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Socialist Experiment in Tanzania

The high rate of population growth was to frustrate economic development in Tanzania and other places. Tanzania had become independent from Britain in December 1961 and was led by Julius Nyerere, a man dedicated to the well being of his fellow countrymen, a man who believed in frugality and lived that way. Nyerere was against corruption. Under his leadership, government officials and officials in his political party were obliged not to have more than one salary, own rental property or own shares in or be directors of private companies.

In December 1962, Tanzania left the Commonwealth and became a republic, with Nyerere as its president. Nyerere created a single-party system and used "preventive detention" to eliminate trade unions and political opposition.

Tanzania had little mineral or other natural resources. It was divided among dozens of ethnicities scattered about the nation, most of them involved in small-scale subsistence farming. Nyerere believed that western-style economic policies were unsuited for Tanzania. He drew from the ancient African tradition of sharing in an effort to create what he saw as a special kind of African socialism. His idealism encouraged young volunteers from places such as the United States, Britain and Sweden to come to Tanzania to help develop the country. From the industrialized West came assistance in the form of loans. But Nyerere wished to develop Tanzania without depending heavily on Western assistance.

In the early 1970s, Nyerere ordered the forced transfer of people to collective farms, and there was resistance and the burning of villages. Nyerere's campaign pushed the nation to the brink of starvation and made it dependent on foreign food aid. In 1974, after ten years in office, Nyerere admitted failure. He spoke of Inequality and poverty in the cities. He described poverty as "the experience of the majority of our citizens." The country was experiencing shortages of cooking oil and gasoline. Hotels in his capital, Dar es Salaam, were falling into disrepair. There had been a movement of people to the big city, and in the capital street gangs were coming into existence. Nyerere deplored his country's continued dependence on foreign assistance and its deficit financing.

He made Swahili the national language. Literacy in Tanzania increased from 20 percent in 1961 to 90 percent by 1983. With good rural health services, life expectancy (at birth) in this period rose from 35 years to 52. But food production was not keeping up with population growth.

Exports of products such as tea and coffee were not enough to buy an abundance of new tools for agriculture – such as tractors – or enough to pay for the importation of oil. Fifty percent of the earnings from exports went to paying back money borrowed from abroad. Tanzania's tourist industry failed to develop, foreign vacationers preferring to go to Kenya because transportation to Kenya cost about half that of traveling to Tanzania's game parks.

In 1976, Nyerere abolished his country's 2,500 independent farming cooperatives, in part because they were politically uncontrollable. The organization that he put in their place ran deficits and soaked up most of Tanzania's investment capital.

Nyerere's socialism had produced what some described as a bloated government bureaucracy. In the early 1980s, communal agriculture was in ill-repute in the world, as in China where Deng Xiapeng was now leader. In 1983, Nyerere declared that the government would again permit private enterprise in farming, including companies investing in private commercial farms. Nyerere agreed to cut government subsidies and to cut state run organizations. Faced with famines and mass starvation, Nyerere resigned in 1985, after twenty-four years as his nation's president. He hand-picked his successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, and the new regime began dismantling government controls over the economy.

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Copyright © 1998-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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