Burton on Bjerk, 'Julius Nyerere'

Paul Bjerk
Eric Burton

Paul Bjerk. Julius Nyerere. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017. 168 pp. $14.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-2260-1.

Reviewed by Eric Burton (Universität Wien) Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2018) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50044

Julius Nyerere

Paul Bjerk’s short political biography of Tanzania’s first and long-time president Julius K. Nyerere (1922-99) is a highly welcome and urgently needed addition to the historical literature on African politicians. It appears in the series Ohio Short Histories of Africa which has already brought forward brief volumes on political figures such as Steve Biko, Haile Selassie, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. For few of them do we have well-researched biographies, and the same has been true—with the exception of his early years—for the case of Nyerere.[1] Well written and accessible to a broad audience, Bjerk’s contribution charts Julius Nyerere’s rise from being one of many sons of a chief in rural Tanganyika (as the country was called before its union with Zanzibar in 1964) to becoming a leader of the nationalist movement which made Tanganyika the first independent country in East Africa by 1961. As Bjerk emphasises, this was a notable strategic achievement, as independence was still thought to be decades away in 1958 and was eventually achieved without bloodshed or any major conflicts with the British.

Following a slightly unfocused introduction (“Mwalimu Nyerere: A Study in Leadership”), Bjerk takes the reader through five chapters following Nyerere’s life chronologically, beginning with his early years in Tanganyika and educational journeys to Uganda and Scotland (“Coming of Age in an African Colony, 1922-53”). The second chapter shows how Nyerere paved his country’s road to independence and mitigated threats to the sovereignty of the young nation from within and without (“TANU and Tanzanian Independence, 1954-64”). The succeeding chapters detail Nyerere’s turn to authoritarianism as he tried to implement a home-grown socialist model of development (“Ujamaa and the Race for Self-Reliance, 1965-1977”), his failure to recognize the effects of the failing economic policies on the fabric of society (“Confronting a Continent in Crisis, 1978-1990”), and his activities as an elder statesmen of regional importance (“An Unquiet Retirement, 1991-1999”).

Pressed between the covers of a book of 150 pages, the crucial question is how Bjerk approaches a life as rich and influential as Nyerere’s. The answer is: through national politics. Bjerk treats Nyerere “as a symbol of leadership and its perils,” as an example that shall “serve as a case study of an African country confronting the challenges of its independence, as seen through the life of one of the era’s most creative and thoughtful politicians” (p. 10). To be sure, the book does point out repeatedly Nyerere’s regional and global roles as a pan-Africanist supporter of liberation movements and champion of nonalignment who struggled for the unity of the poor global South against the rich global North, wanting to change the rules of the world economy. For the most part, however, the biography places Nyerere in Tanzanian debates, tensions, and dynamics—which, in turn, were so much shaped by him. The book thus also serves as an introduction to Tanzania’s postcolonial politics, albeit one that, quite understandably given the limited space, privileges the president’s views and mentions other Tanzanian politicians or social and cultural aspects only in passing.

Every biographer renders a verdict, and Bjerk is careful to base his judgement on several factors. Nyerere is portrayed as a benevolent, even humanist dictator whose power relied more heavily on ideology than on intimidation or violence. His major faults, in Bjerk’s view, related to his stubbornness and an inadequate understanding of economic issues and their impact on society. Bjerk finds that Nyerere responded to the economic crisis “as a moralist” by blaming individuals for their misbehavior rather than adjusting flawed policies (p. 107). As president, he failed to come up with viable alternatives to the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and showed little understanding for the creative strategies of Tanzanians to make ends meet when both the state and the economy failed to deliver. While this view on Nyerere’s actions is thus balanced and often critical, Bjerk’s judgement softens considerably in the course of the final pages. He highlights that Nyerere “implemented radical new politics in pursuit of a peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive society” (p. 147). In the end, the biographer even affirms the myth of Nyerere as the Baba wa Taifa (father of the nation) who succeeded in navigating the fault lines of religion and ethnicity, and “built a stable nation” whose peacefulness is portrayed as the legacy of its founding father’s leadership (p. 144). Readers thus go away with the impression that Nyerere's socialism worked as a nation-building tool but failed as economic model.

As Bjerk bases the biography not only on secondary literature but also on original research, there are many references to archival materials (mostly from the United States) and interviews with Tanzanians and other contacts of Nyerere. Due to its readability, brevity, and appealing portrayal of the complexities of politicking, the book is well suited for classroom use, but it is also of interest to those already familiar with Tanzanian history. They might get new insights—at least this reviewer did—on the Uganda War and Nyerere’s impact on shaping Ugandan politics after Idi Amin. The book can be wholeheartedly recommended to students of political biographies, postcolonial politics, decolonization, and African contemporary history, and anybody interested in socialist thought and experiments across the globe.


[1]. Tom Molony, Nyerere: The Early Years (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2014); Paul Bjerk, Building a Peaceful Nation: Julius Nyerere and the Establishment of Sovereignty in Tanzania, 1960-1964 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015).

Citation: Eric Burton. Review of Bjerk, Paul, Julius Nyerere. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50044

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