Dr. Kwame Nantambu

Tanzania's Socialist Revolution: What Went Wrong?

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
January 18, 2007

Now that Hugo Chavez Frias has not only been sworn in as President of Venezuela for a new six-year tenure but has also adamantly vowed to rebuild Venezuela as a modern socialist nation-state, it is apropos to examine what went wrong with the Mother of all socialist revolutions, namely, Tanzania's Ujamaa/socialist revolution.

Six years after its 1961 independence from British colonial rule, Tanzania embarked on a unique road to development, intending to construct a self-sufficient nation with the Basic Human Needs (BHN) of its people as its top priority. According to President Julius Nyerere's vision, Tanzanian self-reliance would be achieved through a program of rural development, based on communal farming and the democratic input of peasants and workers in the country's political and economic planning. In all, the Arusha Declaration of 1967, the first document to formally lay out the plan begun by Nyerere, had four main goals for Tanzania: egalitarian distribution, self-sufficiency, democracy and the satisfaction of its citizens' basic needs. Combined, these goals reflected a plan based in Ujamaa ("family"), Nyerere's concept of African socialism, which emphasized communal work and communal gains. Ujamaa was to be realized through a massive campaign to galvanize ideological commitment to establishing a better, more equitable society for all citizens. Nyerere attempted to extend his party's fight for liberation from British control to real political and economic freedom for Tanzanian citizens under the new African-run government.

This article seeks to engage in a critical in-depth analysis/examination of what went wrong with Tanzania's socialist revolution.

Plan of Action

As a national program, Ujamaa was ambitious. Egalitarian objectives outlined in the Arusha Declaration and many subsequent writings from Nyerere, intended Ujamaa,"...prevent the accumulation of wealth to an extent which is inconsistent with the existence of a classless society, " eliminating uneven workloads according to sex and erasing racial division within economic control of industry. Socialist development was to have a democratic base of direct involvement from peasants and workers. Illustrating this, elite control of Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), then Tanzania's sole political party, was replaced with peasants in 1967. Civilian control of the civil service was implemented, with citizen-held titles increasing from 25% of public positions in 1961 to 75% in 1967. The 1972 decentralization of the government, that is, dispersing officials to the district and regional levels, was also intended to directly link official people. Public control extended to industry, with massive nationalization of banks, buildings, and industry occurring in the early 1960's. Consistent with Nyerere's non-coercive plan, these industries were compensated for losses taken due to nationalization. Right to land occupancy, taken away during British colonial rule, was also reinstated in 1963.

Development also emphasized self-sufficiency and prioritized provision of basic goods like food, housing and health care, above cash crops and export production. The Tanzania government adopted a cynical stance toward foreign aid arguing that foreign assistance always came with strings attached. To decrease dependency, the nation sought to raise most of its development funding internally. In the first three years after the Arusha Declaration, the foreign share of development funds decreased from 78% to 39%. Nyerere stressed that since repayment of loans would eventually be borne by Tanzanian citizens, "...it would be improper for us to accept such assistance without asking ourselves how this would affect our independence and our survival as a nation." Commitment to civilian well-being was evident in the nation's Second 5-Year Plan, which placed both production of food crops for all and the institution of nutritional education as top priorities. Budget allocations for health care switched from concentrating on large-scale urban hospitals to emphasizing preventative medicine for rural areas.

Nyerere's plan was centered on self-initiative and meeting Tanzania's particular needs. Because of the country's extremely low per capita income ($150/year), capital-intensive development was not an option, particularly since the country elected to maintain a high degree of independence from foreign aid. Nyerere's alternative concentrated on what the country could internally produce: hard work and intelligence. Production was to be increased through efficient farming practices, leadership training, diffusion of technology, maximum labor and land utility, and citizen initiation of development projects. This sensitivity to Tanzanian needs contributed to Nyerere's espousal of African communalism, over socialism or communism. He called these economic systems more suited to large-scale, centralized, industrial nations, while communalism was harmonious with the small-scale, democratic, socialist development Nyerere thought could meet the needs of Tanzanian citizens.

Finally, Ujamaa integrated Pan-African global linkage and self-reliance into Tanzanian development strategy. Nyerere's policy explicitly placed Tanzania in the context of the Pan-African struggle for political, economic and social liberation. A basic goal of the Arusha Declaration was, "...to see that the government cooperates with other States in Africa to bring about African Unity." Such unity, as Nyerere made explicit after the 1974 6th Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam, was crucial to achieve the liberation of colonized states, a solidified understanding of African potential, and economic associations which transcended shared oppression, and maximized African peoples' resources. Pan-Africanism, in Nyerere's view, had to have the establishment of justice as its main objective. For this reason, he condemned neo-colonial African rulers who instituted oppressive regimes or perpetuated Euro- centric structures ill-suited to African values. He stated: "We must ask ourselves whether there is evidence that Black people wherever they are self-governing are everywhere trying to establish just societies". Parallel to his emphasis on domestic democracy, he also applauded the inclusion of ordinary citizens of African descent from around the world in the 6th Pan-African Congress, calling their political participation a clearer reflection of the needs of African peoples than the demands of many state representatives.

Ujamaa Villages

A nation predominantly populated by geographically-dispersed agricultural homesteads, Tanzania's economic base laid in cash crops. Its manufacturing sector at independence constituted 4% of its GNP. For this reason, Nyerere's development plan was centered around rural development, presuming that industrial growth would build upon the success of Tanzanian farming, both in providing food crops for the country and cash crops for export.

Nyerere initiated rural development through his plan to create Ujamaa villages. Consolidating diffused populations of settlers into optimal groups of 250 families, these villages would engage in community-based farming, each member contributing his/her work and receiving proportional benefit. Physical consolidation would allow for technological and social service diffusion, as well as communally-shared tools and labor, intended to increase production. Villages would be tied to district and national party representatives to ensure that villagers had input in the allocation of resources. Village assemblies included all members over 18 years of age and were meant to be forums for open discussion and criticism of village operations. Nyerere anticipated that through education and the slow integration of more community-based farming into daily routines, citizens would openly adopt communal farming as an efficient method of production.

Education System

Villagization was meant to occur without using force. For this reason, educational measures were essential to Nyerere's socialist agenda. In his essay, "Education for Self-Reliance", Nyerere called for reform of the Tanzanian educational system, calling the British colonial system inappropriate for producing leaders in tune with socialist development. In its place, he implemented a curriculum that addressed African history, in general, but Tanzanian culture, civic responsibility and practical/functional communal forming skills, in particular, that would serve as the bedrock of a more holistic, Afri-centric and complete primary education.

The educational plan closely reflected general Ujamaa principles. After nationalization of private schools in 1969, recognition of the limited available capital for investment mandated that schools become self-sufficient units. This prerequisite was used by Nyerere to advocate schoolchildren's participation in communal farming, agricultural planning, and maintenance of facilities, as a vital component of primary education. Consistent with egalitarianism, dividing students from the rest of society was denounced by Nyerere as both a counter-productive legacy of Euro-British colonial education and a misuse of potential contributors to development. In fact, students enrolled in secondary school were called upon to build social service infrastructures as part of their vacation periods, rather than remaining separate from their communities. Nyerere also encouraged critical thinking/analysis as a prime objective of primary education so as to lay the foundation for worthwhile democratic participation of all the informed citizenry. As a reflection of Tanzania's delicate attempted balance between internal and foreign relations, classes were taught completely in Swahili, the post-colonial national language, but some English was also taught to ensure that students could participate in foreign affairs.

Educational measures also targeted adult literacy, nutritional skills and technological diffusion. The adult literacy rate increased from 33% in 1967 to 73% in 1978. Night classes were offered to encourage adult participation in agricultural skills, water storage, food preservation and craft. Campaigns to encourage good nutrition, as well as training seminars and pamphlets to teach how to construct intermediate technological innovations like wheelbarrows were also successfully undertaken. The variety of educational methods employed reflected Nyerere's minimal regulation of educational measures, a good illustration of his tendency to encourage flexible policy that could be adapted to regional circumstances.

Problems with Plan Implementation

Though Ujamaa seemed to have practical and just foundations, many of its characteristics made implementation difficult. Tanzania's poverty level and insignificant place in the broader global community also made the nation's attempt to maintain integrity and self-reliance amidst internal divisions, resource inadequacy and foreign pressures hard to sustain. Much attention had been placed on class formation within Tanzanian society, with scholars measuring the nation's socialist aspirations against emerging inequalities in wealth and power. Nyerere tended to reject such analysis, since it was based in Marxist thought developed in the context of 19th century Europe, rather than within the framework of African communalism. Yet, stratification had either emerged or been aggravated in the Ujamaa context between many sectors of society: urban versus rural, political officials versus peasants, race versus race and even male versus female.

Elimination of the urban/rural income gap was a primary concern of Nyerere's rural development agenda. Mechanisms, such as urging wage laborers to adjust their wage demands to the limits of the economy, the 1964 nationalization and consolidation of labor unions, and progressive taxation which took more revenue from urban areas and luxury purchases, all sought to reduce urban/rural wealth inequalities. Nyerere proved his commitment to using taxation as a tool to even-off incomes, by opposing Parliament demands for elite tax privileges in 1974, until members backed down. Yet in 1980, rural farmers had 50% the standard of living of urban wage earners. Even when purchasing power of urban and rural workers increased at the same rate (as it did by 100% between 1961-1974), rural workers started from a lower level. In the late 1960's Official Report on the Co-operative Movement, farmers decried price-fixing practices, stating that the National Agricultural Products Board attained double the profit villagers received for their goods. The Report also held that crop prices reflected processing fees, not the production costs of the farmer, so rural producers were not receiving their fair share. A growing division of profitability between large-scale and small-scale farming also reflected the urban/rural income gap.

Certain political power gaps also arose from the Ujamaa structure. In terms of educational training, Nyerere's approach was to instill ideology in TANU's leadership first, so it could disperse the message to the masses. However, qualified political leaders and agricultural educators did not always share their knowledge. In fact, bureaucrats (the main implementers of policy) often ruled from above, without taking the people's input into account, or participation in rural work. As a specific example, during the nationalization campaign, there was a distinct separation between who made the decision to nationalize and who carried it out. This distinction not only broke down the integrity of policy, but it also distinguished policy-makers from workers.

Flexibility in village organization also meant that though some villages operated according to direct democracy, others were ruled by political elites. Further inter-village disparities occurred due to the unequal distribution of technology to a small number of Ujamaa villages over others. This uneven resource allocation became a prime determinant for villages success in production.

With a population of 13 million in 1973, Tanzania managed to maintain a large degree of social solidarity among its 100 different ethnic and religious groups. Through deliberate cohesive tactics, like adopting a national language and integrating of educational staff, the Tanzanian state sought to minimize racial divisions. Throughout the 1980's, as policy started moving toward market-oriented industry, privatization aggravated ethnic tensions. Large industry had been primarily Asian and European-controlled since colonial times and as Tanzanian industry transferred to private ownership, public debate over proper African ownership ensued, with accompanying racial tension. Another symptom of this disunity was the push for multi-partyism in the 1990's. TANU, established as the sole Tanzanian political party due to its mass support in the 1960's, insufficiently represented the plurality of demands under a transformed economic system. Multi-partyism was adopted, after open debate, under the condition that parties should not be organized along racial or religious lines. This was a preventative measure to indicate that civil conflicts were feared. These events occurred with the breakdown of Ujamaa but may have been aggravated by the switch from centralized public control under TANU and its later deterioration. Ironically, some political practices under Ujamaa also perpetuated oppressive work conditions toward and suppression of, the political clout of women. Though females performed between 60% and 80% of total Tanzanian agricultural work in 1978, male-run cash crop farms typically received the most technological support from the state. Though Nyerere made it a point to decrease the abundance of traditionally female tasks and utilize more male labor, men in the 1970's were still contributing less work. Males also tended to control the planned use of surpluses and the direction of village economic policy. Additionally, a significant source of resistance to communal farming stemmed from the fact that under community-based methods, patriarchal family structures would no longer have been supported by private means of production. Such illustrations indicated that Nyerere's intent to establish a classless society often got lost in the translation.

Contributing to these unequal outcomes was the tendency of democratic participation to be ignored by political leaders and village officials.

Villagization presented the most obvious tension between establishing socialism and maintaining democratic input. Though Nyerere desired voluntary adoption of socialist practices by citizens, slow progress toward meeting numerical village goals motivated officials to make villagization compulsory in 1973. Unpopular in itself, this decision was also dangerous, since it resembled Euro-colonial attempts of the 1940's to consolidate citizens into villages, in order to introduce crop spacing and terracing and obliterate "backward" traditional agricultural practices. Even after 1973, TANU's policy opposed violent or coercive enforcement of villagization. In 1968, Nyerere had stated, "No one can be forced into an Ujamaa village and no official-at any level-can go and tell members of a Ujamaa village what they should do together and what they should continue to do as Ujamaa farmers." TANU continually struggled with the enforcement issue. After a few instances of overzealous forced villagization between 1973 and 1978, TANU overcompensated for lost morale by explicitly endorsing private plot cultivation within villages - a practice that was counter to socialist revolutionary development. Nyerere also chastised the Department of Agriculture for employing bad policy that undermined democratic processes.

However, the government still targeted the poorest regions of the country to be transformed into self-reliant bourgeoning infant Ujamaa villages. Further eagerness to establish villages post - 1973 justified avoidance of peasant input in terms of land choice and settlement. Not only did this undemocratic practice aggravate lack of consent, but ignoring peasant familiarity with land conditions caused officials to move villages to less fertile areas and regions prone to flooding and to areas where ecological resources were depleted by dense populations of settlers. Settlers who received such treatment stated that they did not dissent, out of respect for government authority. Consistent with this more coercive approach, a 1971 survey of village members showed a significant under-representation of socialist commitment: 62% of the villagers were participating due to expected income increases, 8% had been previously unemployed and 10% had been ordered there by officials.

By 1980, 90% of Tanzania's rural population was condensed into Ujamaa villages. Perceived lack of choice in the matter, undermined the democratic participation that Ujamaa originally was aspired to represent.

The vagueness of TANU's policy presented more opportunities for authoritarian control. Though making provisions that anyone could initiate Ujamaa projects, Nyerere left a great deal of uncertainty over jurisdiction of development activity. Collectivization, school management, and property rights, as well as village organization and settlement were minimally regulated. Such open-endedness left room for speculation about the consequences of socialist transition: rumors of increased taxation and radical family structure reform all preceded villagization. Several instances of military-induced villagization were later attributed to vague policy as well. Additionally, the notion that socialism had already been achieved, simply through the process of nationalization, was supported by the limited articulation of individual responsibility within the Ujamaa plan. Lack of farm subsidy direction and coherent agricultural policy also lent to the confusion.

The achievement of self-sufficient satisfaction of basic needs also faced many obstacles. First, Tanzania ran a deficit in skilled management.

With simultaneous high dependency on its bureaucracy and huge quantitative growth of Ujamaa villages, the program simply outgrew the nation's civil service capacity, increasing the negative effects of poor management exponentially. Furthermore, unskilled management of mass-nationalized industries undermined the efficiency of development, since public managers controlled banks and development corporations. TANU, expected to take over state operations after being in existence for only 6 years, could not lend much expertise to the program either.

The nation's inherent poverty played a role in development problems, since inability to strictly control wages and increase prices with an impoverished consumer base limited industrial profits. The strained purchasing power of Tanzanian consumers also created a low demand for domestically produced goods. Poverty was inflamed by the combination of world inflationary pressure in the early 1970's with OPEC-induced oil price hikes and the Tanzanian drought of 1974. Negative balance of payments, a 25% malnutrition rate among children under the age of 5 and a strain on socialist ideological commitment seemed as an exercise in futility at that point in time. Tanzania was not equipped to handle this shortage internally. With population pressures increasing at a rate close to the production growth rate and terms of trade deteriorating, Tanzania had to resort to more foreign aid in the 1980's.

Tanzania had maintained a diverse array of sources of aid throughout the 1960's and 70's, ranging from Scandinavian countries, China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, the World Bank, and U.N. sources, to Canada and the United States. According to its Non-Aligned status, Tanzania exercised its prerogative to draw from both sides of the Cold War conflict, receiving almost 1/3 of its aid from China in 1976. Tanzania displayed a remarkable amount of audacity in criticizing the foreign policy of Western countries (particularly the United States), considering its increasing dependence on foreign aid. In 1981, Nyerere made this statement regarding Reagan's proposed military aid to Africa, "Those who seek to initiate such a force are not interested in the freedom of Africa. They are interested in the domination of Africa". In 1982, Reagan cut $4 million of Tanzania's $13.2 million in food aid. Nyerere recognized the precarious dependence of his country, with 78% of its development funds coming from outside sources and Tanzanian food exports dropping 10% since 1973, but the country needed help.

The World Bank also contributed to Tanzanian dependency, undercutting Tanzania's choice to develop rural domestic agriculture before its exports industry. Until 1975, no World Bank funds had ever been allocated to aid food crop production. World Bank projects also tended to set aside more resources for large-scale industry than for Ujamaa villages (explicitly the center-piece of Tanzania's socialist economic development revolution). In addition, World Bank projects were often inappropriately capital-intensive, unsustainable for average farmers and consequently damaging to the land. Many World Bank development activities established separate administrative structures thereby contributing to the considerable duplication of bureaucratic efforts within Tanzania. By the 1976-81 Third 5-Year Plan, under foreign influence and the failure of domestic rural production to sustain Tanzanian populations, allocations to manufacturing constituted 25% of the budget. In 1983, the Tanzanian National Agricultural Policy made large-scale private farming its top priority.


Counting on the masses to support a socialist revolution, Nyerere put much faith into education as a solid foundation for Ujamaa. Yet, due to a stronger peasant commitment to private over communal farming in the villages, dedication to community-based production never materialized. Figures from the mid-1970's revealed that only 8-16 hours per week were typically devoted to communal farming. In addition, subsequent low gains from communal plots decreased commitment to working them even more. In reality, the lack of organization of communal plots and the fact that financial decisions regarding the plots were often made without peasant input, made private plot tending more desirable and profitable for the individual farmer.

Traditionally, homesteads had been cultivated by the same farmers for years making it routine for peasants to gain their livelihood from production on their own strips of land. Nyerere saw the ideological loyalty to personal, altruistic production as another self-destructive legacy of Euro- colonial rule. He opined as follows, "We have got rid of the foreign government, but we have not yet rid ourselves of the individualistic social attitudes which they represented and taught. For it was from overseas that we developed the idea that the way to the comfort and prosperity which everyone wants is through selfishness and individual attainment."

Incentives to move away from individualistic production were inadequate. Unfortunately, many of the expected returns from Tanzania's socialist revolution only came after a time lag: significantly increased sustainable incomes, classlessness and improved standards of living through self-sufficient food production, nutritional improvement and industrial growth only occurred after years of sacrifice and human pain. Short-term visible gains to maintain the momentum and morale of Tanzanian citizens were few and far between. Moreover, the state had no qualms about publicly stating that the financing for such public goods as healthcare centers and housing would have to be repaid by citizens. The large amount of responsibility expected from rural citizens was also not evened-off by benefits.

Criticism had come from the other side, as well, stating that Nyerere's ideological campaign placed too much emphasis on political transformation at the expense of teaching practical skills for increased food production and improved health. This reality has indicated that Ujamaa's fixation on the foundation of political commitment was an impractical consideration in the short-term.

In fact, many of the problems encountered in Tanzania's attempt to adopt Ujamaa- socialism extended from the division between long-tern and short-term change. Explicitly, Nyerere knew from the beginning that the transformation would have been slow and costly and he made a concerted commitment to a trial-and-error approach. Though Tanzania's socialist revolution was a learning process for an unskilled, post-colonial bureaucracy, nevertheless, the making and correction of mistakes distorted the public's perception of genuine socialism. However, Ujamaa accomplished several significant structural changes in Tanzania, i.e., greatly improving the educational system and narrowing the country's income gap from 70:1 in 1961 to 15:1 in 1974. Additionally, throughout this time, TANU remained formally committed to Nyerere's ideals of egalitarianism, rural development, self-sufficiency, and democracy, often revising policy to do so.

Tanzania's evolution toward a market-driven, structurally adjusted economy throughout the 1980's and 90's was a disappointing, but understandable shift. It has left many scholars examining the country's struggle with socialist Ujamaa to determine if it was just a ploy to adopt quasi-capitalism all along. However, Ujamaa's genuine concern for human development was evident in Nyerere's own words, "There are easier ways of embarking on a path of capitalist development than the Arusha Declaration."

In the final analysis, it is to be hoped that President Hugo Chavez's battle cry of "Socialism or death" will not experience the same fate as Nyerere's Ujamaa/socialist revolution. "Forward Ever; Backward Never."

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies and University of the West Indies.

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