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Julius Nyerere: The Intellectual Pan-Africanist and the Question of African Unity

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The question of African unity has dominated political and intellectual discourse for quite a while, yet the approach, mechanism and substance seem to be ever elusive. The rhetoric has raised so much dust it has blinded political leaders as to the concrete measures that need to be undertaken. To Julius Nyerere, the quest for unity, both nationally and continentally, was a lifetime undertaking and commitment, the lifeline for the emancipation and development of African people. Nyerere will forever be remembered for pushing and spearheading the growth of Kiswahili in East and Central Africa, which epitomized his belief that Kiswahili could promote African unity, just as it had done in Tanzania. He gave content and meaning to Tanzania`s independence by recognising the role of an indigenous language in the development of cultural authenticity and national unity. To him, pan-Africanism meant self-determination in political, economic, ideological, social and cultural spheres. As globalisation witnesses growing nationalism in other continents of the world (such as pan-Europeanism in Europe), and as Africa faces the prospect of increased marginalisation, African thinkers, intellectuals and literary icons such as Ali Mazrui, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot P’Bitek and Wole Soyinka have made passionate pleas for a cultural re-awakening, which they see as a first step towards social, political and economic growth. It is the thesis of this paper that by drawing from Nyerere’s example, African renaissance and the dream of pan-Africanism shall be realised and that Africans shall not only discover themselves and uphold their identity but also appreciate the inherent power enshrined in their cultural heritage. It is argued that over-reliance on imperialist colonial languages—which by and large are emblazoned with Western world views, cultural values and ideals—is in fact neo-colonial and therefore detrimental to African unity and the spirit of pan-Africanism. A common indigenous language will not only foster unity but accommodate and manage diversity, express identity and articulate concerns for collective action and shared solutions to achieve growth and development. When you recognise that so many of the surrounding nation states are riven by horrendous ethnic and tribal divisions, what Nyerere accomplished seems almost miraculous.1 Tanzania illustrates the potential for ethnic harmony in a racially diverse setting. With an estimated 120 ethnic groups, it has avoided all ethnic conflict or political appeal to linguistic units. National unity cuts across ethnic boundaries, leading to a widespread rejection of tribalism. This outcome can be attributed to former president Julius Nyerere’s integrative political efforts and his government’s promotion of Swahili as a common language.


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