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Political Integrity: An Example Out of Africa
We live in a cynical age where the values of truth, honesty and integrity seem to be in short supply. We are therefore always looking for examples of such values in action, especially with regard to politicians.
I would like to offer you such an example from Africa. You have probably never heard of this man, but for me he stands as a true model of integrity. It's not Nelson Mandela, but Mr. Mandela would certainly be proud to have his name mentioned in the same breath with him. His name is Julius Nyerere.
Julius Nyerere was the man who led then Tanganyika, today called Tanzania, to independence from Britain in 1961. Unlike many other independence movements, this one succeeded without a single drop of blood being shed.
I had the privilege of living two years in Tanzania shortly after independence. Being a city boy (I grew up in Los Angeles), for me Tanzania was quite a revelation. I virtually lived in a mud hut, suffered through a drought, saw leprosy, and contracted both malaria and dysentery. All of these things affected me. But getting to know Julius Nyerere as a political leader was truly a life-changing experience.
When Nyerere became head of state in 1961, he was so popular that he could easily have taken on the trappings of a king or potentate. But he did exactly the opposite. He chose to live very modestly, because that was his nature.
More importantly, he inspired confidence in everyone, and never betrayed that confidence, because that also was his nature. He of course had political enemies. They were often critical of his ideas and policies – but never the man. The worst I ever heard anyone say about him was, “President Nyerere is doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.”
Julius Nyerere was a realist riding a wave of idealism.
For example, shortly after taking office, he cut the salaries of all government ministers by 20-50 percent, including his own. Although by world standards these ministers were very poorly paid, by Tanzanian standards they were very rich. Nyerere argued that such a poor country simply could not afford to maintain its government in such a lavish style. Any minister who refused the cut was invited to leave the government, and a number of them did.
In the 1960s, the first thing a newly independent country wanted to do was set up a national airline and rush to industrialise. Nyerere was different. He concluded that Tanzania could not become truly industrialised for at least a century. So instead of devoting all its energies and limited resources to trying to build an industrial base, it made more sense to strengthen its agricultural base.
This meant reforming the schools. Instead of turning out potential clerks, shop assistants and middle managers for the cities, the goal should be to turn out scientific farmers. These would then go back to their villages to teach their compatriots, who were mainly subsistence farmers.
Advocating this was close to heresy. Most people felt that the purpose of going to school was precisely to escape from the backward rural villages. There was considerably opposition to Nyerere’s idea, but ultimately it was implemented.
As a Peace Corps teacher in a boarding school, I could immediately see the difference. Suddenly, we were required to start a school farm and to grow much of the food the students would be eating. The students didn’t take kindly to having to do manual labour, but eventually the protests subsided and farming became part of the daily routine.
At roughly the same time, Nyerere looked at Tanzania’s university students, who were the elite of the elite. It is important to understand that there were only about a thousand university students in the country out of a population of nearly 10 million because Tanzania had virtually no educational base. At the age of 6, less than half the children were in school. There was a severe examination to go from primary to secondary school, which nearly 85 percent failed because there just wasn't any place for them. So those who reached university were by definition the elite of the elite.
Nyerere noted that it took the total annual income of 78 Tanzanians to keep one university student in school for one year. To help cover the costs, he proposed that on graduation each student give two years to public service.
Once again, rebellion; the students went on strike. Once again, Nyerere stood his ground, declaring that as much as the country needed university graduates, it needed true Tanzanians more. He therefore closed the university for a year and sent the students back to their rural villages to rediscover their roots. Those who received good reports from their village headman were allowed to return the following year.
A neutralist during the Cold War, Nyerere was basically a man of peace. However, he could take military action when the situation called for it. For example, in 1978 he sent Tanzania troops into neighboring Uganda to oust the notorious dictator Idi Amin, who fled into exile.
When he retired as head of state in 1985, Nyerere took on the role of roving diplomat and peacemaker. Because he was so trusted, he was invited to mediate disputes all across the African continent. For instance, he was instrumental in bringing an end to the slaughter in Burundi in 1996. He also worked tirelessly to put an end to apartheid (racial segregation) in South Africa.
Nyerere didn’t look like the consummate leader he was. He was rather small and had a bushy little moustache that made him look like a chocolate Charlie Chaplain. But when he spoke and when he wrote, you knew that you were in the presence of someone special. He was affectionately known as “Mwalimu”, Swahili for teacher, which is what he was before going into politics. This was a sign of respect, not reverence.
I am not a very emotional person. But when Julius Nyerere died on October 14, 1999, I felt a sudden emptiness in me. It was as if something good had left the world. And it had.
Nyerere was a devout Catholic and in 2005 he was proposed for beatification. He is currently under consideration for canonization, which is one step away from sainthood. I don’t think I would put him on such a high pedestal. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything he did. But I never doubted that it was always for the best of reasons.
Every time I hear his name, I still feel the same emptiness I felt on the day he died. So if you are ever tempted to say that politics and integrity don’t mix, please remember Julius Nyerere. You will never find a better model of integrity, either in politics or in daily life.
Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives