Biography of the Week: Julius Nyerere

Biography of the Week: Julius Nyerere

Julius Kambarage Nyerere was one of Africa's leading independence heroes (and a leading light behind the creation of the Organization of African Unity), the architect of ujamaa (an African socialist philosophy which revolutionized Tanzania's agricultural system), the prime minister of an independent Tanganyika, and the first president of Tanzania.

An Early Life

Kambarage ("the spirit which gives rain") Nyerere was born to Chief Burito Nyerere of the Zanaki (a small ethnic group in northern Tanganyika) and and his fifth (out of 22) wife Mgaya Wanyang'ombe. Nyerere attended a local primary mission school, transferring in 1937 to Tabora Secondary School, a Roman Catholic mission and one of the few secondary schools open to Africans at that time. He was baptized a catholic on 23 December 1943, and took the baptismal name Julius.

Nationalistic Awareness

Between 1943 and 1945 Nyererre attended Makerere University, in Uganda's capital Kampala, obtaining a teaching certificate. It was around this time that he took his first steps towards a political career -- in 1945 he formed Tanganyika's first student group, an offshoot of the African Association, AA, (a pan african group first formed by Tanganyika's educated elite in Dar es Salaam, in 1929). Nyerere and his colleagues began the process of converting the AA towards a nationalistic political group.
Once he had gained his teaching certificate, Nyerere returned to Tanganyika to take up a teaching post at Saint Mary's, a Catholic mission school in Tabora. He opened a local branch of the AA, and was instrumental in converting the AA from its pan-African idealism to the pursuit of Tanganyikan independence. To this end, the AA restyled itself in 1948 as the Tanganyika African Association, TAA.

Gaining a Wider Perspective

In 1949 Nyerere left Tanganyika to study for an MA in economics and history at the University of Edinburgh. He was the first African from Tanganyika to study at a British university and, in 1952, was the first Tanganyikan to gain a degree. At Edinburgh Nyerere became involved with the Fabian Colonial Bureau (a non-Marxist, anti-colonial socialist movement based in London). He watched intently Ghana's path to self-government, and was aware of the debates in Britain on the development of a Central African Federation (to be formed from a union of North and South Rhodesia and Nyasaland). Three years of study in the UK gave Nyerere an opportunity to vastly widen his perspective of pan-African issues. Graduating in 1952, he returned to teach at a Catholic school near Dar es Salaam. On 24 January he married primary school teacher Maria Gabriel Majige.

Developing the Independence Struggle in Tanganyika

This was a period of upheaval in west and south Africa -- in neighboring Kenya the Mau Mau uprising was fighting against white settler rule, and nationalistic reaction was rising against the creation of the Central African Federation. But political awareness in Tanganyika was nowhere near as advanced as with its neighbors. Nyerere, who had become president of the TAA in April 1953, realized that a focus for African nationalism amongst the population was needed. To that end, in July 1954, Nyerere converted the TAA into Tanganyika's first political party -- the Tanganyikan African National Union, or TANU.

Nyerere was careful to promote nationalistic ideals without encouraging the kind of violence that was erupting in Kenya under the Mau Mau uprising. TANU manifesto was for independence on the basis of non-violent, multi-ethnic politics, and the promotion of social and political harmony. Nyerere was appointed to Tanganyika's Legislative Council (the Legco) in 1954. He gave up teaching the following year to pursue his career in politics.

International Statesman

Nyerere testified on behalf of TANU to the UN Trusteeship Council (committee on trusts and non-self-governing territories), in both 1955 and 1956. He presented the case for setting a timetable for Tanganyikan independence (this being one of the specified aims set down for a UN trust territory). The publicity he gained back in Tanganyika established him as the country's leading nationalist. In 1957 he resigned from the Tanganyikan Legislative Council in protest over the slow progress independence.

TANU contested the 1958 elections, winning 28 of 30 elected positions in the Legco. This was countered, however, by 34 posts which were appointed by the British authorities -- there was no way for TANU to gain a majority. But TANU was making headway, and Nyerere told his people that "Independence will follow as surely as the tickbirds follow the rhino." Finally with the election in August 1960, after changes to the Legislative Assembly were passed, TANU gained the majority it sought -- 70 out of 71 seats. Nyerere became chief minister on 2 September 1960 and Tanganyika gained limited self-government.


In May 1961 Nyerere became prime minister, and on 9 December Tanganyika gained its independence. On 22 January 1962, Nyerere resigned from the premiership to concentrate on drawing up a republican constitution and to prepare TANU for government rather than liberation. On 9 December 1962 Nyerere was elected president of the new Republic of Tanganyika.

Nyerere's Approach to Government

Nyerere approached his presidency with a particularly African stance. First he attempted to integrate into African politics the traditional style of African decision making (what is known as "indaba in Southern Africa). Consensus is gained through a series of meetings in which everyone has an opportunity to say their piece. To help build national unity he adopted Kiswahili as the national language, making it the only medium of instruction and education. Tanganyika became on of the few African countries with an indigenous official national language. Nyerere also expressed a fear that multiple parties, as seen in Europe and the US, would lead to ethnic conflict in Tanganyika.

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