise, they asked him again:   can you really do that?  the young man replied: “well, I will try, and if I don’t succeed today, I will try again tomorrow”.

Nyerere’s  exemplary,  personal devotion to God

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s  sincere and  genuine personal devotion to God, is the main focus of today’s presentation.  This aspect was clearly manifested by his regular daily attendance at church services, especially the Holy Mass; and he probably knew the contents of the Bible, particularly the New Testament,  more than any other layman;  in view of his work  in translating that whole book into Kiswahili, with the title “Tenzi za Biblia Takatifu”.

But beyond that, he is also credited with the habit of actually practicing his belief,  in many of his governance actions.  For example, during the final months just before the country’s attainment of  independence in December 1961; he travelled privately to the Vatican in Rome, solely for the purpose of requesting the Pope, as Head of the catholic church, to put our independent country under the divine protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.

His request was granted, and that fact was announced to the public on 8th December, 1961; by His Eminence Laurian Cardinal Rugambwa, at the official celebration Mass to welcome independence. There are many Christians who believe that this divine protection, is what has provided the peace and tranquility, that we have continuously enjoyed since the achievement of independence

Further evidence of his devotion to, and trust in God, is that  he  often prayed privately to ask for God’s  guidance, when he was  making some of his most difficult governance  decisions.

The most pronounced example of this, is when he prayed privately to seek God’s divine guidance regarding his decision to allow the Tanzania Army to enter Uganda in 1979, in order to “punish” dictator Iddi  Amin Dada, who was the President of Uganda at that time, for his insolent attempt to  annex a huge chunk of Tanzania land in Kagera Region.

Bowing to pressure from the other African Presidents, Nyerere had initially decided to stop the Tanzania Armed forces to cross the border and enter Uganda on that delicate mission, as they had themselves requested him.   But this decision troubled him a great deal overnight.

Hence, when he went to church as usual early the next morning, he prayed for God’s guidance; and that is when he got the inspiration to reverse his earlier decision.  Following which, he immediately travelled himself to the Mtukula border with Uganda (where the TPDF soldiers had camped), to announce this good news personally to the anxious commanders, that he was allowing them to proceed to Kampala, as they had requested him. The full story of this event is told elsewhere in my other writings.

The politics of religion

Mwalimu Nyerere’s leadership period is divided into two distinct phases; the first of which was the relatively short period of about seven years, when he successfully led to the struggle for independence from colonialism; and the second was the much longer period of twenty-four years, when he was at the helm of our country’s leadership. I had the great good fortune, and distinct privilege, of working closely with him during the whole of this second period, and was thus in a position to observe most of the events that are described herein.

The ‘politics of religion’ initially surfaced, or raised its ugly head, during the struggle for the country’s independence, from the time of the establishment of political parties in the early 1950s. Among the parties which were so established, was the “All Muslim National Union of Tanganyika (AMNUT).

I was, at the material time, still a student at Makerere University College in Uganda,  I am therefore relying on written records, which show that this party  was formed by Muslims, who  were worried by TANU’s demand  for independence to be obtained as quickly  for fear that if that happened,  it would mostly benefit only  the Christians;  who were better educated,  and who would therefore control the government and  public service.

These were, indeed, real and genuine fears, because almost all the little education that was being offered, was obtainable only from Christian operated schools, and mainly Catholic Schools, whose policy was  to admit only catholic students; an indication that  this church considered education to be  an important vehicle for their evangelisation purposes.

Thus, it was feared that the church trained elite would occupy a disproportionate positionS in the government.  Mwalimu Nyerere himself was, apparently, deeply concerned about this situation, hence after he came to power, he took the earliest opportunity to nationalize all such schools, in order to make them accessible to by non-Christian students as well.

The ideological contest

In Book three of the biography of Julius Nyerere (co-edited by Issa Shivji, Saida Yahya Othman, and Ng’wanza Kamata, 2020); we are informed about the catholic bishops’ opposition to ‘Ujamaa’.

That book says that “the bishops’ opposition was threefold. First, ‘Ujamaa’ threatened the missionaries own personal privileges. Secondly, the clergy was opposed to Nyerere’s secular doctrine. The third, and probably their greatest worry, particularly the catholic bishops, was that ‘ujamaa’ had  opened the doors for Marxism and communism to penetrate in the country”.

On his part, Mwalimu Nyerere  labored  to  try to convince the catholic clergy, that his Ujamaa “was very much in line with Christian teachings”, since, he argued, “the church could not possibly  be serving God,  if  it sided  with social and economic injustices”.  But he was at one with the bishops on the question of communism; and went out of his way to assure them that “communism will never come to Tanzania”.

Of course, not all the catholic clergy was opposed to Nyerere’s  ‘Ujamaa’  policy. For example, there was Fr Franken, who as at that time the Principal of Morogoro Teachers College, who gave  encouragement to Nyerere by giving him a relevant  quotation from “The acts of the Apostles”: which shows  support for the ‘Ujamaa’  concepts regarding the virtues of collective ownership of property:- “Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of  any possessions,  but everything they owned was held in common . . .”

As a show of his delight and approval, President  Nyerere  cited these  verse in his 1970 Christmas cards,  which he circulated to all party and government leaders.  /  0754767576.

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