Indeed, whenever Arab-African ties come into question, one cannot help remembering the days when colonialism was the threat closer to home, and one Arab leader was always at hand to lend support to those Africans who wished to throw off its yoke. That was the time of solidarity, of a common Arab-African dream, of nations taking their first steps to freedom. That was Nasser’s time.
The solidarity between Arab and non-Arab Africans is not an historical accident. It is rooted in a common vision, drawn from a common cause. It all started in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Africa’s leaders-to-be were still freedom fighters, and Nasser was their closest ally.
For Nasser and his fellow African leaders, African liberation was an historic duty. They lived and died for the cause of national liberation. Few Arab leaders of Nasser’s stature were involved as intimately as he was in the struggle to liberate Africa from colonial rule. It was this dedication to the cause of African liberation that endeared him to like-minded African leaders. What they had in common was a radical agenda of social change, a task they knew would not be easy, and a mission that remains, to this day, incomplete.
It is difficult for me to write about the icon that Nasser was without mentioning something of the man. His role in rescuing my family from possible perdition in the aftermath of the bloody 24 February 1966 coup that overthrew my father, Kwame Nkrumah, has been documented elsewhere. Nasser’s personal involvement with the fortunes of his fellow African leaders and their families was based on a political outlook characteristic of the time. Personally, I had an unusual opportunity to watch Nasser’s Pan-African contribution at close quarters and observed the close friendship he had with those who spearheaded the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.
“With feelings of great bitterness and shock, we, in the United Arab Republic, have heard of the sad events to which the people of Ghana were exposed … I agree with you that the forces of colonialism are always trying to undermine the independence of African states, and to draw them again into spheres of influence in order to continue exploiting their resources and shape their fates. What has happened in Ghana is actually part of this imperialist plan. To face colonialism in the African continent requires of us all continuous efforts and a sustained struggle to liberate it from old colonialism and neo-colonialism. The setback that has occurred in Ghana must act as a driving force for all of us to continue the struggle for the consolidation of the independence of African peoples and their liberation from imperialist forces.” Nasser wrote this in a letter to Kwame Nkrumah less than 48 hours after the coup, which toppled the latter’s government.
Nasser’s commiseration letter to Ghana’s first president was typical of the friendship Nasser had with African leaders of his time such as Guinea’s President Ahmed Sekou Toure and Congolese Premier Patrice Lumumba. As comrades, to use the parlance of the period, they developed a sense of personal solidarity within the larger context of African liberation. “I thank you for your kind felicitations on the Ramadan Bairam and send my best wishes to you and your family,” stated a letter from Nasser to Nkrumah dated 25 January 1967.
Nasser’s African connection was in no way restricted to the Nkrumah family. Indeed, he took a special interest in the resettlement of Lumumba’s family after the Congolese leader was brutally assassinated at the hands of the henchmen of Mobutu Sese Seku, the late Zairean military strongman. Lumumba’s widow and children fled to the safety of the Egyptian embassy in Kinshasa and they were spirited away to Cairo in a harrowing rescue mission. Nasser’s gallant gesture further enhanced his stature in the entire African continent. Nasser’s Egypt became the Lumumbas’ adopted home.
Curiously enough, Mobutu Sese Seku later emerged as a staunch proponent of the establishment of a League of Black African Nations as a counterbalance for the Arab League. Membership of Mobutu’s League was to be strictly limited to African states south of the Sahara, to the express exclusion of Arab African states.
Egypt’s July Revolution was an inspiration to people who lived under colonial rule across the world, especially for Arabs and Africans. For the first time in three millennia, Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian, one who was just as proud of his African heritage as he was of his Arab identity. Nasser embarked on a radical policy of land reform and redistribution. He confiscated 2,430 square kilometres of farmland from the tiny land-owning elite and gave them to dispossessed peasant families. Nasser’s socialist-inspired policies prompted him to nationalise banks and major industries. But the turning point, perhaps, was his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. This was the act that brought him instant admiration across the Third World, and the wrath of former colonial powers, particularly Britain and France. Soon after the evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal zone in June 1956, Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in what became known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression.
Now, 32 years after Nasser’s death, is any of the above still relevant? I believe so. There have been growing calls in Africa for reparations over the medieval Arab slave trade. There is open hostility to a perceived “Arab agenda” in the African continent. The unresolved Sudanese crises — in the south and in the west — has mistakenly been portrayed in the international media as a conflict between Arab Muslims on one hand and African animists and Christians on the other. This conflict was made to look as if it was an unavoidable consequence of a fault line separating Arab and non-Arab Africa.
The Israeli and far right lobbies in the United States and the West have been fanning anti-Arab and anti-Muslim resentment among African Americans and the predominantly Christian and non-Muslim parts of Africa. Africa may have its own grievances with the Arab world. But these grievances are not medieval, and certainly not atavistic. When oil prices surged spectacularly in the wake of the 1973 war, African countries hoped for Arab economic aid and financial assistance, and were sorely disappointed. Arab countries, even with their newly acquired wealth, were developing countries, after all. They didn’t have the technological and administrative means of promoting economic development in Africa. The frustration was understandable. But the insidious plots, when they happened, were hatched in other lands.
African leaders like Nasser and Nkrumah were aware that the world was watching their political, social, and economic endeavours. It was the success, not the failure, of Nkrumah’s policies that triggered the CIA-inspired coup of 24 February 1966. Nkrumah, like the core leftist African leaders of his generation, looked to Nasser’s Egypt as a bulwark against colonialism and imperialism. Socialist leaders in Africa watched closely the agrarian reform and the ambitious industrialisation drive of Nasser’s Egypt.
Just as Egypt had built the High Dam in Aswan; Ghana, too, embarked on the construction of a dam to harness the country’s vast water resources and its largest river, the Volta. Nkrumah’s Ghana needed electricity for its ambitious industrialisation programmes. The inauguration of the Volta Dam in January 1966 brought Ghana close to economic independence. Nasser and Nkrumah had a similar outlook. Both espoused a philosophy of national liberation infused with a strong dose of socialism. While Nasser propagated what was known as Arab socialism, Nkrumah opted for what he termed scientific socialism.
Nasser was the first Egyptian leader to put Egypt firmly within its African context. Successive Egyptian and other North African regimes followed that trend. For Nasser, Egypt’s identity drew upon three circles: the Arab, the Islamic and the African. Nasser saw no contradiction in Egypt belonging to the Organisation of African Unity, the Arab League, and the Organisation of Islamic Conference. Prior to Nasser, Egypt’s rulers were mostly Mediterranean, if not outright European, in their outlook. Nasser deliberately shifted the focus with his introduction of the Arab, African and Islamic “circles.” Nasser’s stress on those three circles brought him into close contact with the leaders of the African liberation struggle.
Nkrumah, too, had a similar vision for the African world. In his Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonisation, Nkrumah says that the African personality draws upon three major elements: the African, the Western Christian and the Arab Islamic. Nasser’s The Philosophy of the Revolution, echoes the same sentiment.
On a personal level, however, the two men were quite different. Nasser was one of the first ordinary Egyptians to ever graduate from the prestigious Military Academy, Previously, admittance to the Military Academy was strictly limited to members of the country’s predominantly Turco-Circassian elite. Nasser took part in the disastrous 1948 war against Israel. Upon his return from the battlefront, he joined the Free Officers, the secret group that was later to topple the monarchy.
Nkrumah, meanwhile, only learnt how to use a gun when he was well into his fifties. He was educated in the West, first in the United States (where he attended the University of Lincoln, Pennsylvania, then reserved for African Americans) and then in London. As a young man, he was very active in student politics in both the US and Britain and was heavily influenced by the African American experience. Pan-African leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Josiah Garvey were Nkrumah’s mentors. He drew much inspiration from their writings and was particularly influenced by Garvey’s political activism, his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and its paper The Negro World.
Because of Egypt’s geographical location at the crossroads of Africa and Asia and because the country was, and still is, the cultural heart of the Arab world, Nasser was inevitably drawn into the vortex of Arab politics. The 1958 unification of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic, UAR, was the first successful attempt at Arab unity. Egypt and Syria were soon joined by Yemen. Still, the UAR unceremoniously broke up in 1961, and with it floundered the dream of Arab unity.
In Africa, several attempts were made at unification. One was the Ghana, Guinea, Mali Union in the early sixties. Another was the short-lived union between Nkrumah’s Ghana and Lumumba’s Congo, signed a few months before Lumumba’s assassination. The parallels were many. The Arabs and Africans were exchanging notes. “In Accra, Kozonguizi and I contacted the special representative of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who came to attend the Positive Action Conference. He gave us a very sympathetic hearing. Egypt’s first practical help came from President Nasser’s special representative who gave £100 sterling to each of us. With part of the money I was given, I bought an Olivetti portable typewriter, which I used for many years during the struggle and which I still have,” wrote Namibian President Sam Nujoma in his autobiography Where Others Wavered.
“At the beginning of March 1961, I attended the third All-African People’s Conference in Cairo … I requested President Nasser to offer the opportunity of military training to SWAPO members. Nasser assured me of such opportunities if I could get a group of SWAPO members from South West Africa. He urged all African independent countries to render the necessary assistance to the national liberation movements, including military training, in order to free their countries from colonial occupation and foreign domination. He also urged the independent African states not to allow the imperialist powers to maintain and promote neo-colonialism and disunity among the African countries,” Nujoma said in his tribute to the late Egyptian president. This was how the July Revolution inspired African leaders throughout the 1950s.
“When in 1963, the first group [of Namibian freedom fighters] went for military training in Cairo, this was possible because President Gamal Abd el-Nasser of Egypt had offered me training and tickets. Nasser was a dedicated supporter of African liberation,” Nujoma added. Small wonder that when Nasser passed away on 28 September 1970, many Africans felt the loss.
“The world has lost a great man and all those who fight for freedom and human dignity have lost a brother in the struggle. The people of Namibia join you in mourning President Nasser’s tragic death,” Nujoma, still a political exile and freedom fighter, lamented. Nujoma attended Nasser’s funeral in Cairo. “Nasser had inspired us in Namibia as far back as 1956 when he fought against the British, French, and Israelis after he had taken the Suez Canal. When we read about the fighting, in the newspapers in then South West Africa, we were firmly on the Egyptian side,” Njoma said.
There were, of course, some controversial decisions made during the Cold War era such as the military assistance Nasser’s Egypt provided to the federal government in Nigeria in its fight to subdue the breakaway Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70. But Nasser’s decision has to be seen in the context of African nation’s struggle for sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. Africa was balkanised in the immediate aftermath of the 1883-84 Berlin Conference. Most African countries were economically non-viable states at independence. African countries were characterised by a host of crippling constraints — small markets, poor standards of living and debilitating socio-economic woes.
Arab countries, too, suffered from much the same problems. Leaders like Nasser, Nkrumah, Lumumba and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella instinctively understood that the entire continent north and south of the Sahara suffered from similar ills. Why now, 32 years after Nasser’s death, is tackling this issue of any consequence? The Zionist and Christian fundamentalist lobbies in the Western world, and in the United States in particular, have fanned the flames of religious hatred and spread a most virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment among the African Diaspora in the Americas and among Africans south of the Sahara, especially in predominantly Christian and non-Muslim parts of the continent.
Pax- Americana: A Decisive Factor in Contemporary African- Arab Relations
The Cold War might be a distant memory in most African countries, but its after-effects linger on in certain places — the Horn of Africa and southern Africa. Most African leaders, however, now look to Washington for political guidance and economic salvation.
Pax Americana rules supreme in Africa. The Arab ruling elites, too, are firmly in the grip of American economic, political and especially military might. The political map of Africa has seen radical shifts and realignments in recent years. The new democracies of Africa have inched ever closer to Washington. In the Arab world the situation is a little more complex, but by and large all Arab states — including Libya — can now be considered as economic partners of the US. Still, as the tense and untenable situation in Iraq and Saudi Arabia demonstrate, pockets of resistance to US hegemony survive — and it is not just the militant Islamists who are defiantly anti-US.
Contemporary Arab-African relations cannot be properly viewed outside the context of the turmoil in Iraq, Palestine and the oil-rich Arabian Gulf. These Arab countries and regions are not geographically located in Africa, but the Arab countries of North Africa, including Egypt, have been profoundly impacted by what is happening in Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, and in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, the subsequent invasion and occupation of first Afghanistan and then Iraq, the states of North Africa, in particular, have emerged as the most staunchly pro-American on the African continent. They have long battled against their own militant Islamists, long before Washington became aware of the Islamist threat.
It is difficult to trace the changing and contradictory perceptions of Africans in the Arab world. One fact holds true today: The US has strengthened its political grip on both African and Arab countries since the demise of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The US is no longer propping up dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and paramilitary protégés such as Jonas Savimbi the late leader of the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola better known by its Portuguese acronym UNITA. But, Washington turns a blind eye to human rights abuses and undemocratic practices in Arab and African countries closely aligned to the US.
The political map of Africa has seen radical shifts and realignments in recent years. Indeed, the ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), formerly a close political and military ally of the former Soviet Union and Cuba, has inched ever closer to Washington and can now be considered a key economic partner of the US in Africa.
Contemporary Arab-African relations cannot be seen outside the context of the after-effects of 11 September 2002, and even before that with the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es-Salam, Tanzania. The point, I wish to stress, is that contemporary Arab-African relations cannot be properly understood without the magnifying glass of US foreign policy and especially the US-led international war on terrorism. African- Arab relation are also influenced by three other important developments. First, US interest in developing the oil reserves of Africa as a counterbalance to dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Second, Libya’s about face vis-a-vis the US and other Western powers. Third, the Sudanese political crisis and attendant civil wars and humanitarian catastrophe.
With the commercial exploitation of vast reserves of oil in West and Central Africa, the continent stands poised to be a sharply better place. Oil production is poised to increase considerably among old-timers like Angola and Nigeria. And newcomers like Chad and Sudan are literally converting swords into ploughshares heralding a big change in oil markets. The relative proximity of West African oil to the US is of critical importance. West Africa is expected to emerge as a major supplier of crude oil to the US — supplying as much as 25 per cent of America’s oil needs by 2015, thereby greatly reducing the superpower’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil. These factors must be taken into account when assessing contemporary African-Arab relations.
Sudan -the binding factor in African Arab relations
The situation in Sudan is being fiercely debated in many Pan-African circles as well as in many international forums. Egypt and the rest of the Arab world want a united, territorially integral Sudan.
The international community is most concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe in southern and western Sudan. Human rights violations, talk of ethnic cleansing, and the scorched earth policy adopted by the Sudanese government and allied Arabised militias are sources of concern. “This is the most vicious hostile campaign this government has ever faced,’ warned Sudanese Foreign Minister Mostafa Othman Ismail recently.
The Sudanese government, however, doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Privately, African governments condemn the Sudanese government policies. Publicly, however, they don’t. The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, recently expressed concern about the overall situation in Sudan’s war-torn province of Darfur. But it stopped short of condemning the Sudanese government. Many Arab and African countries were responsible for letting the Sudanese authorities get away with mass murder.
The Sudanese government and the country’s main armed opposition group, the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have been holding peace talks in Naivasha, 80 kms northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. The Sudanese peace talks are taking place under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which groups seven East African countries, including Sudan. The real propelling force behind the Sudanese peace process, however, is the US.
Sudan, or rather the Sudanese crisis, brings into sharp focus the key importance of US foreign policy as a determining factor in contemporary Arab-African relations. The political fate of Sudan hangs on the balance. If Sudan breaks up into two states — an Arab Muslim north and a southern non-Arab, non-Muslim south — then that will negatively impact African-Arab relations. The very existence of Sudan as a country has been living proof of intertwining fortunes of Arabs and Africans. A united Sudan will confirm that Africans and Arabs can live in one continent peaceably. If Arabs and Africans cannot live amicably together in Sudan, then neither can they do so on the continent at large.
But Sudan’s unity will entail the democratisation of Sudan’s political and socio-economic institutions. The southern Sudanese will never accept living in a Sudan that is dominated by an Arab, militant Islamist elite as it has done since independence from Britain in 1956. For Arabs and Non-Arabs to live together peacefully in Sudan, the principles of democracy and respect for human rights must be enshrined in the Sudanese constitution.
The lessons one can draw from the Sudanese crisis must not be underestimated or played down. A peaceful, democratic and prosperous Sudan is key to cementing Arab-African relations. Sudan must be at peace with itself for Arab-African ties to be strengthened.
Back to the past
But, the lessons of the past must not be forgotten, either. It is at turbulent times like these that one is tempted to draw back on the lessons of Nasser’s experience. The Egyptian Revolution erupted in July 1952. After a brief stint in office by Mohamed Naguib, Nasser, the chief architect of the Revolution, assumed the reins of power. For the first time in three millennia, Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian. Not since the days of the Pharaohs was Egypt ruled by an Egyptian.
Nasser personified the Arab dream of national self-determination and emancipation from colonial servitude, poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Nkrumah, too, embodied Africa’s aspirations of freedom and social justice.
Both Africa and the Arab world have been undergoing series of changes since the death both Nasser in 1970 and Nkrumah two years later. Sadly, four decades after the establishment of the OAU, Africans have on the whole left the control of their destiny to others, and especially to the former European colonial masters and the US. Africa’s role, as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) makes clear, is that of a timid co-pilot at best. NEPAD — the current blueprint for African economic survival — is as strongly supported by Arab countries like Algeria and Egypt as by the non-Arab Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa.
“In spite of all good intentions, in spite of our plans, the naked fact, alas, is that Africa is still an impoverished continent, immobilised by the lack of political cohesion, harassed by imperialism and ransacked by neo-colonialism,” warned Nkrumah.
This article was originally published in the maiden (June/July 2004) edition of African Renaissance. The lead theme in that edition was: Africa and Arabia: Co-operation or Conflict? It has been published on this website before and is being re-published on popular demand.