Yesterday I met a Tanzanian man who was visiting Burundi as part of an East African Community delegation. It is always interesting to talk politics with Tanzanians, since theirs is the only country in this troubled region that has remained virtually peaceful and stable since independence. Credit the late Julius Nyerere – the country’s first president, and one of the continent’s most venerated statesmen – with leading Tanzania out of the colonial era and forging a single national identity from more than 120 disparate tribes. Sure, his collectivist utopian idea to, er, relocate millions of Tanzanians into cooperative “ujamaa” villages might have wreaked havoc on the national economy, destroyed the agricultural sector, and claimed thousands of lives. But when compared to some of the monstrous ogres of post-independence Africa which surrounded them – think arap Moi’s Kenya, Idi Amin’s Uganda, the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, and pretty much everything that’s happened in the Congo – Tanzanians can be forgiven for thinking they got off easy.
(This fascinating article from TIME magazine in 1975 examines the failures of ujamaa en media res. It includes this remarkable quote from Nyerere, who was faced with the realization that farm outputs had declined drastically, just as drought loomed.
“We have no money and we have exhausted our foreign reserves,” he declared. “If we do not have adequate rains, we will be faced with serious famine in which people will die.”)
Yet despite the failures of ujamaa, Nyerere is like the Johnny Carson of African politics. “Mwalimu” – “teacher” in Kiswahili – was Mandela before Mandela. He supported the “freedom fighters” struggling for black majority rule across southern Africa, led the route that drove Idi Amin from power, and, after formally retiring from politics, was a prime factor in nudging along Burundi’s peace process before dying in 1999.
When he stepped down in 1985, he became just the third post-independence African leader to give up power without a fight.
Odd, then, to compare the venerable Nyerere with the ruling party thugs who managed to seize power here in Burundi – and who almost certainly won’t bow out graciously should the votes not go their way this summer. Mwalimu dedicated his final years to securing peace in Burundi; and yet it was the CNDD-FDD rebels – rebels who stubbornly refused to take part in the Arusha peace process over which Nyerere presided – who ultimately seized the reins of a new, post-war Burundi.
Beyond the thuggery up top, Burundians themselves are still adjusting to the realities – and demands – of multiparty democracy. Votes are still bought and bartered for with a sort of Tammany Hall-era crudeness. The very idea of accountability – of holding elected officials to their campaign promises – is in its infant stages. The ethnic card is still played on a regular basis.
My Tanzanian friend shakes his head as he looks at the challenges.
“In Tanzania, if they believe you are going to support a particular tribe, they will get rid of you,” he says.
Here was Tanzania, ruled by the same party since independence, fretting over corruption, propped up by the crutch of foreign aid, facing food shortages and power shortages, looking, at times, worse off than the country Nyerere inherited in 1961 – here was Tanzania, in whatever stage of democratic evolution, stumbling along the right path. It was a model for Burundi to aspire to.
“People want to know about your policies,” my Tanzanian friend says of his countrymen. “If you tell them, ‘I am going to build tarmac roads all across Tanzania,’ they say, ‘Good. Now where are you going to get the money?’”
In Burundi, the follow-up question is: now that you’ve got the money, who’s going to steal it?