What can we make of Ujamaa and of Nyerere as an African socialist thinker? Ujamaa is an assertion for a unique African synthesis of man and society. What Ujamaa is aiming at is a society in which the African traditions of social obligations and of sharing are part of the national ethos. Where all contribute to national wealth, and not to their personal material accumulation. It is essentially a classless society, in the sense that there is no room for wide differences in wealth and style of life. Ujamaa is an eclectic philosophy. From the ‘liberal’ philosophers it derives its notion of the importance of the individual and of freedom. As an ethic of distribution, Ujamaa is rooted in African tradition, particularly the spirit behind these traditions (or ‘mental attitude’ as Nyerere calls It). The African tradition of sharing and of social obligation; of charity and generosity; of love and responsibility.

As an ideology of development, Ujamaa is a mixture of African traditions and the best the colonial impact had to offer to Tanzania, as well as from other sources. The notion of ‘kazi’ – work – and the degradation of idleness and the rejection of loiterers are rooted both in the Protestant ethic and in the African tradition of obligation to work. Everyone in the traditional African society had to work, so Nyerere tells us. He who does not work, does not eat. (Mgeni siku mbili slku ya tatu mpe jembe). From the colonial experience and other influences are the techniques of mass social organisation and economic production, but without their underlying ethos.

In Ujamaa, Nyerere clearly stipulates that socialism is not simply.” a question of a bigger cake – production. Socialism is basically an attitude people have towards wealth and their fellow men. And it is on this point that Nyerere differs from most of the African socialist thinkers, for example the drafters of the Kenya Sessional Paper No. 10, who place greater emphasis on production accompanied by the expectation that it would be equitably distributed, but say very little on the purpose of wealth itself in a socialist society. The Mjamaa, Nyerere says, is one who uses wealth for the benefit of the society, and not as a means to dominate others, or as a symbol of ostentation. In Ujamaa, therefore, it is not only the ends – goals – that are important, but the means also the means have to be consistent with the postulated ends of society. Means should not be allowed to frustrate the ends.

In his condemnation of exploitation of man by man under capitalism, Nyerere echoes Marx. But whereas Marx regards capitalism and its inherent evils – exploitation – as a natural and necessary development of human society with socialism as the ultimate peak, Nyerere regards exploitation as a natural consequence of scarcity of goods combined with individual greed which in turn creates acquisitiveness leading to exploitation. It is not natural, Nverere would assert, for a human being to exploit another human being. Nyerere further believes that it was the European who introduced the acquisitive habit to the African. Both capitalism, and socialism are a function of the ‘attitude of mind.’

On the social function of production, Nyerere is at one with Marx; but differs From him on the notion of what is “scientific socialism”. To Nyerere, the notion of “scientific” means no more than the application of science to the needs of human beings. Man defines what his social goals should be, and science assists him to realise these goals. In this sense “scientific socialism” is an expression denoting the application of scientific techniques to the attainment of socialistic goals.

Yet in Ujamaa, Nyerere has not seriously grappled with the problem of incentives. That question is attempted later. In a developing country where skilled manpower is in exceedingly short supply, and where it is almost all foreign-trained and thus inculcated with non-African, and hence unsocialist ideals, there is a grave problem of inducement to work harder, or to work for the country at all. Indeed a recent United Nations special study on manpower in developing countries has shown a net loss of skilled personnel to the developed countries, where conditions of employment and general levels of living standards are far better than those at home.

Can these trained men be persuaded to forfeit their ‘rights’ as trained or professional men, or will they persist in demanding the privileges of the society to which, as Nyerere himself put it, “they aspire?” Pre-Arusha Ujamaa does not provide adequate answers.

Nonetheless, Nyerere’s ideas of Ujamaa seem acceptable to most Tanzanians. Several factors are responsible for this apparent success. His assertions- that socialism is essentially an attitude of mind, that African Socialism is simply an extension of the traditional African extended family to the modern nation state, and not the result of a class struggle or a proletariat revolution, and therefore the Tanzanian need not radically change his basic pattern of life to be an M-jamaa, that an African is born socialised, seem to have convinced his supporters.

The lack of an African professional middle class with particular interests to articulate, as is the case in Ghana and Nigeria, who would oppose any socialistic ideas, is a factor in favour of Nyerere’s Ujamaa.

But the most important factor on the whole scene is Nyerere himself, his personality and style of politics. An unostentatious, humble and simple-living man, Nyerere portrays almost exactly the kind of leader that is expected in a society of Ujamaa. Conscious of the political importance of emulation in public life, Nyerere has striven – not unsuccessfully – to live by what he preaches.

But how far can Nyerere’s proposition that socialism is an attitude of mind be seriously accepted? An attitude of mind is not a quality that one is born with. Why did the African in the traditional society have a view of life different from his European or Asian contemporaries or from his present urbanised brethren? For answers to this question, we must look at the different sets of socioeconomic structures between the traditional and the modern society.

The mode of life of the traditional African was different from his modern, urbanized brother because the socio-economic structure of the tribe was such that such a view of life was inevitable. A distinction between institutional structures and mere attitude is very important. One of the most important structural factors in the traditional setting was the communal ownership of land, the principal source of wealth. Another was the communal production and consumption and the not-so-easily defined sense of belonging, that each member of the tribe or family possessed. It is these circumstances that engender the attitude of mind which Nyerere terms ‘socialistic’. But without these institutions, it is highly unlikely that such an attitude of mind could emerge. He merely implies that these factors were responsible for the quality of life in the traditional society, but does not elaborate on their existence in reality, or in the real world, of Ujamaa. How then can this attitude of mind be maintained? Socialism, whether African or Ujamaa, means more than an attitude. The attitude is merely a manifestation of something more real and basic, and that is the socio-economic situation, the peculiar manner in which people carry on their economic activities.

However, if by an attitude of mind is simply meant the projection or permeation of an egalitarian ethos, which has been the ideal in the traditional society, into the new African polities, then Nyerere’s position is defensible. In that case institutional structures are not directly relevant, and socialism – or Ujamaa – becomes one of those chimerical liberal ideals, like equality, social justice and freedom which, though difficult, if not impossible to realize, do nonetheless serve as useful food for intellectual discussion. Pre-Arusha Declaration Nyerere dangerously approximates this position.

Still, to Nyerere, Ujamaa is not only a Tanzanian attempt at ‘groping’ for a new synthesis, but it is also an African contribution to the external human search for the ideal society. “The ideal has never yet been attained (and) may never be attained”, as he put it, but if the African:

” …. can integrate these things into a new pattern of society then the world will have reason to be grateful that we have gained our independence. But it would not be the end; it may be one or more steps forward; but it will fail if it then tries to stand still.”

Keir Hardie once said: “If anything is to be really done in this world, it must be done by visionaries, by men who see the future, and make the future because they see it”. Ujamaa is a bold and great vision. And Nyerere is a great African visionary.


[i] ‘Ujamaa’ is one of those Swahili words which cannot be satisfactorily translated. It is susceptible to numerous interpretations, depending on the context and who is using the term. For present purposes, ‘familyhood’, ‘brotherhood’ and ‘friendship’ would suffice.

[ii] The Arusha Declaration, announced by Nyerere on 5th February, 1967, is Tanzania’s blueprint for socialist development. Among other things, the Declaration postulates the policies of socialism end self-reliance, and the leaders, who arc defined very liberally, are not to be engaged in business ventures or receive more than one salary,  while still active leaders. Perhaps the most immediate and outstanding practical consequence of the Declaration was the spate of nationalisations of basic industries and business enterprises in Tanzania.