Tanzania: socialist 'paradise' can't pay its bills

Liberals around the world have for years seen Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere as a shining example of a progressive leader motivated by idealism.

And in Tanzania, Nyerere is called mwalimu (Swahili for teacher).

The President's admirers have believed he is making progress in his effort to lead 20 million mostly impoverished peasant people along the path of socialism toward collective prosperity.

But many observers now say there is an undercurrent of despair, cynicism, and corruption in his socialist paradise. His farm collectives and nationalized industries have not fulfilled their promise; many, in fact, are failing. Tanzania has a huge trade deficit, and foreign reserves are at rock bottom. Drought has contributed to food shortages, and for some time the country has been on the edge of famine.

Nyerere was recently elected, unopposed, to another five years of leadership. He had no serious rival. He is building a new capital of considerable grandeur and cost in the bush at Dodoma. But Dodoma may wind up as a monument to failure.

Nyerere turned his back on private enterprise in 1967. This resulted in tensions with neighboring Kenya, a proponent of capitalism. The conflict between the two countries is one of the reasons for the breakup of the East African Community in 1977.

Nyerere turned farm areas into collectives. Thousands of peasants were moved from their traditional homesteads to large villages. In certain areas force was used to put down resistance to his plan.

Almost every industry - banking, insurance, and manufacturing - was nationalized. Nyerere created a series of quasi-state organizations to buy, purchase, sell, and export coffee, sisal, maize, and cotton. Food buying and distribution were also nationalized.

But Nyerere's system, called ujamaa, appears to be failing. His finance minister, Amir Jamal, admits Tanzania is experiencing ''acute strain and stress.''

Foreign reserves rarely cover more than a week's imports. There are widespread shortages of commodities such as soap, clothes, even powdered milk. Overdue payments to foreign creditors are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, with a list 24 months long.

Tanzania is fortunate in that it is a favorite of foreign aid givers. But aid is not enough to fill the enormous foreign exchange gap. Recently the Tanzanian shilling was devalued by 10 percent; the International Monetary Fund had been pressing for a 50 percent devaluation.

Tanzania, a nation of lush agricultural potential, has been importing grain. And this year Nyerere, under considerable strain, said: ''Because of the importance of food, I could - with all my abhorrence of South Africa - buy it from there, if I can.''

The tragedy of Tanzania is that it is a potentially wealthy country, better endowed with raw resources than any of its neighbors. It has iron ore, diamonds, and copper. Its potential agricultural wealth is enormous, with sisal, cotton, tobacco, pyrethrum, coffee, tea, and many spices.

Its stunning coastline ideally suited for tourism, and its game parks are among Africa's best. But tourism is not regarded as a socialist activity, so it is going nowhere.

The President is running up against some internal criticism. The country has a tough preventive detention act. There are no official figures on the number of people imprisoned without trial, but in 1980 a former detainee wrote in a letter to a Nairobi independent journal, the Weekly Review, that there are usually about 1,500 persons in political detention, ranging from actual opponents of ujamaa to saboteurs. He said they are from all walks of life.

Another bombshell struck the country recently when a Tanzanian Boeing 737 was hijacked by a group of young radicals and taken on a long flight across Africa to London. Ninety passengers, mainly Tanzanians, were on board.

The incident embarrassed Nyerere and has drawn attention to the plight of the Tanzanians, which is exactly what the hijackers wanted.

Nyerere was even more embarrassed when a dozen passengers and the families of the hijackers asked for asylum in Britain.

A Nyerere critic and exile, former Foreign Minister Oscar Kambona, arrived at the airport in Britain soon after the hijacked plane arrived. Some observers think Kambona may have been behind the plot.

Since falling out with Nyerere over the nation's socialistic course in 1967, Kambona has led a campaign against the President. He pleaded with British authorities to view the air incident as an ''escape,'' not a hijacking. He described the Tanzanian government as ''a fascist regime'' under a ''cruel dictator.''

Nyerere has not insisted on extradition of the hijackers, and some observers see this as significant. They wonder if extradition and a trial would turn up even more embarrassments for Nyerere.

The hijackers may be part of a larger dissident movement, for after the hijacked plane landed in London, a bomb was found in the hold of another Tanzania airliner that took off from Mwanza on Lake Victoria, where the hijackers began their trip.

The performance of the 10 Tanzanian organizations that control production, distribution, and imports are said to be full of corruption and inefficiency. Nyerere admits this and has sacked many officials.

The question of whether cautiously to allow limited private enterprise is a hot topic in Tanzania. Last year a top party official asked Nyerere to allow private traders to compete with cooperative stores. He noted cooperatives were hopelessly inefficient in some areas and that there were critical shortages of basic commodities. But so far Nyerere has not yielded.

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