4 January 2013

Nigeria: Remembering Walter Rodney


I grew up in the eastern region of Tanzania, where I did my primary school. All my secondary school I did in Dar es Salaam--actually, living in this very apartment. So I grew up here. Then in 1966 I completed my high school, and in 1967 I joined the university. At that time it was the University College, Dar es Salaam, because it was part of the University of East Africa. Nineteen Sixty-Seven was an important year because the year before there had been a student demonstration that opposed the government's proposal to start National Service, which was mandatory for university students. You had to spend about five months in the camps, and for the next eighteen months 40 percent of your salary would be deducted. Students opposed it. The president, Julius Nyerere, "sent them down": expelled them for a year.

That started a whole rethinking about the university, and there was a big conference on the role of the university. Then in February 1967 came the Arusha Declaration.1 The ruling party, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), issued the Arusha Declaration and a policy of socialism and self-reliance. Our word in Kiswahili, Ujamaa (translated as extended family or familyhood), became the official policy. A number of companies in the commanding heights of the national economy were nationalized by the government. That started a whole new debate at the university.

Walter Rodney had just come from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and became a young lecturer here.2 In the conference on rethinking the role of the university in now socialist Tanzania, he played a very important role. So, when I joined the university in July 1967, it was a campus with lots of discussions and debates in which Rodney participated. So that's my background. From 1967 to 1970, I did my Bachelor of Laws degree in the Faculty of Law. I went to England in 1970 to do my master's, came back in 1971, and from '71 to '72 I did my National Service. Since then, I have been at the university and participated in the various debates and writings.

In 2006, I retired from the Faculty of Law because we have a statutory retirement age of sixty. But I was appointed the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Chair in Pan-African Studies. It's newly established and I am the first holder of that Chair. So I am back at the university.

I can't recall if Walter came before or after the demonstrations, but he certainly participated in the discussion that followed after the 1966 expulsion and after the Arusha Declaration. After the Declaration, in '67, '68, there was a small group of people called the Socialist Club in which Malawians, Ugandans, Ethiopians, and many other students were involved. The Socialist Club was transformed into the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF). It was all the initiative of students, not the faculty. Walter was one of the few young faculty involved, but purely within a relationship of equality. There was no professor and student there.

The students were very militant, and the Revolutionary Front, in which I was a member, was led by the chairman, Yuweri Museveni, who is now the president of Uganda, and a number of other comrades were involved in the leadership. Then in 1968 we established the organ of the USARF, which was called Cheche. This was a Cyclostyled student journal containing many militant articles and analyses of not only Tanzania but the world situation and the role of young people in the African revolution. In the first issue, Rodney had an article. He wrote something on labor. I too had an article, called "Educated Barbarians." This was our first issue. It actually became, we realized only later, a very important journal circulated as far as the United States. There were some study groups anxiously waiting for the journal to come out. The third issue was a special issue called "The Silent Class Struggle." This was a long essay, written by me, which basically argued that we should not judge socialism simply by listening to what people say, what leaders say, but by what is actually happening in reality: What are the relations of production being created and the class interests involved? So, we worked on the whole question of the development of class and which class is the agency for building socialism. The issue that followed carried commentary on my long essay. One of the comments was by Walter Rodney, and after that the journal was banned and the organization deregistered.

The reasons given were simply that we don't need foreign ideology. We have our own ideology: Ujamaa. Cheche is a Kiswahili word. Translated it's "to spark." The Spark was Nkrumah's journal, but Spark was a translation from Iskra, Lenin's journal. So what the students did immediately after that was change the name to MajiMaji. Now, MajiMaji is a reference to the first revolt, 1905, of the people in Tanganyika and the coast against German imperialism. This was called the MajiMaji War, the MajiMaji Rebellion. The journal continued for some time after that and continued to publish militant articles. Though USARF was banned, many of the leaders of USARF took over the TANU League. The TANU League was the youth arm of the ruling party, and they continued their militant activities.

Ten to fifteen years, beginning in the 1980s, the last period of Mwalimu Nyerere, and particularly the last five years, were very critical. We were engulfed in a serious crisis: economic and political. For the first time, the legitimacy of the political regime was questioned. Since Mwalimu Nyerere stepped down in 1985, the various policies of his government have been reversed under pressure from the World Bank, the IMF, and the donors, particularly from Western imperialism. The 1980s were also the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the sites that were attacked, ideologically, was the university. The World Bank was telling Africa you don't need universities, that they were white elephants, and what you needed to do was to place emphasis on primary education. The university was starved of resources. The faculty also began to move out, finding greener pastures either outside the country or in research institutes, consultancies, think tanks, and so on. Much of the period of vigorous debates was heavily affected by the reorientation of the university. The university was turned into a factory to support and answer to the needs of the market. So faculties of commerce and the professional faculties became much more dominant. The last fifteen to twenty years at the university--all the gains of the Nyerere period have been reversed. One of the objectives of the Nyerere Chair is to try to reclaim to the extent possible the old debates and to reintroduce and redirect the debates on campus.

In the old period, the international context was very different. It was a period high on revolution. You had the civil rights movement in the United States. You had the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War mobilized young people all over the world. You had the French student demonstrations. You had the liberation movements in Southern Africa, which were based in Dar es Salaam and strongly supported by Mwalimu Nyerere. The students at the university had very close connections with the liberation movements. Members of USARF went to liberated areas and lived there. All over the world, there were vigorous debates going on. This was the first decade of independence in Africa. The whole meaning of independence for Africans was questioned--is it real independence?--and there was talk about neo-colonialism.

Some of the texts fondly read were Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, Nkrumah's Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism, and texts by Samir Amin, Paul Baran, and Paul Sweezy.3 These were the kinds of things read, and also classics of Marxism. So the international context was certainly at a highpoint all over the world. One interesting example of the kind of contradictory situation we had was a seminar of East and Central Africa youth organized under the youth league of the party. It was held at Nkrumah Hall at the university. A lot of our comrades delivered papers. Rodney also delivered a paper. At that time, there were the hijackings by the Palestine Liberation Organization. His paper referred to that. It was a very militant paper about the African revolution and so on castigating the first independent regimes as petit bourgeois regimes that had hijacked the revolution. He called it the "briefcase revolution," where the leaders went to Lancaster House, compromised, and came back with independence and this was not real independence.

Shvji is the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Chair at the University of Dar Es Salaam

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