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  • Desola Olaleye

The Fragility of Self-Reliance: Reflections on Nyerere's Socialist Education Policy

Updated: Aug 8, 2020


Julius Nyerere, Painted by Bernard Safran for Time Magazine (1964)

Since her independence in December 1961, Tanzania (previously Tanganyika) has embarked on a protracted journey of uprooting inherited colonial legacies in her systems of governance and developmental pathways like other previously colonised African nations. European colonialism left a deep wound in Tanzania’s formal education system which President Julius Nyerere sought to radically treat from 1967 when he launched the Arusha Declaration.


The Declaration provided the foundation for the Education for Self-Reliance (ESR) policy, which was subsequently implemented as a support system for Nyerere’s broader socialist agenda. The goal was to purge the Tanzanian nation of colonial capitalist institutions and transform the country into a strong egalitarian and socialist society whereby individuals not only had equal access to education for their self-development but also received an education that encouraged them to support other members of their predominantly rural communities. Though Nyerere was somewhat successful in offering some healing to his grieved country, he was only able to loosely stitch a wound that fully reopened soon after.


Frustrated by dubious and damaging colonial interventions, Nyerere claimed that Britain’s 43 year-long control over Tanzania did little to help the country because, at the point of independence, Tanzania was left with only “2 trained engineers and 12 doctors.” This is because what existed during Tanzania’s colonial period was a very exclusive and inequitable education system whereby mostly children of chiefs were granted the opportunity to receive a formal education that eventually transformed them into facilitators of an exploitative colonial system. With a largely elitist schooling system founded upon severe racial segregation, both the access to education and its quality were unfairly distributed on the basis of an individual’s skin colour. Africans, Asians, and Europeans were made to attend completely different schools and were exposed to different curricula content and resources. This unequal system of learning was an obstacle to Tanzania’s national development. Consequently, during its first few years in office, Nyerere’s TANU party worked towards deracialising and equalising educational access.


Notwithstanding these efforts to improve the social development of Tanzania, Nyerere remained dissatisfied with Tanzania’s position on the development ladder and sought to reconstruct Tanzania’s socio-economic developmental path in a manner that would enable what he believed to be the country’s traditional values and systems to infiltrate and benefit the lives of Tanzanians, most of whom lived on rural land. Nyerere believed that, prior to Tanzania’s colonisation, people unconsciously practised an active socialism – they shared spaces and properties; there was very minimal competition and a division of agricultural labour which sustained pre-colonial communities. He was convinced that the capitalist concern and drive for wealth accumulation that dominated Tanzania’s colonial period was a Western phenomenon that needed to be ejected. Nyerere’s socialist ideology but more specifically, his philosophy of Ujamaa (familyhood), therefore emerged as a solution to the colonial inversion of alleged pre-colonial African values.


The Ujamaa ideology birthed the villagisation scheme devised to improve the lives of rural inhabitants and transform the Tanzanian economy into a predominantly agrarian one. Nyerere’s government informed Tanzanians of the need to migrate to close-knit villages to work together in cultivating lands for agricultural products that would yield all the food and money required for the nation’s subsistence. For the villagisation scheme to be successful, it required the indigenisation of socialism in Africa and unwavering support from Tanzanians. Nyerere saw education as the perfect tool for socialist indoctrination and, thus, it became a primary goal of his education reform to warm the hearts and minds of Tanzanian youth towards Ujamaa in order to sustain the developmental pathway for decades to come.


A primary goal of ESR was to redesign the curriculum and functions of schools in a way that encapsulated the agrarian communalism and economic self-sufficiency that Nyerere envisioned for post-colonial Tanzania. Due to rural areas being the most populated regions of Tanzania, Nyerere wanted young Tanzanians to remain closely connected to these communities by creating an education system that fostered the learning of practical and technical skills such as farming as well as soft skills and social values pertaining to unity. On school farmlands, students produced crops that were used to feed members of the school community and sold to purchase learning materials. The same mode of economic exchange also occurred in some urban schools, but students were only able to produce artefacts, furniture, and clothing. ESR reforms also constituted a change in the language of instruction from English to Kiswahili in primary schools as well as the nationalisation of the examination system as opposed to maintaining the system of sitting international Cambridge examinations that typically required rote learning, which Nyerere opposed.


Despite these socialist reforms, Nyerere himself later acknowledged the limited success of the ESR model in radically improving Tanzania’s education system and contributing to the country’s active (re)birth of autarky and egalitarianism. ESR grew into a policy that lacked a concrete, sustainable implementation strategy. Nyerere made teachers the primary implementers of the ESR model. According to Professor George Urch, he referred to them as 'apostles of the idea' who would motivate others to see the value in African socialism and rural development. Although tasked with implementing ESR, Tanzanian teachers were ill trained to do so effectively. Many were unsure of how to deliver the contents of the ESR curriculum; it was unclear what techniques of teaching would be used, and the mode of support that they were expected to offer students remained unknown and largely unexplored. Due to the rigorous academic training that most teachers at the time had received prior to the launch of ESR, many of them continued to employ conventional lecturing strategies and were generally disinclined to facilitate agrarian labour.


The confusion of Tanzanian teachers left them demotivated during the implementation stages of the education policy and they sought to exploit ESR practices for personal gains. Some sought learnings from self-reliance programmes that they supervised to facilitate their own private agricultural projects as a secondary source of income; others secretly sold the produce of students without their knowledge or consent as recounted by Muhammad Muharuma. When students got to learn of this, it led many of them to see ESR as an exploitative practice, leading to an intensification of resistance to it. Such manifestations of a poor and confused implementation strategy meant that the cooperative and vitalising methods of teaching which Nyerere hoped for failed to emerge.


Had the delivery of the curriculum content been much more effective, it still remains questionable as to whether all students would have developed an interest in the content of the ESR curriculum and the ideology upon which it rested. Many of them were obedient enough to memorise key national slogans and made an effort to remember essential political symbols and events; however, it was a largely instrumental act on their part since examinations based on those contents were made compulsory for educational progression. The actions of students and teachers were not necessarily situated in a profound love for the socialist and utopian Tanzania that Nyerere intended to build and sustain through the means of political education and agrarian labour. Many students were not willing to deepen their understanding of ESR and its socio-political relevance, but even when understood by some, there was a strong opposition to it.


Undeniably, low populist commitment was a significant threat to Nyerere's ESR policy but there were other factors that played a role in its decline. Harry Mtonga claims that the capacity of an education policy to progress ultimately “depends more on the availability of resources than just a political climate.” This is certainly true in the case of ESR where limited resources hampered its efficacy and sustainability. For example, although teachers were required by the ESR curriculum to read Nyerere's writings to support their delivery of political education, schools did not have copies of the said texts. This was as a result of inadequate funds to purchase teaching and learning materials.


Despite the trading of students’ agricultural produce to fund the school’s management and subsistence, the total revenue from these self-reliant projects was still not enough to meet the administrative demands of schools. According to Lene Buchert, the sale of farm goods amounted to only 10% of the costs required to manage school facilities and meet the needs of students. Nyerere’s predominant focus on widening access to primary education as a way of achieving long-term national development had resulted in the massification of education, which not only weakened human resources through an increasingly disproportionate teacher-student ratio but also affected the amount of learning materials available to students.


Besides, the failure of villagisation also contributed to ESR’s decline because both projects were interlocked and tied to the same purpose of establishing self-reliance and socialism in Tanzania. The villagisation scheme failed partly due to the scheme’s top-down execution and poor environmental conditions which jointly limited the sustainability and dependability of the high-modernist agricultural system that Nyerere had established with high hopes. The fact that the design and enactment of developmental villagisation took the form of a top-down process made it easy for rural dwellers in Tanzania to resent the project. The TANU government’s decision to forcefully transfer several Tanzanians from their homes into development villages intended for intensive farming and mutual inhabitation enhanced people’s contempt for Nyerere’s developmentalism.


Furthermore, the TANU government failed to consult rural populations before initialising communal agricultural production on unfamiliar lands that later proved to be unsuitable for the mass production of crops that Nyerere hoped for. The fruitfulness of farmlands often depended on favourable weather conditions, and so with prayers for rain left unanswered, Tanzania’s drought which began in 1971, but intensified between 1973 and 1974, further undermined the sustainability of the villagisation scheme since it resulted in the scarcity of crops such as rice, maize, and wheat. With the Ujamaa development programme being a primary source of the ESR’s legitimacy, its failure caused the ESR to also endure an existential crisis and eventual decline.


Tanzania began to endure serious economic problems that made it difficult to sustain the ESR model. Although limited manpower required for the villagisation scheme and droughts intersected to generate Tanzania’s economic trials, it is important to also recognise that regional crises, particularly Tanzania’s relations with Uganda throughout the 1970s, worsened Tanzania’s economic situation. Under Milton Obote’s rule, Uganda was a largely socialist nation. Obote also pushed for agricultural economic development to facilitate a system of self-reliance. The similarities in the characters and activism of Obote and Nyerere can explain why, when a coup against Obote was launched by Idi Amin in January 1971, Nyerere deemed it necessary to intervene. This intervention engendered a costly war between Tanzania and Uganda. Nyerere’s fondness for Obote and the war with Uganda under Amin’s rule are important factors to recognise as triggers of the ESR’s decline because the large amount of funds that Nyerere invested into the Tanzanian military to facilitate Amin’s removal from office could have been devoted to managing the technical and social difficulties associated with the implementation of ESR and broader Ujamaa efforts. Ultimately, the worsening of Tanzania’s economic conditions created an impetus for a change in ideology and an alternative economic development model which affected ESR’s viability.


In response to Tanzania’s economic deterioration in the late 1970s, structural adjustment programmes were implemented from 1981 onwards to revitalise the Tanzanian economy, which further threatened ESR. Economic subsistence was no longer possible through agricultural activities on school grounds. This led to the reinstatement of primary school fees in 1984, presented in the form of levies. Following Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s entry into the presidential office in 1985, Tanzania began to undergo even more significant economic transformations due to clear differences in ideological commitments between Nyerere and Mwinyi.


Mwinyi possessed a greater willingness to re-establish free market capitalism in the nation as required by the system of conditionality that often accompanies macroeconomic assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Farmers were incentivised through new economic policies to increase production, which amplified the fierce competition among the rural inhabitants of Tanzania that Nyerere had tried to bury. The truth is, competitive individualism was never fully eliminated during the Ujamaa period.


Nyerere was bent on scaling up the TANU government’s efforts in uprooting the inherited colonial education system in Tanzania. Yet, the success of his ideology and programme was hugely limited by a range of factors including poor implementation, the failure of the villagisation scheme, and regional crises. There was an incompatibility between an overly utopian idea and the reality on the ground. The ultimate fault can be said to lie in Nyerere’s overzealousness and excessive idealisation of African collectivism. His romanticisation and eventual application of agrarian communalism came at a time when the mindsets of most Tanzanians had been transformed by the effects of European imperialism and this proved to be a real challenge. Many Tanzanians simply did not see agrarian activities as a desirable path to self-development, which underscores the relevance of a question Robert Fatton posed in 1985: “If the soul of Africa was socialist, how could Africans reject Ujamaa?” The souls of Tanzanians were not as socialist as imagined by Nyerere, and this is perhaps the fundamental reason why the ESR policy was doomed to fail from the start, with other factors accelerating its decline.


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