Tanzania has long been one of the world's 25 poorest countries. But there was a time when it was described, in political terms, as one of the top 25. It punched far above its weight. That formidable achievement was the work of Julius Nyerere, who died last week.
His intelligence, verbal and literary originality (he translated Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" into Swahili) and apparent commitment to nonviolence made him an icon not just in his own country but for a large part of the activist '60s generation in the white world who, not all persuaded of the heroic virtues of Che Guevara, desperately looked for a more sympathetic role model.
Not only was Nyerere modest and honest, he was uncorrupted by fame or position. He remained throughout his life self-critical and unpretentious. Above all, he inspired his own people to pull together as one people. To this day Tanzania remains one of the very few African countries that has not experienced serious tribal division.
Later, discarding his earlier, more pacifist convictions, he was to become the eminence grise of the southern African liberation movements, extending a wide open embrace to their operations. For this his country paid a heavy price, not only in material terms but because Nyerere's role as interlocutor with the West demanded enormous amounts of time and energy that often led him to neglect his domestic responsibilities. It also pushed him to take shortcuts in judicial procedures that ended up incarcerating without trial, in miserable conditions, opponents of the leadership.
Indeed, the liberation struggle brought out a seminal weakness -- an inner conviction that he probably did know better than anyone else. Yet Nyerere was not an egomaniac who banged the table and surrounded himself with sycophants. He was simply the self-assured headmaster that he had been since his teaching days. But it was this flaw that has been part of the economic undoing of his country.
The Nyerere era is over, and his legacy, as far as ordinary people are concerned, is not self-evident, apart from rapid progress made, with the use of aid money, in the spread of primary education, simple health clinics and pure drinking water. Where a once equally poor nearby country, Botswana, has progressed rapidly to the point where it is barely recognizable as the impoverished backwater it was, Tanzania remains mired in underdevelopment, and only recently, since Nyerere voluntarily retired in 1985, has it begun to make up for lost time.
Inherited poverty, appalling weather, world recessions, crazed neighbors and war in southern Africa were all parts of the problem. But in the end there was no good excuse for such continuous failures. The hard grind of ensuring that what little there was ran well, be it an agricultural extension service inherited in good working order from the colonial administration or the Tanzam railway that the Chinese built as a gift, was sacrificed to the pursuit of grandiose ideas. Not useless prestige projects in Nyerere's case, but the more insidious ideas of ideology.
Nyerere's Christian socialist ideology dreamed of new ways of organizing society when there were hardly the rudiments of modern structures. He held that Tanzanians, of whom only a handful had more than a few years of professional experience, could run, transform and propel their country into a new orbit in which old habits, traditional or British-imposed, could be jettisoned wholesale.
His biggest mistake of all was what he called "ujamaa" -- a kind of African, Israeli kibbutz-inspired collectivization. The order was given that the peasants were to move. It was a momentous exercise, uprooting people whose families had farmed the same scattered plots for hundreds of years.
Many moved voluntarily, persuaded by Nyerere's rhetoric. Others had to be pushed. The planning was shoddy. Villagers were herded together, and yet often there was no running water, no good agricultural land and no road. Later Nyerere was to admit that even in his home village, which he often liked to visit, ujamaa had not really taken hold.
Nyerere was second only to Nelson Mandela as the most inspiring African leader of his generation. Yet, when all is said and done, it was not enough to be truly remarkable, to leave an imprint that will go down in history. Alas, he too often inspired the wrong things.
He was too beholden to his own self-righteousness and strong convictions. And since his opinions, sometimes good, too often wrong, could never be tested or seriously queried by ballot or by a feisty free press, his ideas were never effectively challenged. That probably did him, as a person, no good and it did Africa less.
The writer is a syndicated columnist, based in London.