Nation-building: The Mandela and Nyerere Examples


In my column last week, I re-stated what I have always believed is the fundamental problem of the country – namely the crisis in our nation-building process. I believe that unless Nigerians feel there is ‘an imagined community’ that has their overarching loyalty, the current wave of de-Nigerianisation will continue unabated and solutions thrown at our problems will end up compounding those problems. A central manifestation of the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building project is that no individual or institution enjoys universal legitimacy across the fault lines.

A fundamental question is how this crisis will be resolved amid the numerous developmental challenges facing the country.

The key responsibility for driving a reconciliation process in any polarized and fractious society lies with the leadership of that country. Since the leader of such a fractious society necessarily belongs to one of the fault lines or contending blocs in such a society, he or she has to make an early choice whether to deliberately transcend the extant fault lines (at the risk of displeasing his or her ‘own people’ in the short term) or politicize those fault lines by cultivating some and alienating others in a bid to entrench himself or herself in power.

In this piece I will highlight the examples of Mandela and Nyerere in uniting post-apartheid South Africa and Tanzania respectively.


Mandela’s story has been told so often that it needs no repeating. He died on December 5 2013 as one of the greatest moral authorities in the world. He was one of the few souls that had a date set aside every year to celebrate him. July 18, Mandela’s birthday, was globally celebrated as the Mandela Day by the United Nations. During such celebrations, people were asked to devote 67 minutes of their time – one minute for each year Mandela spent in prison –to help others or consciously do something that will help change the world or their environment for the better.

Jailed for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela came out of prison in 1990 expressing no bitterness towards those who deprived him of 27 years of his life.  When he was sworn in as post-apartheid South Africa’s first democratically elected President in 1994, many Black hard liners wanted justice for the sins of apartheid while many White people were apprehensive of their fate under Black majority rule. Mandela opted to champion reconciliation among the country’s fractious population, espousing the principles of nation-building and co-operative governance.

It would take more than a generous human spirit for any man to truly forgive people who jailed him for 27 years. More than that, Mandela had to deal with the initial disappointment of many of his hard line Black supporters who felt that he was subordinating reconciliation to the quest for justice. It was a gamble: if he alienated his Black supporters and the Whites ended up despising him, he would have lost out completely.  But the gamble paid off: he was able to transcend the fault lines in the country and by so doing became a unifying symbol.

When he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, the emphasis was on reconciliation in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Nuremberg Trials and other de-Nazification measures.

Even before he became President in 1994, Mandela had chosen to be a reconciler. A clear demonstration of this was in 1993 when a White right winger murdered Chris Hani (at the time arguably the ANC’s most popular leader after Mandela). Many Black South Africans simply wanted war. But Mandela thought otherwise. In one of his most impassioned speeches, Mandela declared:

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster….

“A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice this assassin.”

Mandela’s greatest legacy was his uncanny ability to steer South Africa through the crisis of its rebirth. Though today South Africa still remains a divided country, it would certainly have been worse without Mandela.


Assessments of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president (1962-1985) tend to focus on his quest for ujamaa –  a just social order based on community solidarity. While supporters hail ujamaa as a “creative adjustment of socialist thought to local realities”, critics contemptuously dismiss it as an attempt at redistributing poverty.

Often overlooked by his critics is that Nyerere’s concern with social justice had to be understood within the context of his commitment to building a true Tanzanian nation. For instance in his farewell address to the Tanzanian Parliament on July 29 1985, Nyerere  was quoted as saying: “The single most important task, which I set out in my inaugural address in December 1962, was that of building a united nation on the basis of human equality and dignity.”

While Tanzania remains seriously poor on many economic and social indicators, few doubt that his nation-building project was a huge success. And this was not because his nation-building strategies were unique – they were not. True, he introduced Swahili as a national language – but so did Emperor Haile Selassie introduce Amharic as the national language in Ethiopia and Siad Barre standardize the Somali script in Somalia and make it the sole national language in Somalia.  While the Swahili language helped to further Nyerere’s nation-building in Tanzania; the same introduction of a national language in both Ethiopia and Somalia failed to prevent the fragmentation of both countries. The crucial difference between the nation-building efforts in Ethiopia and Somalia and the one in Tanzania was simply Nyerere’s leadership.

In fact despite continuing challenges of underdevelopment, Tanzania has largely avoided the tumultuous ethnic politics of most African states. In fact the country’s sense of national identity is legendary and something of a pride in Africa.  For instance a 2011 Afrobarometer survey by the London School of Economics, in which some Africans were asked if they identified more with their national or ethnic identity, showed that 88 per cent of Tanzanian respondents said they prioritized their national identity over their ethnic identity. This contrasted with the continental average of 42 per cent who prioritised their national identity over their ethnic identity. The figure for Nigeria was a paltry 17 per cent.




Nigerian leaders can learn a number of lessons in nation-building from the examples of Mandela and Nyerere:

One, a leader has to make a conscious decision, even before coming to power, on whether he or she wants to be appropriated by his ethnic/regional base or whether he or she wants to transcend all the fault lines.  This is not always an easy choice in a very polarized society like ours, where concerted efforts will be made to indoctrinate the new leader into the culture of “it is our turn”. In Nigeria, national leaders tend to prioritise how their ethnic/regional in-group will remember them when they are no longer in power over how the country or even the world at large will remember them.

Two, how can a leader who means well be accepted in a fractured and low trust environment like ours where every action of the leader will be interrogated using cultural and ethnic markers?  Here the leader has to learn that his intentions count for little and that perception is everything. This means that the leader has to think through the perception effects of every policy option he or she wants to embrace.  Quite often every policy option has the politics that goes with it and such politics has to be managed. A leader needs to be aware of the cost of managing such politics vis-à-vis the gains from such policy options. For instance, in the current ‘war against corruption’, what do we really gain, from the perspective of nation-building, by announcing that only Jonathan’s regime will be ‘probed’? Since historically the word ‘probe’ is always associated with vendetta in our country(making it easier for anyone found guilty in such a probe to cry persecution), would we have lost anything if the government had set up technical committees (which historically tend to be more acceptable) to look into a range of ministries, parastatals and agencies? The only thing we would have lost, in my opinion, is the current media drama and media trial that I honestly believe are distractions.

Three, nation-building is not incompatible with doing the right thing – whether we are talking about fighting economic crimes or any other malfeasance. It simply means being very sensitive to how our actions and inactions would be perceived across the fault lines and deliberately using state instruments to promote feelings of oneness.

Four, a leader can exploit simple symbolisms to further the cause of nation-building. For instance during the last presidential campaign, a big part of the hugely successful rebranding of Buhari was making him dress in the local attire of different ethnic groups he visited. His photograph, on several websites, in which he was dressed in a suit and bow-tie made him look like an adorable school principal or a disciplinarian father figure. One would like to see the president rediscover those symbolic gestures to help widen his appeal across the fault lines.




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