10. Nyerere and the Commonwealth – Shridath Ramphal

Shridath Ramphal became Secretary-General of the Commonwealth in June 1975 after serving as Foreign Minister and Minister for Justice in Guyana. He was a member of the Independent (Brandt) Commission on International Development Issues, 1977-83.

President Nyerere, for long the much-loved doyen of Commonwealth leaders, began to influence the course of the Commonwealth even before he had a place on its councils. On the eve of the Commonwealth summit of March 1961, as leader of the then Tanganyika awaiting its independence in December of that year, he warned that if South Africa remained in the Commonwealth, his country would opt to stay out of it. It is clear that this forthright statement of opposition to apartheid, published in a leading British newspaper, had its impact on the deliberations of that summit. The main outcome of that meeting was the exit of South Africa from the association and the Commonwealth stand has shaped both its own collective personality and the global attitude towards apartheid.

Once Tanzania became a member of the Commonwealth on independence, President Nyerere was equally forthright on other major issues of principle, most notably on the Commonwealth stand towards the Ian Smith regime in Southern Rhodesia, the sale of arms to South Africa and other policies towards South Africa including the issue of Namibia.

On the policies towards the Rhodesian minority regime, President Nyerere also set a precedent which had the effect of strengthening the Commonwealth. When in 1965 his disapproval of British policy towards the Smith regime led him to break off diplomatic relations with Britain, he continued to maintain Tanzania’s Commonwealth links. Had he done otherwise, had he equated Commonwealth links with the British connection and sundered both, the Commonwealth might well have been grievously weakened. It might well have led other countries to turn their backs on the Commonwealth in temporary dissatisfaction with the behaviour of one of its members.

By demonstrating that the Commonwealth was more than bilateral relations with one member but rather a web of relationships with all its members, and by making a distinction between links with the Commonwealth and links with one Commonwealth country, President Nyerere confirmed the essence of the Commonwealth’s contemporary character as a multilateral partnership of equals.

No other leader has had as long a period of active participation in Commonwealth activity as President Julius Nyerere. The length of service has undoubtedly been a factor in his standing with the Commonwealth, but other elements have been of greater significance.

President Nyerere has had the capacity to discern and to articulate the full potential of the Commonwealth, to hold up a vision of what the Commonwealth should stand for, and to spell out what commitment to the Commonwealth requires when it faces key issues. The people of Tanzania have given him the title of Mwalimu or teacher, and his role in the Commonwealth has not been dissimilar. But he has been a teacher without being a pedant, challenging and lively but never self-righteously preachy.

Perhaps it was his skill as a teacher which produced in 1973 a succinct description of the Commonwealth which can hardly be bettered. In President Nyerere’s words, ‘the Commonwealth is people meeting together, consulting, learning from each other, trying to persuade each other and sometimes co-operating with each other, regardless of economics or geography or ideology or religion.’

Not all, perhaps not even most, of his colleagues among Commonwealth leaders have shared his political and economic philosophy, but he has earned respect for his point of view, always put across with a sense of humour, often enlivened by the apposite analogy or the telling statistic, and argued with passion but without arrogance.

He is at his natural best when the Commonwealth meets at the summit; its milieu brings out some of his characteristic attributes: affability, the ability to be critical without being rancourous, to be combative without being abrasive and to stand for principle without being pompous, readiness to reach out to friends and critics alike; relish in the cut and thrust of unscripted discussion. It is not just that his own contributions to the debate are well-reasoned and to the point; it is always clear that he wants to engage others in discussion, not just to have his say.

These qualities are crucial to the success of summitry – to the accommodation and convergence to which summits must aspire if they are to be effective. Few people have contributed as much to the unique style of the Commonwealth summit.

President Nyerere’s contribution to the Commonwealth has been assisted by a keen appreciation of the service it could render. He has seen that the Commonwealth had a distinctive position alongside the global organisation of the United Nations and other organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 and the Organisation of African Unity. He has perceived its value as a bridge between Third World countries and developed countries, and worked to enhance its value.

He has recognised that the particular advantage of the Commonwealth was that it brought together countries with divergent interests and viewpoints; he has appreciated the value of consensus as a basis for action.

His message came through with particular force and clarity when he opened the Commonwealth Senior Officials Meeting which Tanzania hosted in 1982 in Arusha. He said:
‘If Commonwealth leaders can reach a consensus, none of us would prevent its expression in action solely because our own ally or friend would have their own reasons for disliking it. Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about any consensus position, we are not all equally free to be in the front line of any consequent action. Wean understand that. But a consensus means that everyone can live with a position; if we have participated in making it, we have some ultimate responsibility to support it domestically and internationally …. Of course we do not reach a consensus on everything we discuss, nor are we likely to do so. And I am not certainly suggesting that any Commonwealth position can or should become legally binding …. But I believe we have been moving in this direction of acting on the basis of consensus when we do reach one. What I am saying amounts to the suggestion that we acknowledge this tendency so that it can become stronger.’

President Nyerere’s remarks made a profound impact on the senior officials – from cabinet offices, the offices of Presidents and Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministries – attending the meeting. They will continue to recall the Commonwealth to recognition of its full potential for service to its members and to the world community.

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