8 Contemporary relevance

HEUA’s prognostications for post-Independence Africa have turned out to be stunningly accurate. Independent African nations, even those that had declared themselves Marxist, at best took a few baby steps to disengage from the structural economic shackles set up in the colonial era. Other than getting some assistance from socialist countries, they stuck to the economic prescriptions handed out by the IMF and the World Bank. As the new ruling groups devoted themselves to lining their pockets and consolidating their hold on state power, the old structures of dependency were altered only in minor, quantitative ways. A decade of modest growth was followed by stagnation, eroding social services and high levels of indebtedness. This gave the imperial financial institutions the power to impose policies even more harmful to the wellbeing of the ordinary people. Five decades on, Africa remains an exploited frontier of the global capitalist system. Its resources, land, and labor still serve external economies and multinational firms while it remains industrially backward and imports basic agricultural and other necessities. The few industries set up in the early days of Independence have been eviscerated in the latest onslaught of global capitalism (Burgis 2015; Deardon 2015; Editor 2015; McCauley 2015).

Economic growth in many nations has been high of recent. For the most part, it has been driven by foreign dominated oil, gas, mining and tourism sectors. But it is a transient phenomenon: a few years of boom invariably lead to a prolonged bust. And, as Rodney taught us, growth and development are distinct entities.

The presence of the former is seen in the luxurious, high rise dwellings, casinos and beach resorts for the expatriates and the local elite while the lack of latter is manifested in persistent malnutrition in rural areas and schools for which pencils and pens have to be imported, and where the ratio of students to teacher exceeds 200 to one, students sit on the ground, and have no books. Seven years of such education fails to enable many to read, write, or multiply even at a minimal level (Hickel 2014).

Rodney’s emphasis on basic economic issues, on tackling dependency, on standing on one’s own feet is of more than historic interest; it is vital to the construction of policies of benefit to the broad masses of Africa. His systemic mode of analysis is indispensable for uncovering the nature of the impact of pro-corporate globalization on Africa. Many micro level studies to date have yielded a mountain of evidence of the deleterious nature of this impact; but they have yet to be interconnected within the context of a social system.

That deficiency stems from the prevailing tendency to analyze the African past and present in fragmented, biased ways which mask the facts and essence of neo-colonial domination. In his time, Rodney stridently tackled the political scientists, historians, development theorists and sociologists, from Africa and beyond, who, while donning the mantle of African patriotism, adopted such a stand. His sharp debates with Ali Mazrui, a prominent doyen of that school, are the stuff of legend. Yet, over the years, Mazrui, to his credit, became more critical towards Western interference in Africa. But he retained his cultural-nationalistic viewpoint to his last day. Noting economic matters and integrating them into his analysis was a virtual taboo for him.

In our neoliberal times, this Mazrui type of world view dominates the work of Africa oriented scholars, local and foreign. The terminology has changed but the retrogressive essence persists. The phenomenon affects not just the scholars who have recently come of age. Many astute academics of yesterday who had adopted the leftist, holistic conceptual framework have, in the changed political climate, shed their radical garb and migrated towards the safer shores of effusive cultural, post-colonial, identity-based forms of analyses that side line the economic dimension of globalization and the continued systematic grip of imperialism on Africa. Not to do so risks the loss of funding for your work.

An instructive example

The Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani is a case in point. An erstwhile Marxist and colleague of Rodney at the University of Dar es Salaam, he authored well regarded leftist books like Politics and Class Formation in Uganda and Imperialism and Fascism in Uganda in that era (Mamdani 1976;1984).

To this day, he remains a prolific, respected, award winning writer on African issues. Yet, while a few of his writings still display a critical stand on the Western role in global affairs (Mamdani 2005), his conceptual horizon has shifted in a fundamental way. Economic issues and ideas like underdevelopment, imperialism, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism and class analysis are no longer germane to his analytic method. Instead, he operates on the legal, political, and cultural planes with identity group, ethnicity, religion, race, tribe, and nation as his basic units of analysis.  His focus is on politics, law, administration and conflict resolution, with class and anti-imperialist struggles deleted from the picture. Insightful and well researched as his analysis is, it is incomplete and biased as it avoids the underlying reality and economic trends that constitutes the long-term foundation for the problems he examines. That decades of material plight, ill health, hunger, empty promises, and political repression foment popular moods that lead to proliferation of divisive, hateful, regressive, religious and ethnic outlooks is secondary in his framework. And that such realities are in no small way the outcome of five decades of economic prescriptions and measures emanating from, and harshly enforced by, the West and the international financial institutions is secondary to him. The role of Western military intervention in initiating the slide into chaos and mayhem is marginalized. It is then no surprise that he can pontificate on the recent convulsions in Egypt without a word on the role of the US in the process. For him, it is just a question of Africans getting their act together and learning the ABC’s of peaceful, democratic co-existence (Mamdani 2008a; 2008b; 2011).

Mamdani’s recent monograph, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity, well encapsulates his current conceptual framework for social and historical analysis (Mamdani 2012). Its aim is to unravel the notion of identity in the colonial and post-colonial African contexts.

The anti-colonial rebellions of the 19th century in India and elsewhere form his stage of departure. Revealing the unstable nature of direct colonial rule, they presaged a new mode administering the colonies. With a detailed explication of the views of politically influential scholars like Henry Maine, he depicts the theory and practice of indirect colonial rule. A host of concrete case-studies from Asia and Africa are given. He then offers us the critical insights of African historians like Yusuf Bala Usman on indirect rule and its consequences. The book reaches its climax with an extended description of the process of dismantling the vestiges of indirect rule and creation of a unified nation-state in Tanzania under Julius K Nyerere. That process, according to him, epitomizes the possibility of peacefully establishing a modern state in Africa that is based on equal legal and political rights and a unitary administrative framework for all citizens.

Indirect rule, Mamdani tells us, was predicated upon positing two primary social groups in the society: natives and settlers, each governed by distinct administrative structures and laws. The natives were categorized into tribes and the non-natives (settlers) into races. A key, stated aim was to respect and protect the culture and customs of the natives from external intrusion while placing the settlers under a European style of governance.

Theory was one thing, practice quite another. As Mamdani demonstrates, this strategy of divide and rule did not stand on traditional or existing social groupings. Rather, it rested on policies that defined and cemented artificial identities. (All page numbers in this section refer to Mamdani (2012)).

The British actively defined and shaped community identities (p 29).

The architects of indirect rule had vast ambitions: to remake subjectivities so as to realign its bearers. This was no longer just divide and rule. It was define and rule (p 42).

Yet, artificial as they were, these identities became ingrained into the socio-political landscape. The take-home message is that the persistence and intensification of colonially derived identities — based on race and tribe – lie at the root of the instability and strife that plagues African nations today. And further, that the path to social harmony lies in pursuing, in the spirit of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, cohesive, conciliatory and peaceful strategies that will promote a unified sense national identity.

Sensible and noble as it sounds, Mamdani’s case has fundamental flaws. Taking him on his own terms, we see that simply focusing on race and tribe, and ignoring religion, language and national origin in the equation simplifies the official demarcation of identity under indirect rule in a major way. This applies to natives as well as non-natives. Some examples given in his own book and a cursory perusal of the census reports in colonial East Africa reveal the weakness of his depictions. The population in British East Africa was, in terms of all aspects of life, divided into three racial groupings, European, Asian and Arab, and African. If you visited a bank, you would find European managers, Asian clerks and cashiers, and African cleaners. The Africans were divided in terms of tribe and religion. For example, the Christian areas that grew export crops had better educational facilities than the Muslim areas that supplied migrant labor for plantations. Representing a reversal from the era of German rule, this became a source of friction that persists to this day. Among the Asians, only the economically dominant and politically well-connected Ismaili religious community was permitted to set up its own exclusive system of education. In pursuit of a simple conceptual cogency based on race and tribe, Mamdani presents a shallow picture of a complex reality in which administrative groupings were formed from a judicious blend of existent and constructed identities.

Mamdani’s principal weakness stems from his almost total abandonment of economic issues. Yet, some of the scholars who feature extensively in this book do invoke them. Henry Maine opined that the caste system in India was but a religiously sanctioned rationalization for economic and class divisions (p 13). In that vein, Mamdani could have declared that the separation of natives and settlers under colonial rule was but a political and cultural veil for egregious economic stratification. He would then have echoed the forebodings of his hero, Julius Nyerere, on the potent overlap between race and economic privilege in that era.

Bela Usman brings neo-colonialism into the picture in his analysis of tribal identity and notes the effect of emergence of a market economy on identity formation in Africa. And there are other relevant instances from this work. Is it then justified to completely leave out economic factors and neo-colonialism from an analysis of national identity in post-colonial Africa? How did the initial attainments and subsequent abject failure of the post-colonial economic policies affect the strengthening and/or weakening of the nascent sense of national identity? Did the commonality of economic problems and foes of African nations, as noted by progressive scholars like Rodney, contribute to the enhancement of a pan-African identity? If not, why not? What was the contribution of Frantz Fanon on the settler/native divide and identity formation in colonial and post-colonial Africa? For Mamdani, these are irrelevant queries. Particularly, when formulating the basis of his stand on identity, he assiduously avoids economic issues.

The final portion of Mamdani’s monograph deals with how Julius Nyerere went about ‘creating an inclusive citizenship and building a nation-state’ in mainland Tanzania after Independence (p 108). That is done because Nyerere’s endeavors represent ‘the most successful attempt to dismantle the structures of indirect rule through sustained but peaceful reform’ in Africa (p 107).

We learn how Nyerere systematically dismantled the tribe based system of local administration, and replaced it with a unified system based on national laws. Further, in the face of opposition from racially oriented politicians, he managed to enact citizenship laws that did not differentiate people on the basis of skin colour. While Mamdani presents a decent case for these two issues, it has two glaring flaws. It leaves out two singularly pertinent issues, namely, religion and Zanzibar.

With Islam and Christianity the dominant, numerically almost equal faiths in the nation, at Independence, the Muslims felt that they had been at greater disadvantage under colonial rule and sought specific measures to redress the situation. Nyerere was not as successful in bridging this divide. It rumbled on beneath the surface throughout his tenure, and, to this day, many Muslims feel, rightly or wrongly, that Nyerere was ‘anti-Muslim’ (Hirji 2014b; Maoulidi 2009; Said 2014).

Not dealing with Zanzibar permits Mamdani to posit the army mutiny of 1964 as the most important challenge faced by Nyerere. The role of violence in the creation of Tanzania and the vexing matter of fairness and equality for the citizens of one part of Tanzania are then side lined. The structure of the union between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania gives almost free reign to the island authorities to violently suppress, with the help of union armed forces, the voices and electoral will of the people. But for Mamdani, this key aspect of Nyerere’s legacy does not exist.

With the scene aptly sanitized, Mamdani applies his simple model of race and tribe. Yet, even in that exercise, because he dispenses with relevant economic matters, applies a homogenized picture of Asians in the nation, forgets about neo-colonialism and the nature of the neo-colonial state, his conclusions remain highly suspect.

At Independence, people of Asian origin had two years within which to apply for citizenship. At the outset, most of them were undecided. Interestingly, it was the Ismaili community, the most favored by colonial rule, that took the initiative. Its members acquired citizenship in droves and, in the next five years, significantly expanded their commercial and industrial ventures.  Yet a decade on, that picture was turned upside down. After the state acquisition of commercial properties in 1971, it was this community that led the way in the mass exodus of Asians from Tanzania. Today, the Ismailis form a small portion of a much-dwindled number of Asians in Tanzania. And about a fifth of them today are recent non-citizen arrivals from India and Pakistan. What were the causes — economic, religious and political – behind this historic shift? Because Mamdani posits a unitary, passive Asian community, and as that weakens his case for the successful integration of non-natives into the independent nation, and also, as it concerns factors he deems marginal, Mamdani purges such issues from history. Furthermore, he fails to note the resurgence of racial exclusivism and intolerance in the neo-liberal times, which point to the weaknesses of the reforms of the Nyerere era.

Unsurprisingly then, Mamdani as well makes no mention of the large-scale nationalization of banks, industries and other enterprises, foreign and local, that occurred after 1967. Justified or not, overnight state acquisition of private property signifies the use of the coercive power of the state. Why were such measures taken? Posing this question brings into question the depiction of Nyerere as a statesman exclusively occupied with the creation of politically and legally unified nation. But having reached that conclusion from the (surely biased) self-evaluations done by Nyerere after retirement, Mamdani has no cause to venture into the messy realities of history. He can ignore the cogent, empirically grounded analyses of scholars like Adhu Awiti, Andrew Coulson, Henry Mapolu, John Loxley, Walter Rodney, Justinian Rweyemamu, John Saul, Issa Shivji, Tamas Szentes, Michaela von Freyhold and others including the Mahmood Mamdani of yesterday who revealed a different way of interpreting those events. Though, a reason is provided for that omission: These are but leftist ‘critics [who] contemptuously dismissed [Ujamaa] as a romantic and unscientific endeavour’ (p 108). What more needs to be said?

But one thing Mamdani is unable to ignore is the villagization scheme implemented under Nyerere. It transported, in a chaotic but generally brutal manner, some ten million rural residents into Ujamaa villages. He concedes that such actions weaken the designation of Nyerere’s reforms as purely non-violent. But we get the impression from Mamdani that such a mode of operation was an aberration from Nyerere’s normally peaceful style. One cannot but admire the adroit word play that permits Mamdani to view the herding millions of people into new villages as not a central, defining aspect of Nyerere’s statecraft. But since he also forgets the frequent, uncalled-for deployment of the riot police unit inherited from the colonial rulers to suppress numerous student and worker protests throughout the Nyerere era, Mamdani can safely pursue his binary, identity based analysis.

Interestingly, in two end notes, Mamdani discloses in small print that the system of administration under which the Ujamaa villages were to function was designed by a major US consultancy company and that subsequently, all regional development planning was assigned to agencies from ‘donor’ nations on a region by region basis. Yet, those facts form a part of a veritable mountain of evidence collected by progressive scholars that establish the neo-colonial, dependency generating character of the economic policies pursued under Nyerere.

Selectivity of evidence allows Mamdani to put forth the proposition that Nyerere primarily was concerned about building a centrally unified nation state, and not about constructing a society based on economic equality and development for all. Is Mamdani now dismissing Ujamaa ‘as a romantic and unscientific endeavor’? That anomaly aside, he is on shaky grounds. Nyerere sought to attain both the goals.  Even a cursory look at the policy documents and governmental and party actions of that era suffices to establish that nationalizations, creation of Ujamaa villages, the new educational policy, the leadership code, and calls for self-reliance formed a strategy aimed at elimination of exploitation of humans by humans and creation of a just society with prosperity for all.

That strategy was derailed soon after inception. Eventually, it ended as a failure of monumental proportions. It is a complex tale. In sum, the faults stemmed from not tackling the external dependency, remaining within the purview of the World Bank inspired economic prescriptions, reliance on a neo-colonial state apparatus, the influence of a petty bourgeois ruling party and the dominance, in day-to-day operations, of a self-centered, greedy bureaucracy. In the end, the policy did more harm than good.

After his retirement, Nyerere did not give an adequate accounting of what happened during the 25 years of his rule. His speeches and writings noted a few failures but mainly highlighted his accomplishments. Mamdani unduly relies on these subjective declarations but does not give due weight to the totality of historical evidence. His conclusions thus not only embody the personal bias of a politician but, at times, reverse cause and effect.

More can be said, but what has been said suffices to show that Mamdani employs a defective method to analyze history and society, and resorts to partial evidence to arrive at weighty conclusions. There is no question that Julius Nyerere was a humble man, a dedicated Pan-Africanist and a humanist who towered head and shoulders above the despotic, avaricious tyrants who ruled Africa in his days. But that is no reason to place him on a pedestal and not subject his rule to a thorough critical inquiry. And he was not alone. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia was also in that club.

A defining feature of a scholar is the ability to critique one’s own ideas and evolve along the intellectual front. Such an evolution, however, should not reflect expediency or change for the sake of it. Especially if a scholar changes his or her basic world view in a major way, it should be accompanied with a clear explanation of why that has been done. Yet, other than taking cheap pot shots at Marxism, Mamdani has not provided an adequate rationale for why he jumped from one end of the socio-analytic horizon to another. Has he disavowed his own stellar works of the yesteryears? Mamdani thus he stands in the company of the bulk of modern day historians of Africa who can go no further than distort and superficially critique the works and Marxist approach of Walter Rodney. He surely ought to heed the advice a historian he strongly admires:

The more important question [is] how to detect and deal with one’s own bias. Bala Usman (cited on p 89).


The main implications of my evaluation of Mamdani’s framework defining monograph are as follows:

First, as noted in the previous chapter, nowadays most historians writing on Africa agree that economic factors constituted, in policy and practice, the primary drivers of colonial rule. By his compartmentalized ejection of economics from history, Mamdani takes us back to a retrogressive era of conceptualizing history.

Secondly, like Ali Mazrui, Mamdani has mastered the flowery art of saying the same thing in a creative multiplicity of ways. It gives an impression of profundity and novelty where there is neither. Terminology aside, the main principles of his historiography and take on identity, citizenship and nationhood mirror the similarly focused but superficial, selective and distorted works on Africa emanating from the Western academia today. For the case of Tanzania, see Aminzade (2013), Brenan (2012), Fouere (20015) and Ivaska (2011).

Thirdly, Mamdani’s vision of Africa is an amalgam of the political-cultural Africanism of Ali Mazrui with the humanism of Julius K Nyerere. Yet, as it distorts the economic realities of Africa, and ignores class analysis and imperialism, it is fundamentally inimical to the interests of the people of Africa.

Fourthly, the great men theory of history states that the course of history is determined by exceptional individuals: emperors, generals, geniuses and the like. Today, few historians subscribe to it. Yet, the depiction of the role of Julius Nyerere in pre- and post-Independence Tanzania given by Mamdani revives that mode of thinking. He fails to accord due weight to the local and Africa-wide contextual and historical factors that affected the changes that occurred in the nation. These include: an indigenous national language, absence of strongly competing ethnic groups, a small number of metropolitan settlers, absence of wide scale land alienation, high level of cooperation between the two major religious communities and the way the anti-colonial struggle evolved from the early days. While Mamdani mentions the ultra-nationalistic leaders who differed with Nyerere, he pays no attention to the scores of prominent and hundreds of grassroots level leaders who saw eye to eye with him. It is as if one great man, by himself, determined what occurred in Tanzania (Said 2014). And it is this failure to see Nyerere as a representative of an emergent social class that also limits, as shown below, his ability to explain the long run trajectory of that nation.

To assess the comparative appropriateness of Rodney’s political economy-based approach and Mahmood Mamdani’s identity-based approach for dealing with Africa’s modern day problems, we remain in Tanzania, and examine the present situation in this nation where both of them spent nearly seven years of their early academic careers, and where their stays overlapped for three of those years.

Tanzania today

Like most African nations, Tanzania in the 1980s was compelled to adopt the structural adjustment program decreed by the IMF and World Bank. Its main conditions were reduction in state outlays for administration, social services and subsidies, and curtailment of state involvement in the economy. Higher education was one of the first areas to feel the axe.

The process gained momentum at the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1990s. Publicly owned banks, industries, transport firms, import/export agencies, wholesale and retail trade companies, agricultural marketing organizations and cooperative unions, mines, hotels, housing stock etc., were dismantled or sold off to private buyers on a massive scale. Many rural health centers ceased operation. Teachers, civil servants and health workers by the thousands became jobless overnight. New laws that protected employers and private property, but disadvantaged workers, tenants and rural small holders were enacted.

Privatization was a corrupt exercise implemented hastily with no regard for the national interest. The principal beneficiaries were foreign companies, local business groups and the upper echelon of the state bureaucracy (Sharife 2009). Private firms that had purchased state assets at fire-sale prices failed to adhere to the sale conditions. Apart from a few lucrative exceptions, instead of revival and efficient running of ailing state firms, the opposite occurred. Industrial machinery was auctioned-off, factories were converted into warehouses and giant state farms were left idle.

Implemented alongside trade and financial liberalizations, the results were virtual decimation of the small but significant manufacturing sector built over four decades, loss of vital institutional skills, and inundation of the market by cheap, low quality imports. Instead of processed or semi-processed exports, raw lower value goods were sold abroad. Urban unemployment and rural to urban migration rose rapidly.

This transformation formed the basis for the emergence of a two-tier society: wananchi (people of the nation) and wenyenchi (masters of the nation). While abuse of public funds had been endemic for decades, in the neo-liberal era, it reached astronomical proportions. Embezzlement, fraud, sweet-heart deals and under-the-table pay outs from foreign and local companies seeking special terms converted bureaucrats into multi-millionaires. Some built their own business, transport and real estate empires. On the other hand, more and more street kids, beggars and aimless youth were seen plying the city streets.

That the neoliberal ‘reforms’ were socially deleterious and potentially destabilizing was apparent by the end of the decade. Some backtracking was necessary. The Western agencies goaded the pliant African rulers to adopt a new set of remedial measures: the Millennium Development Goals. The stress was on education, health and social services placed under state and NGO management. Cost sharing was partly curtailed. Most projects relied heavily on external funds. Significant issues like food self-sufficiency, unemployment, inter-regional trade, small scale industries, and economic self-determination were, however, not on the agenda. The talk was of youth and female empowerment.

By 2010, the achievements of some of the externally financed projects, especially in education, looked remarkable. But it was more in quantity, not quality. To attain enrolment targets, thousands of primary level classrooms were built. School attendance shot up, yet pupils had few teachers and no books or desks. Though things have begun to improve of recent, the quality of education for the majority of children in primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions is as low as it was in the colonial era. Such education does not get you a worthwhile job. Employers routinely complain that university graduates with impressive transcripts are unable to communicate adequately in Swahili or English, and cannot perform basic tasks without close supervision (Kolumbia 2016). Yet, the children of the elite attend costly private schools where they get education of the type prevalent in Western nations. Inequality in access to health service is more striking. The feverish child of a domestic worker does not get malaria medication priced less than US $1 in a public facility while senior officials and upper class persons go to India and South Africa for routine medical check-up that costs thousands of dollars. Progress in public health is paradoxical. One survey indicates a dramatic fall in childhood mortality but another points to a high and rising childhood malnutrition rate. These surveys lack adequate quality control mechanisms. The high and increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular conditions is a major concern.

Extreme economic and social inequality is an accompaniment of the pervasive external dependency in all sectors: industry, transport, trade, finance, education, health, welfare programs, and even culture and sports (Mazanza 2016).

An incident that revealed the extent of external dependency occurred during the visit of the then President Jakaya Kikwete to Australia in 2014. At the university where he was given an award for achievements in the health sector, he was regaled by an Australian singer with a moving rendition of his nation’s iconic patriotic song: Tanzania, Tanzania. Sung in a pitch-perfect Swahili style, the way a native speaker of the language would, her voice, tonality and the accompanying music were mesmerizing. At the end, the President went to congratulate her and said: ‘You do it better than we do.’ But when he returned home, he was not asked why they represent our culture better than we do, or to what degree were his policies responsible for that state of affairs. The Swahili music and song heard on the Tanzanian radio and TV stations is either religious or the Western-type high-beat variety with grizzly, morally dubious, lyrics. The English songs are of the same style. The rich, vast cultural heritage from the 60s and 70s has all but disappeared. Tanzania, Tanzania is heard once in a blue. In the past, the government and public enterprises sponsored a plethora of music bands, singers and cultural activities. They were also given plenty of airtime. Today, such practices are a rarity. Non-commercial local cultural groups are highly dependent on external sponsors. Even pointing out the simple fact that Mount Kilimanjaro has the tallest trees in Africa has been left to foreign researchers (The Citizen 2016b).

External agencies initiate, fund and micro-manage thousands of projects across all sectors. It is a largely uncoordinated process. You find the ambassadors, NGO heads and dignitaries from Norway to the UK, from the USA to Japan visiting villages, schools, health centers and water projects they have funded. Like the colonial officials of the past, they are received with fanfare and gratitude by the ordinary people. They are seen as the saviors, unlike the uncaring, corrupt district and regional bosses. External agents influence the drafting of important laws and adoption of a new constitution.

Scenes sadly reminiscent of the docile subservience of the colonial era, unthinkable in the days of Nyerere, are an accepted part of the socio-political landscape.  The adulation with which US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barak Obama were welcomed here illustrates that tendency. The airspace came under US control and senior local officials were frisked and sniffed by dogs humiliatingly as if they were terrorists. As crowds danced and waved the American flag, the media projected the image of a benefactor descended from heaven. The main complaint was that people were not allowed to get close to the eminent dignitary.

Such scenes reflect a 180-degrees turnaround in the nation’s historic frontline stand against colonial domination. Tanzania under Nyerere had   backed the struggles of the peoples of Western Sahara and Palestine for self-determination, and had hosted their representatives. In 2016, even though Morocco had shown no signs of budging from the territory it has occupied, the King of Morocco was in Tanzania for a state visit and was received with fanfare. The two nations signed twenty-one economic and cultural agreements. Since the year 2000, many Israeli companies have begun operations in Tanzania. Apart from some Islamic outlets, the print and broadcast media, state and private, have a pro-Israel slant. On the diplomatic front, Tanzania and Croatia were the two nations that helped, at a major UNESCO forum, the passage of a resolution on the status of Jerusalem favored by Israel. While on a visit to Israel, the speaker of the Tanzanian parliament paid a courtesy call to his counterpart in the Knesset.  Yet, the Palestinian ambassador to Tanzania had to wait for more than six months to talk to officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While Nyerere stood for East African unity, the government of Tanzania now expresses strong reservations about moving that process forward. These are but a few instances of new political landscape that generate little critical comment.

President Magufuli, elected in 2015, has embarked on a major drive to curb the abuse and misuse of state resources and control tax evasion. It has uncovered financial scandals, bribery, frivolous expenses, fraud, lack of work discipline and mismanagement on a scale too shocking even to the most cynical observer. A massive clean-up of bad officials and practices has ensued.  Government offices, public hospitals and the public education system now operate more efficiently.

The key question thereupon is: What next? The official answer is to stick to the neo-liberal agenda, but implement it more efficiently and on terms more favourable to Tanzania. No bold, innovative development plan is on the horizon.

Take a central concern: Creation of jobs, especially for the youth, and skilled jobs that pay well, is one of the weakest features of the economy. Pronouncements about a major industrialization drive have been issued. But inquiry reveals that no plan or state run scheme exists. The task has been left entirely to the private, mainly foreign, firms that will be afforded tax and other incentives to encourage them to invest here. The recently opened factories are capital intensive with the bulk of the labor force getting a very low wage. In addition, of recent, many private industries are closing shop.

Dealing with job creation for the youth has been farmed out to external entities. The Obama Youth Initiative run by USAID, the multi-institutional Ready to Work Plan funded by Barclays Bank, and the Via-Pathways Project supported by the MasterCard Foundation, among several such projects, are expected to place millions Tanzanian youth into gainful work (Lamtey 2016; Lawi 2016; Tungaraza 2016). Yet, despite the hype, most of them do not involve much more than teaching entrepreneurship and computer skills, which is supplemented by standard motivational lectures.

Very low wage in highly profitable enterprises, besides its adverse impact on family life and health, fails to generate the purchasing power for stimulating sustainable development. In the growing tourism sector, for example, there are international brand hotels, beach resorts and safari lodges that charge US $200 to US $300 per night. But the kitchen, cleaning and serving staff are lucky to be paid US $5 per day. Within the past two decades, the city of Dar es Salaam has been transformed by a multitude of impressive high rise structures that house state and corporate offices, luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, costly places of entertainment and Western style shops for the wealthy. The monthly rental for a two-bedroom flat exceeds what a primary school teacher earns in a year. The common man either does a menial job at the place or just admires it from outside. Limitations of space does not permit giving more examples, but suffice to say that the set up reminds one of Fanon’s contrasting descriptions of the town of the settlers and the town of the natives.

Extreme and growing social and economic inequality, pervasive external dependency and worship of everything Western have frayed the strong sense of national identity that developed during the Nyerere era. The feeling that we are in the same boat has all but vanished. The opposition political parties and the private and state media are as well wedded to the neo-liberal program and worship of things Western. A few parties have ties with right wing groups in the West. The lack of meaningful alternatives makes the politicians fall back on narrow loyalties. The frustrated public is quite receptive to the divisive rhetoric of the demagogic politicians. Hence we see rising tensions along racial, religious, regional and ethnic lines in this hitherto largely peaceful nation (Hirji 2014a).

The state in Tanzania retains the essential features of the state set up in the colonial times. It services global multinational companies and their local allies, and protects a system that subjugates the masses. That is the feature it shares with the state in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa or Egypt. Indeed, there are political, legal and security related differences. While such differences are important, we cannot ignore the shared class based features. In the current historic juncture, dependent neo-liberal states operate, in the economy, politics and societal affairs, in a fairly uniform manner not just in Africa but on the planet as a whole. And it is a mode of operation that decisively and adversely impinges on popular struggles for justice, economic welfare, democracy, equality, social tranquility and dignity.

The centrality of economic problems and economic inequality and their connection with the spectacular rise in religious extremism, xenophobia, racial intolerance, suspicion of outsiders, nationalistic paranoia, uncivil behavior, and tendency to violently deal with fellow humans is visible across the planet. People everywhere are disaffected by the status quo. The events and political outcomes in South Africa, India, the Philippines, Eastern and Western Europe, the UK (Brexit) and USA (Trumpism) should leave us in no doubt about that. Unfortunately, popular anger is exploited by fascistic and fundamentalist movements to enhance their political clout. It is a path to civil strife, fascism and reckless wars.

Economic factors and trends are strong drivers of identity formation, the sense of a common nationhood and human solidarity, in a positive or negative sense. In time, narrow divisiveness can assume a momentum of its own. This is what Rodney’s political-economy based approach teaches us. And that is exactly what Mamdani’s identity driven approach fails to capture.

A new vision

That not just the political class but even the prominent intellectuals of Africa today are gripped by outlooks that sit well with the imperialist overlords of the continent and cause but minor discomfort to its greedy rulers points to the continued indispensability of the mode of thought championed by Walter Rodney and his compatriots. We need to move beyond the narrative of citizenship, corruption, electoral democracy and human rights, and think in terms of elimination of exploitation and dependency, promoting grass roots democracy, building a society based on equality and social justice, and firm promotion of people-based Pan-Africanism.

Not putting the economic plight of the people at the center stage, not shining a sustained bright light on the systemic, systematic, persistent and intense economic exploitation of African land, labor and resources, and endlessly engaging in verbal acrobatics with secondary ideas like direct and indirect rule and their consequences is precisely what the imperialists and their lackeys prefer. Were he with us, it is exactly what Rodney would loudly bring to our attention: ‘Brothers and sisters, they came to rob us, they have robbed us for centuries, and in a dirty alliance with the modern day local stooges, they want to go on doing it in perpetuity.’ He would thunder and urge us to ‘keep our eyes on the prize.’ I have no doubt that on this score, he would argue with Professor Mamdani today as surely and vigorously as he did with Professor Mazrui in the 1970s.

Rodney would educate us that those who perpetuate the view that ‘Nowadays African leaders, not the outsiders, are underdeveloping Africa’ are telling but one side of the story. The exclusive focus on those who rob by the millions protects the external hegemons who rob by the billions. Such voices are either oblivious of the strategic alliance between the local political and business elites and the imperialists, or they simply seek NGO funds from the masters.

The choice for the people in Africa and everywhere is clear: Fascism, divisiveness and violence or socialism, solidarity and social tranquility. It is time to dispense with the elusive notions of identity and seriously consider the visionary ideas of Walter Rodney and his compatriots that not only better explain the realities of today but as well point a realistic, humanistic way out of the global malaise.


The enduring relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Copyright © 2017 by Karim F Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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