By Hilal K. Süd
I mean leaders with brilliant qualities instead of dozens of robbers whose main concern after coming to power is to enrich themselves, their families, allies and friends.
Given the level of corruption in the political systems of many African countries and the ruthlessness with which its resources have been plundered and people impoverished, there is no reason to guess why, with so much wealth, Africa remains so poor.
Its resources have been looted by the very people chosen by their citizens (or those who did not vote for them) to rule them.
The Swahili proverb “Penye miti hapana wajenzi“(Literary translation: a place with many trees is usually without construction workers) fits here undeniably. After endowing the continent with vast natural resources, he apparently turned them over to the “Mafioso” to run them. Because why would He only provide a handful of brilliant guides – like one or two in a handful of countries and after about 50 years or so?
Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere was one such foundation. He was hailed by the world’s liberal left for his passionate advocacy of his style of African socialism, but mistreated by his critics as a pompous autocrat whose idealism did not bring his people prosperity.
He deserves credit for the fact that Nyerere resigned peacefully and voluntarily long before it became fashionable – albeit painfully – for Africa’s self-appointed lifelong presidents to submit to the judgment of their people in multi-party elections.
Granted, as a person he had many weaknesses, but at least it is remembered that he has given moral guidance to Tanzania and even Africa since the continent took its first shaky steps after independence.
Today we commemorate 22 years of his departure and almost two to 60 years after the night he proudly stood in the National Stadium (now renamed Uhuru Stadium) to receive the greeting as the Union Jack was lowered and the new Tanganyika flag green became black and gold, let’s take a moment to reflect on what Mwalimu meant to Tanzania.
Yes, moral guidance. Tanzania has been missing that, and I personally foresaw the signs of it almost three decades ago when I first visited Mwalimu’s Msasani residence in 1992. It was the time when I worked as a reporter and editorial assistant at The Family Mirror, a. worked fortnightly hothead in English, who rarely stayed at the kiosk for more than a few hours after landing.
The newspaper was one of the first to take to the streets – three years after the government liberalized the media.
I was among reporters attending a press conference that called Mwalimu to give his opinion on the (infamous) “Tanganyika Debate” brought to Parliament by members of the G55 group.
After registering at the main gate, we walked down the worn, tarred driveway towards the one-story building in the distance. I noticed the lawns on either side of the driveway were screaming for a mower, but most of all, the whole place looked barren and had an eerie feel to it.
Well, presidential residences are no hustle and bustle, let alone those whose residents were in their seventh year of retirement. But uncut grass?
As we approached the building, I noticed its modest appearance. At first I thought it was the servants’ or administrative wing and behind that was the actual residence. But that was Mwalimus Msasani residence, which was built under a mortgage.
It could have been any building in Magomeni or Mwananyamala that you come across and hardly need a second look.
The light green walls certainly needed a coat of paint, the mosquito nets on some windows were torn and in some places the slats were broken or missing. As we entered the hall, the dusty terrazzo floor greeted us and I wondered, is this really the residence of one of Africa’s greatest sons? I am not ready yet.
We were shown onto a porch with a view of the garden and the Indian Ocean in the distance. From the photos I saw in the Daily News and Uhuru newspapers, this is where Mwalimu, as president, met and chatted with world leaders and other dignitaries.
His famous rocking chair stood on a corner with the back facing the sea, and on either side a couple of deep sofas with wide wooden armrests – for the visitors. Does Mwalimu suffer from thalassophobia? – the sick fear of the sea? Otherwise I couldn’t explain why he hated sitting facing the ocean.
The condition of these pieces of furniture showed that they had seen better days. The leather seat of the rocking chair had to be replaced during his woodwork, and that of the sofas would have had another coat of paint. Well, was it probably because he was no longer head of state? That fewer and fewer dignitaries in the world were visiting his residence?
After we had sat down and the chairs were lacking for some, Mwalimu came down the stairs accompanied by his longtime secretary, the late Joan Wickens, an Englishwoman, then in her advanced years, and another male assistant.
We got up, we all shook his hand – that was my first time ever – and waved us to sit down, with lots of chairs missing. Most of the time during the press conference, my mind was elsewhere – trying to figure out how this truly famous man – a giant of the African struggle for independence, a man who retained his worldwide moral authority even after his vision of rural socialism stalled – live in such an undemanding environment?
Also, his way of life must have been like that throughout his presidency, and it explains a lot why he towered above many other African leaders (if not the world) when it came to moral issues and unremarkable personal habits. How can a person choose to reject a wasteful life like this? Because it was there the whole time, with the snap of a finger.
When I half listened to Mwalimu’s tirades on the G55 that he wanted to “break the Union”, that this was only possible because of his corpse, an anger built in me that was directed at the government leaders, whom he had been in charge for seven years had passed earlier.
Why did they allow him to live in the neglected environment? I very much doubt he preferred it himself because I couldn’t imagine chasing away a group of workers sent in for repairs or men delivering new furniture.
The next day, the front pages of many newspapers focused on the state of Mwalimu’s house in Msasani, rather than what he said about the G55 debate. That must have surprised him too.
A few weeks later, on behalf of my editor Anthony Ngaiza, I visited Mwalimu’s residence to receive an answer from Mama Wickens to our inquiry whether Mwalimu had any objections to the decision of the Dar es Salaam city council – at that time under the mayor’s office of Kitwana Kondo rename the historic Pugu Road after him, namely Julius Kambarage Nyerere Road.
She said: “Yes, Mwalimu disagreed, at least not if he is still alive.”
However, the city fathers simply removed the “Mwalimu Julius Kambarage” from the name tags. Sure, he wasn’t the only Nyerere born into this world. It remained Nyerere Road.
During this brief visit I also saw workers renovating the house, painting over it, changing slats, etc. So they heard the screams from the newspapers!
But that was perhaps the first and last time the residence was renovated until his death on October 14, 1999.
Many mourners who visited the residence told disturbing stories of the poor condition of the residence.
As more people gathered for the funeral, workers were busy painting walls, replacing curtains, and mending broken water pipes.
That was Mwalimu. Who among the leaders of the continent can imitate their lifestyle?