A land of promise succumbs to Africa’s sad pattern

07/06/2013 6:17 PM

07/06/2013 6:19 PM

The east African nation of Tanzania, when I visited there during a long reporting trip in 1964, was not only one of the most beautiful of the continent’s newly independent republics but also, arguably, the most decently and honorably ruled.

What was termed by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in a 1960 speech to Parliament as a great “wind of change” had signaled the coming end of Africa’s bondage to European colonial powers.

The old flags were run down and the new ones run up. Optimism burned hotly. There was the sense that a bright future was there to be grasped.

Then painful reality set in.

In some places like Mobutu’s former Belgian Congo, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Nigeria — to name but a few — thugs took command, governing with unspeakable savagery.

In others, such as Ghana, where Kwame Nkrumah invested huge sums in costly vanity projects, treasuries were plundered and the resources left behind by the departing colonial powers evaporated with no result.

Even more damaging, the inherited legal and financial institutions were neglected and ultimately discarded.

At least in terms of respectability of leadership, Tanzania — born of the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar — was a far different case.

Its first president after independence was Julius Nyerere, a graduate of Britain’s University of Edinburgh, a professional teacher and, in his own words, “a schoolmaster by choice, a politician by accident.”

Unlike some contemporaries, who awarded themselves grandiose titles, Nyerere would permit himself to be called only “Mr. President” or “Mwalimu” — Swahili for teacher.

I spent part of a day with him that summer of ’64, when he traveled by car from the capital at the time, Dar es Salaam (“haven of peace”), into the countryside to dedicate a bridge built by country folk.

He was dressed casually in khaki trousers, open sandals and a flowered short-sleeve shirt. And he addressed the villagers as friends, complimenting them on the log structure they had created.

“Now,” he said, followed by a comic pause, “about that road…”

referring to the pitted and barely passable track that led to the stream crossing.

It brought a burst of laughter from the assembled crowd.

Remembering that day, I find it disheartening to read reports out of what is today a sadly changed country. A recent New York Times account told of the intimidation of journalists, brutal suppression of criticism of the current president, Jakaya Kikwete, and violence directed at his political opponents.

What a change that is from the tranquil country I visited 49 years ago this summer.

And how accurately it reflects the distress to be witnessed across much of that struggling continent.

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