Tanzania and the Palestinian Struggle

Tanzanian foreign policy is now driven by “economic diplomacy;” as a result, its voice on Palestinian oppression has faded.

Gaza by Marcin Monko, 2007. Via Flickr CC.

The current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has once again brought to the forefront the suffering of the Palestinian people. It has reignited the debate on collective punishment they are made to endure as well as the unequal application of firepower by Israel.  After close to 20 days of Israeli air raids followed by a ground invasion of Gaza, the casualties from the conflict have been lopsided, with 80% to 90% of the casualties on the Palestinian side being civilians. The death toll has climbed to over 1,000 Palestinians killed and 5,500 wounded.  On the Israeli side, 42 soldiers and 3 civilians have lost their lives in the conflict. It begs the question: what is the value of a Palestinian life?

While there are no easy answers to bringing peace in the Middle East, what is apparent to those who dare say it is that Israel policies on Palestine have continued to violate basic human rights. It was partly due to this that many African countries broke off their diplomatic relations with Israel during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Today however, the landscape has changed significantly, with previous staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause in Africa sufficiently neutralized by Israel’s diplomatic and economic push in the region.

Take the example of Tanzania, which under its first leader Julius Nyerere, provided the moral leadership to the rest of Africa on the Palestinian question. After gaining her own independence in 1961, the country’s top mission was to support liberation of other countries still under colonial yoke, including those under Apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, as well as the Palestinian cause.  Mwalimu Nyerere spoke forcefully in support of Palestinian right to self-determination as early as 1967 after the Six-Day War when he delivered a speech on Tanzania’s foreign policy based on principles of justice and freedom for all human beings irrespective of where they lived. This policy guided the country’s foreign policy for many years during his tenure which ended in retirement in 1985. The following excerpts from the speech are relevant to Middle East:

Our desire for friendship with every other nation does not, however, mean that we can be unconcerned with world events, or that we should try to buy that friendship with silence on the great issues of world peace and justice. If it is to be meaningful, friendship must be able to withstand honesty in international affairs. Certainly we should refrain from adverse comments on the internal affairs of other states, just as we expect them to do with regard to ourselves …

The establishment of the state of Israel was an act of aggression against the Arab people. It was connived at by the international community because of the history of persecution against the Jews. This persecution reached its climax in the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jewish men, women, and children … The survivors of this persecution sought security in a Jewish national state in Arab Palestine. The international community accepted this. The Arab states did not and could not accept that act of aggression. We believe that there cannot be lasting peace in the Middle East until the Arab states have accepted the fact of Israel. But the Arab states cannot be beaten into such acceptance. On the contrary, attempts to coerce the Arab states into recognizing Israel – whether it be by refusal to relinquish occupied territory, or by an insistence on direct negotiations between the two sides – would only make such acceptance impossible”.

In expressing our hope that a peaceful settlement of this terribly difficult situation will soon become possible, it is necessary for us to accept two things. First, Israel’s desire to be acknowledged as a nation is understandable. But second, and equally important, that Israel’s occupation of the territories of UAR [now Egypt], Jordan and Syria, must be brought to an end. Israel must evacuate the areas she overran in June this year -without exception – before she can reasonably expect Arab countries will begin to acquiesce in her national presence. Israel has had her victory, at terrible cost in human lives. She must now accept that the United Nations which sanctioned her birth is, and must be, unalterably opposed to territorial aggrandizement by force or threat of force.

That is Tanzania’s position. We recognize Israel and wish to be friendly with her as well as with the Arab nations. But we cannot condone aggression on any pretext, nor accept victory in war as a justification for the exploitation of other lands, or government over other peoples.

Tanzania had established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1963 before severing them in 1973, when it recognized the PLO as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and becoming the first African country to allow the PLO to open an Embassy in Dar es Salaam. During those 10 years of diplomatic relationship with Israel, Tanzania benefited from development assistance and investments towards agriculture, infrastructure development and security cooperation among others. Regarding this beneficial cooperation he was receiving at the time, Mwalimu Nyerere said “while it [Israel] was a small country it could contribute a great deal to his country since Tanzania faced similar problems to the Jewish state. The two main issues facing both countries, he said, were (1) to build a nation and (2) change the landscape, both physically and economically.”

It is said that Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagization program was modelled after the Kibbutz system and his agricultural cooperative schemes were adopted from Moshav model. Many roads in the main city of Dar es Salaam were built by the Israelis, such as the Port Access road now renamed Mandela Expressway. The Israelis even built their own Embassy there, which they had to abandon in 1973. The embassy building was later taken over by the Americans who moved their own embassy there in 1980 (it was the same building that was bombed in 1998 together with the US Embassy in Nairobi).

Relations between Tanzania and Israel were not restored until February 1995. By then, Mwalimu Nyerere was no longer in power. The majority of the other 25 or so African countries which had broken ties with Israel in 1973 had reestablished them, with a big wave taking place between 1991 and 1994 as a result of the Oslo Accords. Some countries like Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho have never broken their ties with Israel at any point in time, enjoying continuous friendship throughout the troubled times of the Middle East Wars. Today, more than 40 African nations have diplomatic relations with Israel, with only a handful still refusing to either recognize her (Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia) or yet to establish diplomatic ties with her (Guinea,  Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Comoros, Tunisia, Morocco and Djibouti).

By 1995, Tanzanian foreign policy had evolved from that of liberation and common brotherhood of man, to a new era of “economic diplomacy”. The idea was to make foreign policy a tool to support economic transformation, focusing on the pursuit of economic objectives, while at the same time preserving the gains of the past and consolidating the fundamental principles of Tanzania’s traditional foreign policy.”  However, the effect of this policy change is that Tanzania’s voice on matters such as the Palestinian cause has faded. Many blame not just the change in policy but the current crop of leaders failing to maintain the spirit of Nyerere’s moral leadership. The government is accused of not being quick as they used to be in condemning atrocities against Palestinians, and when they eventually issue statements, they amount to empty words with no concrete actions or repercussions, not even the mobilization of citizens to publicly demonstrate and voice their support as used to happen in Nyerere’s day. In a documentary interview last year, Tanzania’s Foreign Minister Bernard Membe denied any outside pressure or lobby to soften their stance saying, “our support for the Palestinian cause is unwavering. It’s principled and nobody can uproot it. The world is smart and clever. They know these are some of the areas that Tanzania cannot be touched.” 

On the eighth day of the ongoing crisis, during a press conference Minister Membe condemned the killings of innocent civilians in Gaza and “called on Israel to stop their ongoing aggression on the Gaza Strip” and also called on “the armed Palestinian groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.”  Ironically, the government newspaper buried this condemnation inside another story about plan to take Ambassadors accredited to Tanzania to visit the mausoleum of Mwalimu Nyerere. You can’t make this stuff up. Even Foreign Ministry’s own blog story emphasized the issue of dissolving the FDLR rebels in Eastern DRC and mentioned the Gaza remarks in passing. It was after days of mounting pressure from different corners that the Ministry released a separate statement fully focusing on the current situation in Gaza.  

Meanwhile, while the crisis is ongoing, media reports were full of stories about the Israeli Ambassador to Tanzania making the rounds to bid farewell to national leaders at the end of his tour of duty. The story on Gaza was never featured in the reporting, instead a lot of emphasis on the economic cooperation with Israel, who will soon open a fully-fledged embassy in Tanzania instead of being accredited from Nairobi.  It is unlikely that Tanzania will rush to open an embassy in Tell Aviv any time soon, but for the first time it accredited its Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt to represent the country in Israel. The relationship is thriving and over 6,000 Israeli tourists are expected to visit Tanzania this year through weekly “tourism-oriented flights” from Tel Aviv to Kilimanjaro operated by the El Al airline.

Dr. Azaveli Lwaitama of University of Dar es Salaam, wonders about the usefulness of the colorful statements in support of Palestinian cause from countries like Tanzania while at the same time allowing Israel to continue “weaving itself in the economic fabric” of the country.  Prof. Azaria Mbughuni of Spelman College in Atlanta, who has extensively researched Tanzania’s contribution in the liberation of Southern Africa, still believes that the issues of justice and human rights remain relevant in Africa’s foreign policy and need to be fully restored.  He says that, “the struggle of Palestinians is a struggle for human rights. It is not a struggle for a particular religion, for the Palestinian people belong to different religious creeds; it is not a struggle for race, for the Palestinian people come in different shades; it is a struggle for land, it is a struggle for the basic human principles of freedom, dignity, and the right to self-determination.”

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