George Ivan Smith was the first Personal Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in East and Central Africa in 1960 and the first Director of the Regional Office of the United Nations based at first in Dar es Salaam. He served as the UN Representative at the inaugural meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963.
Dar es Salaam was my first base in that vast region. It was a sound base in a restless part of the world in 1961. Kenya and Uganda, still colonies, had deep tribal scars as yet unhealed. Kaunda in Northern Rhodesia and Banda in Nyasaland faced grave uncertainties in the face of the wild cowboy politics of unpredictable Southern Rhodesia.
Nyerere had begun to emerge as an individual of outstanding quality, as a person applying wise political judgement to situations, winning the respect of colonial authorities and by his example encouraging London to accelerate the advance to independence in all of its remaining colonies in Africa. Kenya and Malawi may not realise the extent to which Nyerere’s work helped them more rapidly to become independent, but that hard political fact was made clear to me during my years of intensive diplomatic activity throughout the region. Nyerere never limited his sights to his own national perspectives. He was first a continental man and second an international man, but in all matters he was inspired and guided by the human factor. It was not an ideology. It was a way of life.
Consistent honesty of purpose has made Nyerere an international figure respected very highly in the non-aligned world, but in the corridors of East-West power he was not infrequently viewed with alarm, because he would call a plague on both their houses if they used their power to try to try to deflect his country’s policies down their narrow maze of ideologies. That consistent honesty has, in my opinion, also been a source of his weakness judged in narrow political terms. Consistency is the one aim that professional politicians consistently avoid. To reveal the truth is awkward, as Eden learned at Suez, Krushchev in Cuba, various United States Presidents in Vietnam. Nyerere is no professional politician. He does not have, or use, their tricks. He does not like their tricks being used at the expense of his people. He is therefore an awkward customer to deal with.
I referred to that consistent honesty as a political weakness. That was written tongue in cheek, because I regard it as an internal and external strength. In the short run he may appear to have been cutting off his nose to spite his face, for example, in his break with West Germany when it tried to use him in its political chess game with East Germany, or with Britain when Harold Wilson was ever so slowly dragging his feet along a trail blazed by Ian Smith. In the long run, when relations have settled back to normal as they always do, the foreign powers that were being less than honest have learnt a lesson.
On my return to Dar es Salaam after a visit to the United States I told him that many Washington politicians and commentators were chary of the one-party nature of his state. He replied, ‘how strange, they have a one-party state in the United States.’ That puzzled me, until he added, ‘yes, it is a one-party arrangement, but with typical generosity they have done it twice. The Democrats and the Republicans each represent a cross-section of all the national interests. Take out one or the other of those parties and all the national interests will still find expression. We cannot afford the luxury of two parties. We still do not have enough trained people.’
In such ways he can take the ideological sting from accusations and confront his accusers with reason. Reason baffles many a man and many a nation. It defies romanticism, imperialism, marxism and all the other ‘isms’. Such an august journal as The Times, normally regarded as a journal of record, cannot understand him. He simply does not fit its expected pattern of leadership. And when The Times recounts all of the dreadful things Nyerere is alleged to have done to the economy of his country, and when soon afterwards Nyerere speaks about economic failures in Tanzania and the reasons for them, The Times position is ‘we told you so’. Just as easily and more honestly it could have written, ‘here is an African leader honest enough to come clean about the difficulties, problems and reasons.’ But awkward customers like Nyerere must expect awkward handling, because they are uncomfortable to live with. So it has always been when and where honest men have emerged into history. There are moments when their statements throw a hard light on one’s own behaviour and one wishes that they would just stop rocking the boat. The IMF must have had that feeling often and the OAU at appropriate moments.
I think I first became aware of his rare quality of honest analysis and consistent action soon after Tanganyika’s independence. ‘Uhuru’ to the masses meant a breaking of the colonial bonds and a wave of expected benefits, high wages, good homes, prosperity coming down out of the skies like ‘costly bales’ floating down from heaven to the avid members of the cargo cult in Papua New Guinea. Immediately after independence Nyerere noted with alarm that even his own political party TANU was filled with such false expectations and that politically they could drive the nation to the rocks. He had the courage to resign political leadership, putting the country in the immensely capable hands of Rashidi Kawawa for a year, while he undertook the onerous but essential task of educating the party in the political and economic facts of living.
The next example of courage and sheer honesty was when the students of Tanzania’s first University developed dreams of grandeur. Thinking that they were part of a new privileged class, they decided against national service. Nyerere was furious. Their protest march was diverted to State House. There he told them the truth. They had shown themselves to be irresponsible. They would not go back to the University now. Transport was ready to take them back to their homes and villages. In due course their families were to be asked to decide if they were now fit for the privilege of education. Back they went to learn a hard but essential lesson. Education was the privilege. Only in that sense were they privileged.
By sending them back to the family for judgement Nyerere demonstrated another foundation of his approach to Africa. He built his nation on the foundation of its past and despite the short-term problems since independence it is a nation founded on the rocks of its history and not upon the sands of modern commercialism, corruption, or passing phases of political ideologies which come and go like clerics at funerals. Tapping the wells of African history, harnessing to a nation’s needs the sturdy efforts of men and women honed by tradition and experience, is a great source of Nyerere’s strength and one that outlives the spurts of oil and money that have torn apart the patterns of human society in many parts of the world.
He started in office with a poor country. He leaves office with a poor country in material terms. Yet he leaves with his people having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. He departs without a hint of corruption. He leaves his people free from the tribal dissension which afflicts many other African states. As I watched in Africa Hall on the day the OAU began, there he sat among the Africans of the North, the West and the South. The dream had begun to come true. The continent was swirling into some recognition of its continental self. Beside him was one empty chair. It had been intended to seat his friend Olympio, but his friend had recently been murdered. To me and I feel sure to Nyerere that empty chair was a memorial to the fact that violence should have no place in Africa.
Nyerere has lived by that rule. His only use of arms was to eject Amin’s forces when they invaded his country, harmed his people and did criminal damage. When no international organisation had the guts to brand Amin as an aggressor, Nyerere with deep reluctance used arms to throw the invader back. The most peaceful of all men, he had to fight a war to fight aggression.
Nyerere is one of the most distinguished and remarkable international leaders whom it has been my privilege to meet during some forty years of international work in which I had unique chances to recognise their qualities. In my judgement Nyerere is among the greatest, whose devoted work will reap benefits for generations to come, both in his own country and world-wide; a world leader of prophetic stature.
‘Thirty-six sticks of wood might each break under the weight of a heavy burden; but what if those thirty-six sticks of wood are bound together? Then the burden can be carried safely and every single stick remain whole. These things we know; our people know them in their everyday lives. The leaders of Africa know them too.’
Julius Nyererere – State Visit to Mali, April 1965