Copyright: International Herald Tribune
DATELINE: DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania
Tanzania has reinvented itself twice. The first time was in 1964, after a bloody revolution had overthrown the Omani-descended sultan who ruled the neighboring spice island of Zanzibar.
Tanganyika, as it was then, persuaded the successful African-led rebels to join their island with the mainland, and Tanzania came into being. This union remains precarious because of latent Zanzibari nationalism after too many years of misrule.
The second time was when Julius Nyerere, the founding father of Tanzanian independence, stepped down in 1985. Two successive presidents over the last 20 years have ushered in free-market reforms, fundamentally altering the direction of a once moribund socialist economy.
But the legacy of the Zanzibari revolution of 1964 and of Nyerere who died four years ago still hang over the country. Nyerere, who had been a teacher, became Tanzania’s headmaster: He was incorruptible and unpretentious, but authoritarian. His great accomplishment was that he inspired his people to resist the tugs of tribalism and pull together as one people.
Nyerere’s Christian socialist ideology led him to dream of new ways of organizing society, even though there were barely the rudiments of modern structures. Tanzania became riddled with loss-making state industries, banks and plantations.
His biggest mistake of all was what he called “ujamaa” a kind of collectivization inspired by the Israeli kibbutz. This momentous exercise, which uprooted people whose families had farmed the same scattered plots for hundreds of years, failed totally, after having consumed enormous resources and alienated many aid donors. Tanzania fell into increasing disrepair as the economy plunged downward.
The president today is the unassuming Ben Mkapa, once Nyerere’s press secretary. Later this year he will step down, having completed two terms in office, leaving the country transformed into a possible capitalist success story, but with Zanzibar’s volatile politics still rumbling offshore.
Although Mkapa’s governing party dominates Tanzanian politics, he encourages internal debate and multiple rival candidates in elections. The press is free, although not particularly vigorous. Death sentences have been suspended and thousands of prisoners pardoned while he has been in office. Security at his residence is barely visible.
When I asked Mkapa what Nyerere would say if he could revisit his country, he replied that “he would be uneasy that I have given away too much of what was publicly owned and he would probably be upset that I had built up such a prosperous middle class.”
But no one I talked to, either in the ministries or the villages, wants to wind back the clock. Free-market reforms and privatization have propelled Tanzania out of its economic lethargy.
A handsome annual growth rate of 6 percent and burgeoning tax revenues have enabled the Mkapa administration to make sure there is a primary school in every village and to start to expand secondary education and health centers.
When I visited the villages in the district of Iringa, eight hours by road from Dar es Salaam, the capital, I could hardly believe my eyes. When I worked here as an agricultural extension agent 40 years ago, there used to be in the market place just a few heaps of vegetables.
Now there was a cornucopia of produce zucchini and pineapples, eggplant and guavas, fresh peas being podded and a truckload of fresh cabbages being unloaded.
Where once you could only buy maize, now there were sacks of rice from local paddies and Nile perch from Lake Victoria. There was sunflower oil, brought in from the fields that dazzle the countryside with their yellow flowers among the green maize. And everywhere tomatoes enormous baskets of them, with a local sauce factory consuming the surplus.
All this is quite new, as are the cell phones that reach 90 percent of the villages in Iringa district, enabling traders and farmers to cut out the middlemen and find the best price on their own.
Can this continue? Tanzanian economists and the president speak of growth rates of up to 9 percent. World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials are more cautious. But no one thinks that it will fall much below 6 percent unless Zanzibar, with its evenly balanced two-party struggle, explodes.
After the governing party has selected its presidential candidate in May, Mkapa says he will spend a good deal of time talking to the militants on both sides in Zanzibar to defuse the talked-about confrontation at the coming general election in October.
If the country can get past that milestone then we can start to believe that Tanzania, maneuvering at the end of the runway, is ready to get in line for take off.