Big public funerals are learning curves for anyone interested in historical developments in a given society in a given era. One gets to understand the mourners’ outpouring of grief and the unqualified praises lavished on the fallen member of said society.
We Africans can pick a quarrel with Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony, who states at Julius Caesar’s funeral, that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
In Africa it is the opposite; we simply do not speak ill of those departed, unless, that is, we do it very privately.
So it is common to hear people read eulogies of the deceased that paint him or her in glowing colours even when everyone around knows that they were scoundrels. To do otherwise is considered bad manners.
But there are times when such plaudits as are heaped on someone who has just died afford us an opportunity to see the past and the role played by the person being mourned.
We had such an opportunity when Julius Nyerere, founder president of this country “joined the majority” back in 1999. Young people who never lived under his rule got to see (on television), to hear (on radio) and to read (in newspapers) what this man was all about and how he shaped the Tanzania and the Africa of his time.
We had another such opportunity a week ago when Kingunge Ngombale-Mwiru died at the age of 85, following an illness that had kept him hospitalised for some time.
Ngombale had served for long as a stalwart of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), but two years ago he had broken ranks with the party of his youth and campaigned for the opposition Chadema’s Edward Lowassa, who was running against CCM’s John Magufuli, the current president.
Now, if that is true, how does one explain the overwhelming presence of ruling-party honchos, from President Magufuli to the three retired presidents, to top government officials, military and security personnel and practically everyone who was anyone in the political food-chain Dar es Salaam?
I have had reason to know how petty our rulers can be when they feel slighted by anyone who dares criticise them. I had expected CCM heavyweights to shun him and his funeral, or at least to pay only cursory attention to Ngombale’s exit. But no, they rolled out the red carpet, and buried him like a national hero. So what is exceptional about this man?
Part of it lies in political longevity and abiding social relevance. Though he rebelled against his old party, there was always something about Ngombale that marked him out as a kind of patriarch, a father figure whose political offspring covered the entire country, regardless of current political identities. He managed to stay at the centre of the nation’s political life, even when he was considered a renegade among the more rabid ruling-party bigwigs.
Ngombale was no stranger to controversy, because this man loved political argumentation and philosophic disputation, a trait he carried with him throughout life. He joined the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), the political movement that campaigned for independence as a teenager in the mid 1950s, and worked in different capacities, becoming at some stage, secretary-general of the party’s youth league.
In the 1960s he was sent for university education to Liberia and Senegal, and did a stint at the Sorbonne in France, and his interface with the effervescent political atmospheres in those countries in those years exposed Ngombale to new and potent ideas of social revolution.
He was a man of the left, and his thinking was substantially influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, as well as the 20th century existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. But in the atmosphere of the Cold War, it was easy to label people according to policies pursued by Moscow or those favoured by Washington.
For a year or so, in 1967, Ngombale was chosen to be secretary-general of the Pan African Youth Movement, at its headquarters in Algiers, Algeria, and in that capacity he interacted with many young people from all over the continent, a factor that helped him understand Africa better through conferences and travels on the continent.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was the chief ideologue of TANU and CCM, having taught at the party’s ideological institute at Kivukoni, Dar es Salaam, and became Nyerere’s main interpreter of the party’s ideology of Socialism and Self-Reliance. In his lectures and statements, it was clear that he was a student of Karl Marx and on numerous occasions Ngombale found himself rubbing Nyerere the wrong way when he wanted to push the party and country much further to the left than Nyerere was prepared to countenance.
With a Marxian approach to politics, he was often critical of official policy, when he found it inconsistent, or contradictory, or nonsensical. At a time when Nyerere was held in awe by many around him, a time when the accepted practice was to clap hands and nod approvingly at whatever the leader said, Ngombale would give an argued alternative view, which sometimes moved Nyerere to change tack and agree with him.
I remember him once in the 1970s refusing to support a government motion in parliament (when he was himself a government official) because he thought it made no sense. In the roll-call vote that ensued, he stood up to say he was abstaining, which was a blatant act of disobedience. The government lost the motion. He was promptly fired, but was soon recalled and deployed elsewhere.
This was at a time when the so-called Dar es Salaam school of political thought was in the ascendant. The University of Dar es Salaam became a centre of liberation philosophy, with such illustrious teachers as Walter Rodney, John Iliffe, Tammas Zentes, Kassim Guruli, Simon Mbilinyi and others.
“The Hill” became a stopover for many practicing liberation figures, such as Eduardo Mondlane, Samora, Machel, Augustinho Neto and Stokely Carmichael. Ngombale was a regular visitor during these leaders’ lectures, and was an avid participant and contributor.
When, two years ago, he decided to quit CCM and campaign for Lowassa, it was his old rebellious self manifesting itself again. His candidate lost, but Ngombale stayed out of CCM. When he was on his deathbed, he was visited by President Magufuli, who mentioned something about CCM, but Ngombale’s response was to say, “that was my party, but I quit it.”
His passing marks the end of an era. He is probably the last of the young people who joined the ranks of independence campaigners and stayed on to serve his party, and country.
His was an age of the politics of conviction and commitment; he has checked out in the age of the politics of expediency and convenience. He will always be remembered as a freethinker, and maybe no faith was large enough for him. RIP, Kingunge Ngombale-Mwiru.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]