The rare display of groundedness and humility by a sitting African head of state was enough to catapult Nyerere on to the path to canonization. His daring socialist experiment and the decision to leave office at the end of his term, something that remains difficult for African presidents, are significant highlights of his pro-people politics.
The canonization of Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, draws ever closer. The long and costly process involves data collection and canon lawyers arguing for the cause, and used to include a Devil's Advocate arguing against it. Having passed the first stage, Nyerere is now properly referred to as Venerable. If he passes the further tests he will be beatified, Blessed Julius; and finally canonized as Saint Julius with a Feast Day falling on his birthday or some other significant milestone.
On a visit to Uganda, Nyerere astounded everyone when, attending Mass at a central Kampala church, he avoided the honours that the State scrambled to offer him. While the usually overflowing congregation was inconvenienced by being made to pass through body scanners and having the already insufficient space reduced in order to provide him with a buffer against them, the man took a random seat in the church. A Catholic from the pre-Vatican II period, he sought confession before Holy Communion and insisted on joining the long slow-moving queue rather than being leap-frogged to the front.
John Paul II once defined a saint as an ordinary person who does ordinary things in an extraordinary way. That rare display of groundedness and humility by a sitting African head of state was enough to catapult Nyerere on to the path to canonization. Earlier, he had admitted that his experiment with Ujamaa had not been a success, that it had in fact left Tanzania's economy a shambles. Then in 1985, Nyerere resigned the presidency.
To understand why this would warrant more than a month's attention, one need only consider the number of presidents who, approaching the end of their final terms in office, have altered their country's constitution in order to extend their tenure. Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso was overthrown last year when still not sated, he tried it for a second time. Joseph Kabila of DR Congo had to violently put down riots in order to hang on to what is known in East Africa as 'the Chair.' President Museveni of Uganda was exposed by some opposition members of parliament after they were offered UShs 5 million each (around US$2,000 at the time) in order to make up the quorum required for the constitutional change that removed term limits, allowing him to possibly rule for life. Two months ago President Nkurunziza of Burundi sparked off the ongoing political unrest and extra-judicial killings in his country by attempting to prolong his stay at State House. At the time of writing and with Burundi still smouldering, Rwanda lifted its presidential terms limit.
So difficult it is constitutionally to unseat an incumbent African leader that Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese business mogul and philanthropist, has founded the Ibrahim Prize to encourage them to step down voluntarily. US$5 million is awarded for good governance and "to ensure that Africa continues to benefit from the experience and expertise of exceptional leaders when they leave national office, by enabling them to continue in other public roles on the continent."
Definitions of good governance bear a striking resemblance to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, a point not lost on Nyerere. There is no question that what President Nyerere attempted, a fusion between socialism and Christian values, and what he did when he resigned are both worthy of credit. His support for independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa assure him a place in Africa's political history.
But what might the Devil's Advocate have argued against the Cause for the Canonization of the Venerable Julius? He may have received reports from Ugandans about the Y.K. Lule Affair in 1979. President Lule was in the Chair for 68 days before he was abducted. The first political riots for over a decade ensued. 'No Lule, No Work' was the phrase chanted by citizens defying bullets in City Square (now cordoned off to the public). Lule then surfaced in Tanzania where he was held in state custody.
On arrival in Dar es Salaam, he was brought before President Nyerere who tried to pressure him to sign a resignation, thus legitimizing his overthrow. Lule demurred. He would not sign. He became ill during his detention and it took pressure from the international community to bring about his release and transport to London. Nyerere had been in the presence of Milton Obote, a long time ally and fellow believer in what was called the 'move to the left'. Within a year Obote had become president for the second time.
Even saints make mistakes. Bernard of Clairvaux was canonized for reviving the monastic movement yet he preached a now infamous sermon justifying the Second Crusade. Is that qualitatively different from condoning the abduction of a head of state, trying to coerce him in to signing a resignation, and then imposing your own choice of leader on a neighbouring country? Extraordinary, but not in the way John Paul meant.
Furthermore, the principle of humility by which Nyerere lived is trampled on every June 3, Martyrs Day, when Uganda celebrates her own 22 martyrs executed at Namugongo in 1886 (and the recently canonized killed in Northern Uganda). Over 3 million pilgrims attended in 2015. They begin walking from all over the country a week before and from DRC, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda even earlier. On arrival they attend mass in the Basilica in their own languages led by their bishops and then bed down in the open air. West Africans fly in with European, American and other pilgrims.
However whenever Mrs Nyerere attends, so does President Museveni accompanied by all manner of dignitaries and his security apparatus which includes a convoy with vehicles mounted with guns and carrying armed men in military fatigues. The night before, sleeping pilgrims are woken up by policemen with sniffer dogs and asked to move their bedding from one place to another. Security cordons off areas sufficient for hundreds of pilgrims in order to make room for the portable toilet, the police dogs and a tent for the Inspector General of Police and his invited guests. The man-made lake now has a military-green rubber dinghy floating on it and pilgrims were recently barred from collecting water in the time-honoured fashion.
After the final mass, pilgrims are usually too exhausted to take in the president's delivery of his equally tired old dogma about Africans needing a common language and other Pan-Africanist noises; stuff it is difficult to believe he aspires to anymore (his memoirs and other reflections are written in English). But there is no escape. Security requires that no pilgrims leave the venue or enter their cars and buses until the big man's convoy has left. What is a campaign opportunity for him begins to feel like a land grab to the pilgrims who built Namugongo by public subscription over the decades.
Nyerere would not have approved, he would have chided us for eulogizing him for doing something as straightforward as going home at the end of his shift. Perhaps for that reason alone, he should be canonized.
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