Ujamaa Villages: The social experiment that failed
In 1967, in the northern city of Arusha, the ruling party TANU, which by then was
the sole political party, announced a major policy shift which was to launch the
country decidedly on the socialist path. There was an almost wholesale nationalisation
of major industries and banks. All major levers of economic productivity in the country
were to be publicly owned, either immediately or in the shortest possible time. Another
major policy announcement was that of a push for collectivisation in the rural areas
where more than 80% of the population lived. That was the Arusha declaration.
Whilst many commentators have focused on collectivised agriculture as the apparent
aim of this drive, this was in fact not the primary purpose or end-point. If you
listen to Nyerere’s speeches at the time and many of his writings from the period,
there is little emphasis on this. Mwalimu Nyerere had always insisted on building
an egalitarian society where everybody participated productively in national life
and benefited equally from the state. He always railed against the development of
an African elite after independence, members of which neither understood nor cared
for the wellbeing of the majority in the rural areas.
The creation of Ujamaa villages was based on the high ideals of getting the poor
of rural Tanzania together in these villages meant to facilitate provision of means
of their social emancipation. The vision was that of a people working together to
solve their problems with the state as an enabler providing them with means of communication
(roads etc.), schools, health services and clean water. The villagers will then collectively
ensure their children are well-fed, schooled and kept healthy. They will also work
together to develop and implement strategies for their economic development to raise
their living standards.
Nyerere was clearly an idealist with a sharp moral compass. However, this was one
social and economic experiment that failed disastrously. Within 3 or 4 years of the
announcement and beginning of implementation, the whole thing was unravelling badly.
It is probably one of history’s stark lessons of the perils of a top-down style of
leadership. Mwalimu’s strong belief in equality and justice for all had blinded him
to the perils of imposed and untested ideas. The people who were to implement the
policy hardly knew or understood what they were doing. They were following like sheep.
The implementation was disastrous in the sense that there was no attempt to sell
the idea and persuade people. Coercion was used which, inevitably, alienated people
and left a great deal of bitterness. There was very little planning for many of the
new villages. Some people were moved from decent houses, which were promptly demolished,
and dumped in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for themselves, all in the name
of collective living. In some cases, villages were set up far from sources of water.
Promised schools and health centres quite often did not materialise, in some cases
dramatically worsening the very problem of access this measure was supposed to solve.
Not surprisingly, within a few years of setting on this path, the country’s food
production fell. Plantations that had been nationalised were badly managed and some
turned into a burden to the state where before they had been producing and paying
taxes. Bad weather in the early 1970s compounded the problem and Tanzania, for the
first time since independence in 1961, had to import grain in large quantities to
feed its people.
A failed experiment
Rapid villagisation as embodied in Ujamaa Villages was a social experiment that failed.
The ideal of people coming together for the common good and through self-reliance
to raise their own living standards had to wait another day. The lesson for future
generation has partly to be that people need to understand, believe and be persuaded.
That may take time and a lot of work but it is an important foundation. Such a major
transformational social experiment needed to be piloted. Those who were to lead had
to know the magnitude of the task ahead and what it actually entailed. All these
things were awfully lacking. The historical surprise would have been if this had
succeeded. There is a huge body of scholarly work with deep and detailed analysis
of the Ujamaa Villages programme in Tanzania that an interested reader can access.
Many commentators have talked about this man (Mwalimu Nyerere) who cared so deeply
and passionately that he let his people down in this important aspect: Their economic
One of Nyerere’s often repeated slogans was “we should run while they walk”. He was
acutely aware of his country’s backwardness and lack of development. To have any
hope of catching up, he exhorted his people to work hard. He would have been frustrated
and saddened as he came towards the end of his life that the majority had in fact
stood still and some had gone backwards. He cannot have failed to feel at least partly
responsible. The view of many is aptly summed up by one veteran journalist Stanley
Meisler in a news commentary he made after meeting Julius Nyerere 11 years after
he retired from the presidency: Referring to Mwalimu as ‘a saint’ Meisler said: “I
still admire Nyerere a great deal. But the Tanzanian experiment offers good evidence
that saints do not really make very good presidents”.Nyerere, genuinely humble and
self-effacing would have baulked at being referred to as a saint. He would have accepted
the latter verdict with customary good grace. In fact many historians and the overwhelming
majority of his own people agree that Mwalimu Nyerere was a great president when
you take a 360˚ view. He is one of the greatest the continent has ever produced.
The more appropriate lesson is that “Nobody is perfect”.
Mwalimu Nyerere was committed to rural development and spent a lot of time visiting
rural areas to get a first hand idea of the challenges. Here he is seen (middle with
hat and safari suit) inspecting a rural farm