Tanzania Obama Hope and Contradiction


The New York Times reported on President Obama’s visit to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania today, He spoke to crowds who were ecstatic to be visited by the first American president with family roots in Africa. The hope is that a new, more cooperative policy envisioned by the President will change some contradictions in Tanzania’s history for the better.

The President was on a week-long trip to the African continent.  At a news conference with President Jakaya Kikwete, he said that the United States was looking for a “new model” based on more than aid but also upon “trade and partnership.” He said the goal was for Africa “to build Africa for Africans.”

It is true, as reported the Times, that African nations are now benefitting from being some of the fastest growing economies in the world, even as European economies stagnate or decline. The International Monetary Fund states that economic growth for sub-Saharan Africa was at 5.1 percent last year, and is predicted to grow to 5.7 percent next year.  Trade between the United States and Africa has more than doubled over the past decade.

Amid the hope inspired by President Obama’s visit, it must be remembered that Tanzania, like many other African countries, suffers from contradictions.

Benjamin Nyerere was the President of Tanzania between 1962 and 1985.  He was known as Mwalimu, a KiSwahili word for “teacher,” which indicated the high regard in which he was held by the people.  He was a socialist who believed in egalitarianism and despised elitism.  He derided foreign aid as detrimental to the independence Tanzania had gained in 1961.  In 1967 he issued the Arusha Declaration, calling for national self-reliance, stressed the need for reformation to begin at the lowest rural level and asserted the state’s right to control all means of production and exchange. He nationalized all private banks and insurance companies, foreign food processors and export trading companies.

And yet in the 1970s, Tanzania received $3 billion annually from the west.  By 1982, the level of aid was $6 billion annually.

Nyerere vowed to excise “tribalism” from national politics. In 1967 he presented a proposal to organize the country under a policy of ujamaa, “familyhood.” It would establish self-sufficient (and socialist) villages that would be part of the basis for rural development.  Farming would be done by people working and living as a community, based upon the traditional family group, but would take into account modern methods and current needs.  The land would be called “our land,” the crops “our crops.” “Our shop” would provide the villages with the necessities required from outside.

But most villages were not organized on a cooperative basis.  Most peasants lived on the edge of poverty and were averse to sacrificing their landholdings to the dream of ujamaa.  When realization of the new vision seemed to be progressing too slowly, Nyerere ordered the compulsory resettlement of the entire rural population to new villages that would follow the new order.  Between 1973 and 1977, 11 million people moved to new villages, the largest mass movement of people in Africa’s history.  Coercion and brutality were reportedly used to accomplish this.  Within a few days after relocation, villagers were returning to their former homes.  To discourage this, the government ravaged their homes, kicking holes in the mud walls and setting fire to the thatch roofs.

By the time Nyerere resigned in 1985, the country was suffering extreme from shortages of consumer goods, materials and equipment.  Much of the country’s medical and educational systems existed in name only.  Bribery and corruption were everywhere. His successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, abandoned the Arusha Declaration as a model for development, and instituted austerity measures and “structural adjustment.” Tanzanians were ready to accept reform.  See Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa:  A History of Fifty Years of Independence.

The first cases of HIV/AIDS in Tanzania were reported in 1983.  The disease has gone from a rare and unprecedented illness to a common household problem affecting most Tanzanians.

Women continue to suffer from unequal educational opportunity today. Educated women threaten the social order in having occupational alternatives other than being housewives, and in exercising more choice in the selection of their partners, as well as in determining whether the marriage should continue.  Women endure oppression as they do in many other countries.  However, Tanzania has recently passed a “Marriage Contract Law” in an attempt to offset some of the inequities faced by women. The law allows women to retain the property that they had prior to marriage, and for widows to have the right to inheritance of their husband’s estate.  There is an established minimum age for marriage for women (15), and the requirement of the consent of both parties to a marriage.

Relations between Tanzania and the United States have not always been cordial.  In 1998, one of the deadliest bombings of a US embassy in history took place in Dar Es Salaam.

However, the United States, under President Obama, has pledged itself to improve the economies of African countries, including Tanzania.  Hopefully some of the past and current contradictions will be ameliorated by an improved foreign policy.

By:  Tom Ukinski

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