DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - In a world where politicians are usually cast as villains and sinners, Tanzania’s founding father Julius Nyerere may yet turn out to be a saint.
Eight years after he died at the age of 77, the Roman Catholic Church in Tanzania is leading a call to beatify the statesman who in life earned worldwide respect for his pan-Africanist vision.
The act of being declared “blessed” by the Pope, for which one miracle has to be recognized by the Vatican, is the last step in the Church’s long path before sainthood.
If it happened, his elevation would be a rare honor for Africa, which some say badly needs heroes to counter-balance a series of corrupt leaders and greedy despots who have tarnished the continent’s post-colonial history.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Tanzania, Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, said the campaign to have Nyerere beatified was a message to leaders who had fallen by the moral wayside.
“When you speak of politicians — they are known as liars, they are known for not keeping their word. When we say someone is involved in business — it’s like closing the doors to heaven,” Pengo told Reuters.
“Our aim is mainly to encourage politicians, statesmen and businessmen to live a life that is capable of leading them to sainthood,” he said in an interview at Dar es Salaam’s St Joseph’s Cathedral, overlooking the Indian Ocean waterfront.
Pengo said an appeal, known as a cause for beatification, was sent in 2005 to Rome. The appeal begins the process to determine whether Nyerere was worthy of beatification. It may take years if not decades for Rome to make a ruling.
Most Tanzanians remember Nyerere — a slight man with a penchant for Mao-style suits — as an honest leader who led his people to independence in 1961. He then dismantled tribalism, by advancing Kiswahili as the national language and culture, to make Tanzania one of Africa’s most peaceful nations.
Nyerere ruled for 23 years before stepping down voluntarily in 1985: a rarity in African politics.
Even after death, Nyerere’s picture is often found hanging alongside that of current President Jakaya Kikwete, while his name is uttered with hushed reverence by many Tanzanians who still call him their teacher — “Mwalimu” in Kiswahili.
The son of a tribal chief, Nyerere was said to have remained true to his mission upbringing, becoming a devout Catholic who often fasted, attended Mass on an almost daily basis and translated parts of the Bible into his native Zanaki language.
He earned respect for his integrity and his lifestyle was modest to the point of austerity — in stark contrast to the excesses of his contemporaries, including Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Ethiopia’s Haile Mariam Mengistu.
A university professor who knew Nyerere said he always carried a copy of the Bible and the 1967 Arusha Declaration, which was meant to turn Tanzania into a model of self-reliance.
But critics say Nyerere’s perceived saintliness was undone by his political legacy. His experiment with socialism left Tanzania poorer and hungrier than when he came to power.
Some recall with bitterness the economic hardship brought about by Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” system of collective farming and sweeping nationalizations that laid claim to land, property, industries, businesses and even schools.
“My grandfather told me how much pain he still has from the suffering he underwent working in the nationalized plantations, and getting nothing in return,” said Alfayo, a trader who did not wish to give his last name.
“For that, I don’t think Nyerere deserves to be a saint.”
A civil servant who only gave his name as Musa questioned the motives behind the sainthood drive. “Ujamaa is not part of the Bible and he did not die for his beliefs. This push to make Nyerere a saint is all political, he said.
World leaders applauded Nyerere for his pan-Africanist vision and his work on peace efforts in Rwanda and Burundi.
His funeral drew a host of former revolutionaries who had plotted their campaigns from Dar es Salaam during the heady scramble for independence of the 1960s and 1970s.
But Nyerere’s heralded statesmanship belies simmering resentment at home over his refusal to allow multiparty politics, which critics say set the stage for four decades of ruling party government.
“He wanted to preserve power. Maybe he did not kill people as other dictators, but by suppressing dissent he was not different to any other dictator,” said Ismail Jussa, a senior official in the main opposition Civic United Front (CUF) party.
The view was echoed by Christopher Mtikila, a Pentecostal preacher who successfully won a court case allowing independent candidates to run in Tanzania’s next election due in 2010.
“He was the one to sing for all of us. If you thought any different you were thinking treason,” he told Reuters.
If the Roman Catholic Church succeeds in beatifying Nyerere, it would eventually allow relics, prayers and images of him to be honored in places of worship, with the Vatican’s permission.
But for some churchgoers leaving an evening Mass at Dar es Salaam’s sunbleached Gothic cathedral, that’s a step too far.
“The church should seek another title for Nyerere. True, he was a devout Catholic, but the title he already has as ‘Father of the Nation’ is enough,” said Haule, a telecoms firm driver.
Additional reporting by George Obulutsa