I salute the residents of Hong Kong who have been waging the people’s popular demonstration in the name of democracy for several months. One cannot but admire their determination and strength of character, feverishly fighting police brutality and harassment to make their point in the name of democracy.
I’ll never forget October 22, 1966, when I was involved in a student demonstration, though not as violent as the Hong Kong one, opposing the imposition by the Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere government, compulsory national service for university students. Together with five of my university student union executive colleagues, I was branded a ringleader and accused of master-minding the demo, leading over 400 Tanzanian students astray.
It’s difficult to forget that day because that was the day when my whole career was changed and it turned my life around. I was in my final year at the University of Dar es salaam, majoring in political science. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was adamant about introducing national service for the country’s youths. The government wanted university students to undergo two years of national service, which would include three months of military training. During the remaining 21 months, recruits were expected to wear the national service uniform, in the classroom if you were a teacher, or whether in a hospital as a doctor or in a court as a lawyer. During those two years, under national service regulations, 60 percent of one’s salary was expected to go to the government’s national service fund, leaving university graduates, with 40 percent to survive on.
“This is your contribution to your country,” the president is reported to have said. But the students were asking a different question: “Is it national service or national servitude?” Students were furious. “How could the government do this? Graduation was supposed to be a happy period in one’s life, opening doors to a stable financial future and prosperity,” one of my classmates said. For the majority of Tanzanian students, a university degree was considered to be a passport to success enabling them to achieve their dreams of buying a VW or a Fiat as soon as they got their first pay cheque. Every student aspired to a cushy, well-paid job.
Personally, the issue didn’t affect me that much as I came from a middle-class family who would have definitely supported me if I needed financial assistance after graduation. But I considered it my duty as vice-president of the students’ union to support the executive and whatever decision that was made by majority of students. The government flatly rejected all proposals from the students, sticking to its original 60-40.
The whole student community was upset and anxious for quick action. A public meeting of all students was summoned and it was unanimously decided to hold a demonstration protesting the national service programme. In a one-party state where the president was supreme, no one had ever dared to oppose or make any semblance of opposition to the president and his government. Some students carried placards expressing their innermost feelings: “Give students their due,” “Don’t deny students what they deserve,” “Nyerere out of touch with reality,” “Gov’t killing students’ incentives,” “Mwalimu has been out of classroom for too long,” and so on.
While the demonstration was in progress, Nyerere sent an emissary to invite all demonstrators to the State House grounds which was enroute. Students were met by a stone-faced president affectionately called Mwalimu,(teacher), wearing his usual Chinese Zhou Enlai suit, followed by an entourage of seven ministers. The whole group appeared upset and angry.
Without any introductory remarks or pleasantries that characterized his jovial personality, he blurted out what he had to say outright. “So you students want your pound of flesh, eh? Today you have come here to demand your dues, forgetting that this country has paid for your education. You are being ungrateful to your country, to the nation, and its citizens. All these years, we have educated you, spent money, lots of money, so that this country can benefit. We wanted to move forward, be more independent of foreigners. Foreign manpower. They are still here in our schools, hospitals, factories, and civil service. You still want Tanzania to be dependent on foreigners? You students are being ungrateful.
“And you want your pound of flesh?” he shouted, repeating the sentence and looking visibly annoyed. “This country does not deserve this kind of treatment from its educated class; from its intelligentsia. We wanted you to sacrifice two years of your lives, and you refuse it. After all that your country has done for you. Paid for your education. Now you want your pound of flesh? Eh? You don’t know what independence means. This country is still relying on foreign manpower. It’s still not self-sufficient in manpower, and you students don’t understand that.
“I shall take nobody—not a single person—into this national service whose spirit is not in it … so make your choice. I’m not going to spend public money to educate anybody who says national service is a prison … Is this what the citizens of this country worked for? … You are demanding a pound of flesh. Everybody is demanding a pound of flesh except the poor peasant. What kind of country are we building?”
The president continued, “The nation says to its youth, ‘We want your service,’ and the youth does not then turn to the nation and say, ‘for how much?”
As the president spoke, his ministers nodded approval. After taking almost an hour to hammer the same subject, the president came to an abrupt halt. “Inspector,” he said, addressing the Inspector General of Police. “Send these students home!”
“Very well, sir!” responded the chief of police. Send them home meant that every student was fingerprinted and photographed before being sent to the campus to collect their belongings in buses provided before being sent towns and villages. Students couldn’t believe what was happening.
The members of the students’ union executive were taken into police custody to spend the night at the central police station, locked in separate cells, with bare wooden beds and small open toilets. The next day’s newspapers carried front-page stories about the demonstration and its aftermath. “Mwalimu sends students home,” said one newspaper. “Mwalimu shuts down university,” said another. “Tanzanian U students expelled,” blared a third newspaper.
Nyerere pardoned Tanzania’s over 300 university students after keeping them out for a year to complete their degrees and except for the six “ringleaders,” who were not allowed to return to complete their degrees. The ringleaders, including yours truly, were left to chart their own destiny. I was fortunate to get a job on Tanzania’s leading English newspaper, The Standard, as a reporter. The best consolation is that my career in journalism took off well despite not having a degree and unfinished university education.
Nyerere, Edinburgh-educated intellectual, also a friend of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was highly respected by the west, had gone full speed ahead with his 1967 Arusha Declaration, the policy of ujamaa (cooperative economics) and other socialist experiments.
It took three successive presidents to undo Nyerere’s socialist policies and return to normality. Nyerere died of leukemia in London in 1999, leaving his impoverished country the way he inherited.
A silver lining to the whole episode was that thanks to President Nyerere, I landed a flourishing career in journalism that I love and adore, enabling me to hold senior editorial positions in Canada, Tanzania and Kenya. The icing on the cake was when I had the privilege of being the only newspaper owner of colour in Canada, publishing two mainstream newspaper for a quarter century!
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims. He is currently working on a non-fiction and a novel which are expected to be published early next year.