By Hilal K. Sued
I mean leaders with lustrous qualities instead of dozens of brigands whose main preoccupation after attaining power is to enrich themselves, their families, allies and friends.
With the volume of corruption in the political systems of many African countries and the mercilessness with which its resources have been plundered and the people impoverished, there is absolutely no reason for guessing why Africa remains so poor amidst so much wealth.
Its resources have been plundered by the very people who were elected by their citizens (or those they didn’t elect) to govern them.
The Kiswahili saying “Penye miti hapana wajenzi” (literary translation: a place with abundance of trees is usually bereft of builders) is undeniably fitting here. After endowing the continent with vast natural resources, He apparently handed it to the ‘Mafioso’ to lead it. For, why should He deliver only a handful of radiant leaders – about one or two in a handful of countries and after about 50 years or so?
Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere was one such endowment. He was lionised by the liberal left of the world for his impassioned advocacy of his style of African socialism, but mauled by his critics as a pompous autocrat, whose idealism failed to deliver prosperity to his people.
To his credit, Nyerere stepped down peacefully and voluntarily, long before it became fashionable – though painfully – for Africa's self-appointed life presidents to subject themselves to the verdict of their people in multi-party elections.
Granted that as a human being he had many failings, but he is at least remembered for having provided a moral leadership for Tanzania, and indeed Africa, since the time the continent was taking its first shaky steps after independence.
we today commemorate 22 years of his departure, and nearly two months to 60 years from the night he proudly stood at the National Stadium (now renamed Uhuru Stadium) to take the salute as the Union Jack was being lowered and the new Tanganyika flag of green black and gold raised, let’s take a moment to reflect what Mwalimu meant for Tanzania.
Yes, moral leadership. That is what Tanzania has been lacking and I personally foresaw the signs for this almost three decades ago when I first visited Mwalimu’s Msasani residence in 1992. It was the time I was working as a reporter-cum-editorial assistant with The Family Mirror, a fortnightly hothead in English that rarely remained on newsstands for more than a couple of hours after landing.
The paper was among the first to hit the streets – three years after the government liberalized the media.
I was among reporters who attended a press conference Mwalimu called to speak his mind about the (in)famous ‘Tanganyika Debate’ tabled in parliament by legislators who had formed the G55 group.
After registering our names at the main gate, we walked along the worn-out tarred driveway towards the one-storey building standing in the distance. I noticed that the lawns on either side of the driveway were screaming for a mower, but above all, the whole place looked desolate and had an eerie atmosphere.
Well, after all, residences for presidents are not places for hectic activity, let alone this one whose occupant was in the seventh year of retirement. But uncut grass?
As we approached the building, I was struck by its modest appearance. At first I thought it was the servant’s or administration block and that the real residence was behind it. But that was Mwalimu’s Msasani residence built under a mortgage.
It could have been any building in Magomeni or Mwananyamala areas that one comes across and hardly needing a second glance.
The light-green walls were surely in need of paint, some of the windows had their mosquito netting torn, and louvres were broken or missing in some places. As we entered the hall, the dusty terrazzo floor greeted us and I asked myself, is this really the residence of one of Africa’s greatest sons? I’m not finished yet.
We were ushered into a veranda overlooking the garden and the Indian Ocean in the distance. From the photographs I used to see in the Daily News and Uhuru newspapers, this is the place where Mwalimu, as President, used to meet and chat with world leaders and other dignitaries.
His famous rocking chair was at one corner with its back facing the ocean, and a couple of deep sofas with wide wooden armrests – for the visitors – on either side of it. Was Mwalimu suffering from thalassophobia? – the morbid fear of the sea? Else I could not reason why he hated sitting while facing the sea.
The condition of these pieces of furniture showed that they had seen better days. The leather seat of the rocking chair needed replacement while its woodwork, and that of the sofas would have done with another coat of polish. Well, was it probably because he was no longer the Head of State? That fewer and fewer world dignitaries were visiting his residence?
After we were seated, with some us missing the chairs, Mwalimu came down from the stairs in the company of his long-serving secretary, the late Joan Wickens, an English lady, then in her advanced years, and another male aide.
We stood up, all of us shook his hand – it was my first time ever to do so – and waved us to sit down, with many missing chairs. As the press conference progressed, most of the time my mind was elsewhere – trying to figure out how could this truly famous man – a giant of the African independence struggle, a man who retained his worldwide moral authority even after his vision of rural socialism faltered – live in such undemanding surroundings?
Besides, his way of living must have been like that during his entire presidency and it explains a lot on why he towered over many other African leaders (if not the entire world) when it comes to questions of morality and unostentatious personal habits. How can a human being elect to be so repugnant to lavish living? For, it was there all the time, at the snap of his fingers.
As I was half listening to Mwalimu’s tirades at the G55 for wanting to “break the Union” saying they could only do so over his dead body, anger was building inside me, directed to government leaders, those he had handed the leadership reins seven years earlier.
Why did they allow him to live in the neglected surroundings? I very much doubt that he preferred it that way himself, because I couldn’t picture him chasing away a group of workmen sent for repairs or men delivering new furniture.
next day, the front page leads of many newspapers were on the issue of the condition of Mwalimu’s Msasani house and not on what he said about the G55 debate. That must have surprised him as well.
A few weeks later, on assignment from my editor Anthony Ngaiza, I revisited Mwalimu’s residence for a response from Mama Wickens to our query on whether or not Mwalimu had any objections to the decision by the Dar es Salaam City authorities – then under the mayorship of Kitwana Kondo – to rename the historic Pugu Road after him namely Julius Kambarage Nyerere Road.
She said “Yes, Mwalimu objected, at least not when he is still alive.”
However, the City Fathers simply removed the “Mwalimu Julius Kambarage” from the name plates. Sure, he was not the only Nyerere born into this world. It remained Nyerere Road.
During that brief visit, I also saw workmen doing renovations to the house, painting it over, replacing louvres etc etc. So they heard the screams from the newspapers!
But that was perhaps the first and last time the renovations were made to the residence till his death on October 14, 1999.
Many mourners who went to the residence recounted upsetting tales on the wanting condition of the residence.
As more people gathered for the funeral, workmen were busy painting walls, replacing curtains and fixing broken water pipes.
That was Mwalimu. Who among the leaders in the continent can emulate his lifestyle?