The role of Tanzania in fostering African Liberation movements

The emergence of organised popular liberation movements throughout Africa following the end of the Second World War was a crucial factor in achieving independence for many African countries. Tanzania played an important role in assisting these movements and acted as a consistent opponent of colonial rule in Africa. In particular, Julius Nyerere – the architect of Tanzania’s independence and the country’s first President – was a key figure in the struggle against foreign domination, and helped to popularise the concept of Pan-African unity.


Following the end of the First World War and the reallocation of German colonial assets, the region today known as Tanzania was transferred from German to British control. Britain renamed the country as Tanganyika. In the 1950s, a popular independence movement emerged to challenge the colonial regime. Julius Nyerere, a schoolteacher and staunch Pan-Africanist, formed the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which campaigned for the end of colonial rule. In 1961 the nation became an independent autonomous commonwealth, and the following year a new constitution was written and the Republic of Tanganyika was formed, with Nyerere as President.[1] Neighbouring Zanzibar also achieved independence from the British Empire in 1963, briefly reverting to a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan until he was overthrown the following year. A new government under President Abeid Karume was formed and a few months later an agreement was reached to merge Tanganyika and Zanzibar into one nation named the United Republic of Tanzania, with Nyerere remaining as President and Karume becoming Vice-President.[2]

Julius Nyerere and TANU

Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, is remembered as a central figure in the Pan-African drive for independence, and Tanzania’s involvement in liberation movements across the continent owes much to Nyerere’s leadership. He strongly believed that Tanzania had a responsibility to actively assist other nations to achieve freedom from foreign and minority rule, and focused TANU’s attention on this issue as a major element of his government’s foreign policy. Even before Tanganyika achieved independence, Nyerere was a vocal critic of White communities in other African countries, who were unwilling to participate in African majority-ruled societies. As early as the late 1950s Nyerere was publishing pamphlets castigating Whites in Kenya, South Africa and Rhodesia for rejecting the idea of African majority rule.[3] Nyerere and TANU continued this opposition to minority rule after Tanganyika’s independence, making it a defining feature of the government’s responsibilities. Speaking at the TANU National Conference in 1967, Nyerere declared that ‘total African liberation and total African unity are basic objectives of our Party and our Government…we shall never be really free and secure while some parts of our continent are still enslaved.’[4]

Julius Nyerere, the 1st President of Tanzania. Source:

The Arusha Declaration of 1967 outlined TANU’s principles regarding domestic and foreign policy. The document is very relevant to Tanzania’s involvement in the liberation struggle, as it obligated the government to cooperate with political liberation movements and to work with other states in achieving African Unity. The Arusha Declaration is also important within Tanzanian history as it demonstrates Nyerere’s commitment to socialist principles, which formed part of his concept of Ujamaa. Literally meaning ‘family hood’ in Swahili, Ujamaa was Nyerere’s model of African socialism, placing emphasis on political stability via a one-party system, rural regeneration through the creation of collective farms, and economic growth through nationalisation of key industries. Whilst Ujamaa helped to give direction to the newly-independent nation and imbued Tanzanians with greater sense of national identity, elements of the policy, particularly collectivisation and state control of production, later contributed to economic problems and widespread corruption.[5]

Involvement in Liberation Movements

Tanzania’s support for liberation movements went well beyond rhetoric encouraging African unity and solidarity. The country offered itself as a base for those fighting for liberation, hosting the forces of many movements including: the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) from South Africa, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU), and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) from Namibia.[6] These movements benefitted from the safety and stability of the country, as well as the experience and guidance they received from those who had already achieved independence. Tanzania also welcomed and housed large numbers of refugees from struggles across Southern Africa, providing an escape for those endangered by war or colonial oppression.

Tanzania was closely involved in several groups and organisations that aided the liberation struggle. Of these, the most well-known was the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Nyerere was a strong proponent of the formation of such an organisation, and when it was established in 1963 Tanzania was a founding member. The OAU had wider goals alongside freedom from colonialism and so it was agreed that an organ of the OAU, named the African Liberation Committee (ALC) would be formed to focus solely on the liberation struggle. Dar es Salaam, capital of Tanzania, was chosen as the headquarters of the ALC and housed it for the duration of its existence. The ALC had several key objectives: the funnelling of financial aid and material assistance to liberation movements, the promotion of coordination between liberation movements to unify their forces against the common enemy, and diplomatic efforts to seek international legitimacy for liberation movements.[7] By providing funding, logistical support, training and publicity, the ALC helped to support and organise the opposition to colonial rule in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa.[8] Tanzania was also a key member of the Frontline States, an organisation dedicated to overthrowing the apartheid regime in South Africa. By coordinating their approaches, the Frontline States could exert a greater influence than could be achieved alone.

The formation of the Southern African Development Coordination Committee (SADCC) in 1980 was one of the most significant events in the isolation of South Africa. SADCC brought together nine Southern African countries, including Tanzania, with the declared purpose of developing greater economic self-reliance and cooperation, so as to reduce dependence on South Africa and its apartheid regime.[9] Due to the economic dominance South Africa had in the region, reducing ties and resisting pressure was a near-impossible task for a single nation. Cooperation between a number of countries offered the only real prospect of achieving these objectives, but historical and geographical realities still presented many difficulties in reducing reliance on the apartheid regime.

Nyerere and his government also took action without the support of other states to challenge minority White rule in Southern Africa. In 1965 the White-dominated government of Ian Smith declared Rhodesia to be independent of the British Empire and took power. The OAU threatened that its members would break diplomatic ties with Britain if they did not intervene to remove the minority-controlled government. When the British government failed to do so by the deadline, Tanzania was one of only a few members that made good on the promise to end diplomatic relations and in doing so sacrificed £7.5 million in aid from Britain.[10] This willingness to forgo such a significant sum at a time of economic difficulty demonstrated the country’s commitment to fighting colonial and minority rule in Africa. The Tanzanian government also threatened to immediately withdraw from the Commonwealth if apartheid South Africa ever became a member, saying ‘to vote South Africa in is to vote us out’.[11] In 1970, Tanzania undertook an ambitious railway project, one of the biggest on the continent, to connect Dar es Salaam with Zambia. The aim of the project, known as Tazara, was to reduce Zambia’s economic dependence on Rhodesia and South Africa, both making it more politically independent and reducing the influence of the minority governments to the south.[12] Despite its good intentions, Tazara never truly achieved this objective as it proved to be both expensive and inefficient, and required heavy reliance on Chinese financing to keep it running.[13]

Although many of the most visible contributions to the African liberation struggle came from the political elite of Tanzania, it should be noted that the people of Tanzania were generally very supportive of the movements as well. The atrocities committed against the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau uprising in neighbouring Kenya had demonstrated to Tanzanians that anti-colonial struggles could be far more violent than their own relatively peaceful road to independence.[14] Consequently, support for African liberation movements was as strong throughout the population as it was in the government, and Nyerere was able to pursue his Pan-African objectives because of this popular support. It was customary for regular Tanzanians to offer voluntary contributions to the cause by way of agricultural produce, meagre financial resources and even blood donations.[15]This generosity was widespread despite the economic problems suffered by the country in the first few decades after independence.

Critical Views

Despite the major role that Tanzania played in nurturing African Liberation movements, there are some that offer a dissenting opinion regarding the contribution of Nyerere. Controversy among supporters of African liberation was generated in 1964, following a mutiny from the army in Tanganyika that threatened to overthrow Nyerere’s newly formed government. Faced with this prospect and forced into hiding, Nyerere appealed to the British government to deploy forces in Tanganyika in order to defeat the mutiny and restore his authority. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of independent Ghana and a founding member of the OAU, considered this invitation of colonial troops to be a stark betrayal of the principles of African liberation. Although Nyerere later explained his actions before the OAU and received no censure, Nkrumah continued to argue that the Nyerere had forfeited any credibility he may have had as a leader of the African liberation struggle.[16]

End Notes

[1] A. Mazrui & L. Mhando. Julius Nyerere: Africa's Titan on a Global Stage. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013, p.xxii.

[2] Ibid, p.xxii.

[3] C. Chachage & A. Cassam (ed.) Africa's Liberation: The Legacy of Nyerere. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2010, p.38.

[4] C. Legum & G. Mmari (ed.) Mwalimu: The Influence of Nyerere. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 1995, p.164.

[5] R.W. Johnson ‘Nyerere: A Flawed Hero’ The National Interest, 60 2000, p.72.

[6] C. Legum & G. Mmari (ed.) Mwalimu: The Influence of Nyerere. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 1995, p.164.

[7] H. Yousef ‘The OAU and the African Liberation Movement’ Pakistan Horizon, 38 1985, p.56-9.

[8] C. Chachage & A. Cassam (ed.) Africa's Liberation: The Legacy of Nyerere. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2010, p.62.

[9] C. Legum & G. Mmari (ed.) Mwalimu: The Influence of Nyerere. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 1995, p.153.

[10] A. Mazrui & L. Mhando. Julius Nyerere: Africa's Titan on a Global Stage. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013, p.309.

[11] P. Bjerk ‘Postcolonial Realism: Tanganyika's Foreign Policy Under Nyerere, 1960-1963’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies 44 2011, p.222

[12] R.W. Johnson ‘Nyerere: A Flawed Hero’ The National Interest, 60 2000, p.72.

[13] Ibid, p.72.

[14] C. Duodu Out of Africa: Tanzania and Julius Nyerere available at (accessed10/05/2016).

[15] A. Mazrui & L. Mhando. Julius Nyerere: Africa's Titan on a Global Stage. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2013, p.167.

[16] Ibid, p.275.

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