Is Julius Nyerere Africa’s most important personality in human history?

Julius Nyerere
Julius Nyerere

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has declared Tanzania’s founding father Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere the most important person in terms of uniting Africa, politically, in entire human history.

President Museveni was speaking to a congregation of pilgrims, including over 500 Tanzanians who attended Julius Kambarage Nyerere Day that is annually commemorated at Namugongo Catholic Martyrs Shrine on June 1.

Nyerere was a controversial figure. Across Africa he was hugely respected as an anti-colonialist and while he was the president of Tanzania, he received praise for ensuring that, unlike many of its neighbours, Tanzania remained stable and unified in the decades following independence.

Later on in his presidency, he came into bad light with his creation of a one-party state and use of detention without trial. He was accused of dictatorial governance. In those times, he was also blamed for mismanaging the economy.

This pronouncement by President Museveni is quite a bold one and begs the question of whether Nyerere is truly Africa’s MOST important personality in human history.

Comparing Nyerere to two of his contemporaries – Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela – who were voted African of the Millennium in 2000 and greatest person and leader of the 20th Century respectively in BBC polls, does this pronouncement by Museveni hold?

Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame Nkrumah

Nkrumah became an international symbol of freedom as the leader of the first black African country to shake off the chains of colonial rule. Imprisoned by the British in 1950, he was released the next year after the Convention People’s Party (a political party he founded) won landslide election victory.

In 1952, Nkrumah became the country’s first prime minister. After independence in 1957, Ghana became a republic in 1960 and Nkrumah became the first president of the country. Nkrumah’s ambitions extended beyond national boundaries to the creation of a federal union of African states while he worked to improve living standards in Ghana. In February 1966, he was overthrown in a coup and spent the remaining six years of his life languishing in exile.

Julius Nyerere and  Abeid Karume
Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika and Abeid Karume of Zanzibar before the merger

The former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, spearheaded the struggle for justice and freedom for South Africa’s black population. He championed the cause of people who had been brutalised, systematically reduced to third-class citizens, deprived of education, consigned to ramshackle shanty towns and relegated to abject poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

This was after 27 years in a damp prison cell, six of them in solitary confinement which he once described as the most difficult time of his life. On his election as president in the following year, he set about building a multi-racial democracy in place of the heinous apartheid regime which had gained white dominance by armed force, trampling over the rights of the majority black community.

During the years after he stepped down as president in 1999, Mandela was a highly effective ambassador for his country. Despite ill-health, he was deeply involved in the campaign against HIV/AIDS, as well as peace negotiations in the Congo, Burundi, and other troubled countries in Africa. He also helped South Africa secure the hosting of the 2010 football World Cup – the first of the Mundial on African soil.

Just as Nyerere, Nkrumah and Mandela had their own shortcomings. Nkrumah also established a one-party state in Ghana, instituted a preventive detention act (detention without trial) and was accused of economic mismanagements. Mandela is purported to have pleaded guilty in court to acts of public violence, and behind bars sanctioned more, including the 1983 Church Street car bomb that killed 19 people. Mandela had a habit of saying that he was “not a saint,” as TIME noted in his 2013 obituary.

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