DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA -- All of Africa and much of the world applauded when Julius Nyerere, the George Washington of this vast East African country, voluntarily stepped down as president.

His retirement moved many of his countrymen to tears. The peaceful end to the presidency of an honest man -- reverently called Mwalimu, Swahili for teacher -- stood in noble contrast to the coups, murders and midnight escapes that have ended the careers of other African rulers.

Now, nearly two years after Nyerere's graceful exit, many Tanzanians are again choked with emotion. The cause, this time, is again Nyerere -- not that he is gone, but that he is not gone.

When he retired as president, Nyerere retained the chairmanship of Tanzania's ruling party. Since the Revolutionary Party of Tanzania is "the supreme organ of the state," Nyerere remained powerful. But he vowed to give up the chairmanship after two years and retire to his "nice little house" in the village of his birth near Lake Victoria.

Since February, however, Nyerere has delivered several impassioned speeches that have created widespread doubt about whether he will keep his word. Africa's most articulate spokesman for socialism again has been deriding the International Monetary Fund and the "big capitalist powers" for trying to sabotage development in poor countries.

What makes this worthy of notice is that the new president, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, has hitched Tanzania's future to the free-market capitalism that Nyerere has spent his life decrying.

In 24 years as leader of Tanzania, Nyerere, who is 65, was probably black Africa's best-known orator and statesman. With passion and persuasive power, he traveled the world to advocate a fairer distribution of wealth among nations. His Army purged Uganda of Idi Amin. Out of Tanzania's 130 ethnic groups, Nyerere's idealistic leadership forged one of Africa's most united, most peaceful nations.

But he also presided over -- and is widely considered responsible for -- the beggary of his country. Nyerere's "African socialism" -- collective farming, state ownership of business, abolition of private enterprise -- turned a resource-rich land into a pot-holed ruin.

Farmers, weary of not getting paid, stopped growing cash crops and surplus food. Factories closed and traders emigrated. Soap, toilet paper and matches became black-market luxuries.

Even the Scandinavian countries, infatuated for years with Nyerere's dream of a sharing, caring, self-reliant society, closed the spigot on the aid money that had kept the economy alive.

When Nyerere retired, he acknowledged that he had carried socialism too far, had nationalized too many industries and had maimed the economy with centralization. His departure and admission of error allowed his successor to turn Tanzania in a different direction.

Mwinyi quickly signed an agreement with the IMF, whose free-market medicine always had struck Nyerere as "an instrument of destabilization in the Third World."

That agreement has led to several generous reschedulings of Tanzania's $3.4 billion foreign debt. In Paris this week, 21 donor countries and lending agencies again showed their support for reform here by pledging $1.9 billion over the next two years, half of it in grants.

Mwinyi has established a farm-price policy that gives incentives to farmers to work hard. Last year, for the first time in a decade, Tanzania's economy grew faster than its population. The country exported corn. Soap, toilet paper and matches reappeared in the shops.

But Mwinyi's reform program, while showing promise, is moving slowly, according to businessmen and western diplomats here. Most of the ministers who were chosen by Nyerere remain in power under Mwinyi, a party politician who lacks his predecessor's charisma and political clout.

Hangers-on from the Nyerere era are said to be dragging their feet on reforms that would take decision-making (and bribe-taking) power out of their hands and give it to private businessmen.

What keeps Mwinyi from firing these bureaucrats and accelerating the pace of reform is Nyerere's continuing influence as party chairman, according to businessmen and western diplomats.

"Mwinyi is sitting on the throne, but he is wearing Nyerere's coat," one businessman complained.

Nyerere is widely acknowledged to have the power to stay on as party chairman as long as he likes. In speeches this year, the graying ex-president has raised the possibility that he may indeed stay on and that he is not comfortable with capitalistic change in Tanzania.

In February, he defended the Arusha declaration of 1967, his Chinese-inspired plan to use collective farming to move Tanzanians to self-sufficiency. (The plan failed miserably and has been scrapped.) In May, Nyerere again blasted the IMF, calling it "an instrument of the capitalist powers . . . bent on suppressing the weak developing countries by taking advantage of their poverty."

That speech raised many eyebrows among investors wary of a return to socialism and among western donors, who have warned the Tanzanian government that assistance will dry up if the country fails to move forward with reform.

More recently, Nyerere qualified his remarks on the IMF, saying they were not meant as a criticism of the government's economic program. Hinting anew at his retirement, he said the country's stability requires that the president and party chairman be the same person.

But political observers say it remains an open question whether Nyerere, still a vigorous politician, will voluntarily relinquish all his power to help speed the demolition of the socialist system he built.

Nyerere is expected to wait until October, when the Revolutionary Party has scheduled a convention, before announcing whether he will go home to his village.