Mr Colin Legum is a former Associate Editor of the Observer and is now editor of the African Contemporary Record. He is the author of Pan-Africanism: a Brief Guide.
Julius Nyerere’s chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in the culminating year of his presidency of Tanzania was a proper recognition of his contribution to the ideas and development of Pan-Africanism. He assumed the chairmanship at a critical time when the fortunes of the Organisation were at their lowest ebb following the two abortive attempts to hold the 1983 summit in Tripoli and the debilitating internal conflict over the West Sahara, which had largely polarised its fifty member states. OAU summits had virtually been paralysed for several years by the amount of time taken in trying to resolve this single item on the agenda. With the Organisation’s prestige and morale sinking year by year, it had failed to offer positive leadership at a time when the continent’s economic and food situation was deteriorating alarmingly.
Nyerere set himself two major tasks as OAU chairman. The first was to end the paralysing effect of the Sahara conflict even if it meant Morocco’s temporary withdrawal, which he saw as regrettable but necessary. Since well over half the membership had voted for the admission of the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic, he felt that the time had come, not for surgery, but for a period of isolation of the offending member. His second and major aim was to ensure that the 1985 summit meeting would concentrate its attention on the continent’s economic problems. Even though he was heavily engaged in the sensitive arrangements for choosing his successor, he nevertheless made a tremendous personal effort in helping to get the basic economic documents prepared, which were to serve as a basis for decision-making at the July summit.
Despite the great diversity of policies and ideas among the fifty Heads of State, Nyerere’s special contribution on this occasion was to get a consensus on a strategy for rescuing Africa from its predicament – no mean feat! His wider contribution to the OAU was that he lifted it out of its doldrums and gave it a new lease of life.
This was the second time in three years that Nyerere had saved the Organisation. What is not well known is the role he had played in stopping the Libyan-led radicals from agreeing to split the OAU in their frustration at the failure of the second attempt to get a quorum for the aborted Tripoli summit. His combination of wisdom and good humour won the time needed to debate the Organisation’s future in the calmer atmosphere of a venue other than Tripoli.
The names of Nyerere and Nkrumah are inseparably linked as two of the leaders who had helped to plant the seeds of modern Pan-Africanism in the continent in the decade preceding independence. But while the two young men became closely associated and shared the ideal of achieving a United Africa, they disagreed fundamentally over the best ways of achieving this goal. Nyerere was less of a romantic and more of a realist than Nkrumah.
In the 19508 the Pan-African movement had become divided between the so-called radicals, led by Nkrumah who rejected any arragements that did not begin with acceptance of political unification of the independent states, and the functionalists, who accepted the need for a more pragmatic, step-by-step approach. As Nyerere was a leading spokesman for the functionalists, it was inevitable that he should come into conflict with Nkrumah. At first this was a low-key, muted disagreement over means, not aims, but the arguments grew sharper as the ideas for which both men stood came closer to practical implementation.
The first clash came over Nyerere’s sponsorship of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECA) which he had helped to launch in 1961. Nkrumah argued that such regional organisations and, indeed, all regional federations were divisive and would impede political unification. Nyerere insisted that federalism and regional organisations were necessary bricks in bulding the structure of a united continent.
At the founding conference of the OAU in May 1963, when Nkrumah passionately insisted on political unification as the first step towards continental unity, Nyerere replied:
‘There will be some who will say that this Charter does not go far enough, or that it is not revolutionary enough. This may be so. But what is going far enough ? No good mason would complain that his first brick did not go far enough. He knows that a first brick will go as far as it can and no farther. He will go on laying brick after brick until the edifice is complete.’
Although Nkrumah reluctantly agreed to sign the OAU Charter, he did not abandon his campaign for political unification despite all the evidence that this idealistic concept was not on the immediate agenda of practical politics. When Nkrumah vigorously pressed his demand for Union Government at the OAU’s second summit meeting in Cairo in 1964, he drew the unusually ascerbic response from Nyerere:
‘At one time I used to think that we all genuinely wanted a continental Government of Africa; that the major difference between us was how to bring it about. I am afraid I am beginning to doubt that earlier assessment of mine. I am becoming increasingly convinced that we are divided between those who genuinely want a continental government and will patiently work for its realisation, removing the obstacles one by one, and those who simply use a phrase “Union Government” for the purposes of propaganda.’
Nyerere has always been careful not to claim too much for the OAU, but at the same time he has also shown impatience with those who seek to minimise its achievements. During a visit to the Ivory Coast in 1968 he admitted that it was true that after the OAU was formed ‘we tried to go too fast’, but he believed that the lesson had been learned.
‘The OAU represents only the first plank of wood across the chasm of disunity; we must guard the plank, but we must gradually strengthen it before we put too much weight upon it.’
On another occasion, in a speech to the Liberian parliament, he deplored the fact that ‘we used the OAU to talk big, as if we imagined that the enemies of free Africa would be frightened by our big words. But we could not follow up that big talk even by small action, so we harmed and discredited the thing we had created.’
Nyerere’s stinging rebukes were not restricted to the ‘big talkers’ in the OAU, but were directed even more against African leaders who used the Organisation’s injunction against interfering in each other’s internal affairs to shut their eyes to abuses of human rights within the member states. This sense of outrage turned to cold anger when the OAU decided to proceed with earlier plans to hold its 1975 summit meeting in Kampala after President Obote’s overthrow. Under the Organisation’s convention, this meant that Idi Amin would automatically become the chairman of the OAU and so the spokesman for Africa. Together with Presidents Samora Machel, Sir Seretse Khama and Kenneth Kaunda, he decided to boycott the meeting. A memorandum giving the reasons for this decision warned that Africa was in danger of becoming unique in its refusal to protest about crimes committed against Africans ‘provided such actions are done by African Leaders and African Governments.’ It went on to say: ‘Tanzania cannot accept the responsibility of participating in the mockery of condemning colonialism, apartheid and fascism in the headquarters of a murderer, an oppressor, a black fascist and a self-confessed admirer of fascism.’
This trenchant onslaught against double standards is characteristic of the moral tone which Nyerere has unfailingly attempted to inject into the public life of his own country as well as of Africa and the wider international society.
Nyerere has also been consistent in pursuing his commitment to Pan-Africanism in one other major respect, by making Tanzania the first of the front-line states to serve as a base for waging the liberation struggles of Southern Africa. When Bel Bella stirred the founding conference of the OAU by calling on Africans to ‘die a little’ for the cause of liberating Africa from colonialism, Nyerere was the first to respond by committing his country and himself to this appeal. He has never weakened in that stand. As the headquarters of the African Liberation Committee, Tanzania has played a crucial role in the successful struggles for the liberation of Mozambique and Rhodesia and in bolstering the freedom fighters of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. In the course of the following passage, Nyerere has perhaps unwittingly written his own epitaph as a PanAfricanist:
‘It is only by agreement that a United Africa can be achieved. The twentieth century is littered with the wrecks of Federations which have failed because they were not based on the will of the people involved, or because they were not strong enough to stand against the prevailing winds of international politics and economics. And it must be quite clear to everyone that the achievement of unity will not of itself solve the problems of Africa. It will merely enable them to be solved by Africa … Despite all the difficulties, Africa must unite. And it must move forward as swiftly as is consistent with safety on this rocky mountain path. The people of Africa today, and particularly its leaders, have a duty to their ancestors and to their descendents, which they must not fail to carry out. The man whose contribution merits a footnote in the history of United Africa will deserve more of the future than he whose obstinacy, fear or pride prevents or delays the day when that history can be written.’
‘The proposal coming before this Summit Meeting is that we should seek an international conference on Africa’s debt problem. But the important thing is that Africa should act in unity in relation to Africa’s creditors. This is essential, for our creditors do act together in the Paris Club and under the leadership of the IMF. Surely, if the strong recognise the need to work together in their dealings with the poor, the latter should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to do the same in their dealings with the rich …. For without unity there is no real survival for Africa.’
Julius Nyerere – 21st Summit Meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, 1985