During the sometimes shaky early post-colonial rule in African nations, Julius Nyerere distinguished himself by the humble, austere lifestyle he chose and for voluntarily and peacefully stepping aside when it was time for him to do so. Though Nyerere, Tanzanian president from 1961-1985, died in 1999, his legacy lives on both in his native country and internationally.
Born into the Zanaki tribe, southeast of Lake Victoria on April 13, 1922, Nyerere’s given name was Kambarage. He attended a Catholic mission school where he was widely recognized as a gifted student, leading him to attend college at Makerere University in Kampala and later receiving a scholarship to Edinburgh University where he received a master’s degree in history and economics. (1)
Influenced by the Roman Catholic priests throughout his education, Nyerere became Catholic himself, taking Julius as his baptismal name. (1)
Nyerere began his career as a teacher in Scotland. Soon, though, he became involved in the politics of his changing African homeland, called Tanganyika and ruled by the British at that time. After winning the election as president of a social organization, Tanganyika African Association, he quickly converted it into a political party. The party became known as Tanganyika African National Union and its formation on July 7, 1954 is now a national holiday called Saba Saba, or the seventh day of the seventh month. Nyerere and his newly formed party led the peaceful and successful struggle for independence. (1)
As president and an adherent of socialism, he established a system of collective farms called ujamaas through the Arusha Declaration. Through it the government coerced people scattered around tribal lands in rural areas to collect in villages or communes where they would have access to education and medical services. Many considered the policy a failure and criticized Nyerere for it. (3)
Still, he is regarded as a man who strove for peace, unity and humanity. (4) He led Tanzania through a unification with Zanzibar. (2) Believing in national unity over tribalism, he also promoted Swahili as a national language that would supplant dozens of tribal languages. In his free time, he even translated several of William Shakespeare’s works, including Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caeser, into Swahili. (1)
Nyerere’s reputation as a principled leader grew on the international stage as well. He led his country in a struggle against the brutal dictator, Idi Amin, in Uganda in the late 1970s. In the 1980s his was one of the strongest African voices against Apartheid in South Africa. (3)
And he set an admirable example as a humble leader, perhaps an anomaly among the corrupt leaders of the world who enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens. Nyerere never received more than $8,000 in salary during his time as president. (1) After completing his tenure, Nyerere left voluntarily and then continued to work as a statesman, advocating for cooperation between developing nations and on conflict resolution on the African continent. (4)