Skip to main content

Review of Building a Peaceful Nation


By Jane Plastow

Building a Peaceful Nation: Julius Nyerere and the establishment of sovereignty in Tanzania, 1960-1964. Paul Bjerk. University of Rochester Press, 2015. HB £75. ISBN 976 1 58046 505 2  374pp

This is a fairly weighty book covering quite a short time period, but it makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in understanding either the formation of Tanzania or the man who I would argue is modern Africa’s most exceptional, idealistic, intelligent and, as this book shows, at times quite coolly ruthless, leader: Julius Nyerere.

There seems to be a bit of an industry in Nyerere books at present. Thomas Molony’s The Young Nyerere (James Currey, 2014) came out only last year, but proved to be a somewhat dull read because it simply demonstrated that Nyerere was a conscientious, thoughtful and intelligent and somewhat left-leaning young man, which is not a matter for any great surprise or interest. I am also aware that Tanzania’s outstanding political historian, Issa Shivji, is working on a major assessment of Tanzania’s founding president. Bjerk has chosen to focus on the five years from 1960 to 1964 which encompass Tanganyikan independence, the establishment of a one party state, Nyerere’s development of ujamaa (Tanzanian African socialism) as the guiding philosophy for the new nation, the beginnings of the villagisation policy which proved so problematic in its implementation, and the union treaty which brought Tanganyika and Zanzibar together as Tanzania. It was a busy time.

The first section, ‘Searching for a Sovereign Discourse’ covers the background to the man and the nation in two fairly concise chapters. The bulk of the book looks firstly at internal issues in the establishment of the nation, and then at the extraordinary range of international threats to its sovereignty that the infant country had to contend with. The research informing the book, both documentary, and interview based, is exemplary, though I was a little surprised that there is so little mention of Shivji’s extensive already existing analysis of this period and its politics.

The ruthless side of Nyerere comes out most clearly in the chapter on ‘Independence and the Fear of Division’. Nyerere was convinced that what the new nation needed was a one party state to provide clarity, and that the Africanisation of that state could not be unduly rushed, primarily because of a lack of Tanzanians sufficiently trained at the time of independence to take on all the bureaucratic tasks involved with running a nation. Christopher Tumbo, with a union powerbase, was Nyerere’s primary ideological opponent, and Bjerk details the (Tanganyika African National Union) TANU government’s struggles to outmanoeuvre Tumbo’s (African National Congress) ANC. These included banning ANC meetings and radio advertisements, sending Tumbo to London as High Commissioner in order to sideline him, and secretly ‘rusticating’ key Tumbo allies ‘to remote southern safehouses’ (90). For Nyerere the protection of integrity of the state and its policy of ujamaa was always the primary concern.

Bjerk is particularly good in this section in discussing the key roles played by Nyerere’s most loyal lieutenants, notably Rashidi Kawawa, Oscar Kambona and his brother, Joseph Nyerere. However, it seems to me that he rather underplays the grassroots popularity of the idea of ujamaa in the country during this period, and that just occasionally African socialism, mainstream socialism and communism are insufficiently differentiated. Moreover the intellectual and popular commitment to socialism across large swathes of free Africa in the early 1960s, as an egalitarian alternative to colonialism and capitalism, is barely acknowledged and this is a problem, not least because without such an understanding it is not possible to see why Nyerere was able to rule, in the period after this book is set, with such widespread support from his people for the next twenty years.

The final part of Building a Peaceful Nation deals with the extraordinary range of external threats to both Nyerere’s rule and to the sovereignty of the infant nation, as the young president sought to develop his lifelong policy of nonalignment to either West or East. Bjerk speaks of the ‘strategic sophistication’ (254) that enabled Nyerere to fend off threats, most particularly from the USA which sought to intervene across Africa, seeing any nation that resisted its hegemony as a legitimate target for destabilisation. The murky adventurism of Frank Carlucci is a recurrent theme here. This man who rose to become deputy director of the CIA in the 1980s was heavily involved in the Congo during the period leading up to the American assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and then turned up in Zanzibar seeking to destabilise the revolutionary government there in early 1964. When he subsequently appeared to be plotting military intervention in 1965 Nyerere had Carlucci expelled, but what this episode makes clear is how little hard information the Tanzanian government often had in dealing with the machinations of the great powers, and how much Nyerere had to rely on his own political intelligence, and at times his gut feeling, in making key international decisions. The detective work involved in unravelling this story is a fine example of Bjerk’s excellent scholarship throughout.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 141-142]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: