Will the real Julius Nyerere please stand up?

March 23, 2009

Julius Nyerere

Julius Nyerere

If you’ve read my review of Paul Collier’s two most recent books, “the Bottom Billion” and “War, Guns and Votes” then you’ll be aware that I wasn’t persuaded by their author’s arguments. In fact, I found them to be rather shabby attempts to refurbish outdated and frankly imperialistic ideas, along with hackneyed old economic solutions which are pretty certain to fail. Well, to fail in delivering equitable growth, that is. Profitability is another matter.

Just as an addendum to that review, I couldn’t find space to make this observation, but it’s well worth jotting down, if only to highlight a certain elasticity (amounting perilously close to inconsistency) in Collier’s scholarship.

In “the Bottom Billion,” Collier writes of Tanzania under Julius Nyerere that it shared the characteristics of Mao’s China. Mao, by the way, apparently “hurled China into ruin, to an adoring chorus from the western media” – one of Collier’s more astounding straw man arguments, but that’s not the major point. The point about Tanzania is more telling. Nyerere had constructed a pretty stagnant, bureaucratised form of state socialism, which “Tanzanians of ability and courage” managed to challenge and dismantle during the 1980s and 90s. Again, their slow progress was hampered by “Western Marxists who flattered the government into complacency” – another embarassing foray into the history of the Left.

So Nyerere was, according to Collier, a pretty bad lot. He quotes a reformer as saying of those pesky Marxists, “If they think it’s so wonderful, why don’t they come and live here?” which seems to signify a fairly harsh verdict on Nyerere as a leader.

So it is all the more surprising to find the same Paul Collier lauding a certain Julius Nyerere in “War, Guns and Votes” as a “visionary” leader who “completely uprooted” the “colonial system of enhancing the power of the tribal chief” and sought to replace it with a Tanzanian identity, melding a variety of ethnic identities. Collier perhaps rightly sees this as a key factor contributing to Tanzania’s relative stability since Nyerere’s demise. Hence, Nyerere showed “what could be done by leadership.”

Later in the book, Collier recommends Nyerere’s strategy of promoting a pan-African as well as Tanzanian identity (or Kenyan, or Congolese) as a model for all societies of the Bottom Billion (well, those in Africa at least). Taking another swipe at the western Left, he snipes that “In our guilt-ridden enthusiasm for multi-culturalism we may have forgotten that the rights of minorities rest on systems that depend upon the prior forging of an over-riding sense of common nationality.”

Now Collier’s elastic verdict on Tanzania and Nyerere could be construed as an indication of his intellectual subtlety, and his generosity in apportioning credit where credit is due. Yet I suspect that it is more likely to indicate a fondness for picking cherries where they grow, in order to serve his intellectual task. It is also an indication of the confusion that underlies his work.

After all, if countries which adhere to his ideal of “good governance” in economic matters then turn out to have utterly failed to inspire a sense of common purpose or community amongst their peoples, this may be a hint that those governance policies had more consequences than their proponents initially suggested. It could turn out that neo-liberal land reform measures – which often work via empowered local “chiefs” and accentuate existing inequalities – damage local communities and set ethnic groups against each other in competition for increasingly scarce resources.

It could turn out that “good governance” is not so good after all.

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