Tanzania, Black Power, and the uncertain future of Pan-Africanism

Why did Tanzania and Julius Nyerere become touchstones for Pan Africanism in the 1960s and 1970s?

Between 1964 to 1974, the East African nation of Tanzania was seen by peoples across Africa and in the diaspora as a nation deeply committed to African liberation and in solidarity with black people worldwide. As a result, many hundreds of African American and Caribbean nationalists, leftists, and Pan Africanists visited or settled in Tanzania to witness and participate in the country they believed then led the struggle for African liberation. From the South African liberation movements, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, to Mozambican freedom fighters and intellectuals like the Guyanese Walter Rodney. Seth Markle, an associate professor of history and international studies at Trinity College, recently published the fascinating and important A Motorcycle on Hell Run: Tanzania, Black Power, and the Uncertain Future of Pan-Africanism, 1964–1974 (Michigan State University Press, 2017), which examines this pivotal time.

Why did Tanzania and its founding president, Julius Nyerere, became touchstones for Pan Africanism in the 1960s and 1970s?

If you look at the history of the black radical tradition, you’ll see that certain African independent nations emerge as political symbols and representations of the homeland among African diaspora peoples. I’m thinking of Ethiopia and Liberia during the colonial period and Ghana and Tanzania after 1945. Tanzania’s place in the pan-African movement had a lot do with Nyerere, both the person and head of state. Black folk in the diaspora, especially the United States, were attracted to his principled leadership and his belief and commitment to African unity, expressed in actual foreign and domestic policies—from solidarity with African liberation groups, to official regional unification between Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964, to the Arusha Declaration in 1967. These were all hopeful and inspirational signs that placed Tanzania at the vanguard of pan-Africanism. For African Americans, it is also important to remember that this was a time when Africa was “on the mind,” so to speak. When African Americans started to crave information about all things Africa. Nyerere also spoke out against racial oppression in the United States and invited African Americans to live and work in Tanzania. The fact that African Americans were a racial minority denied full citizenship rights in the United States, made migrating to a black-ruled nation led by a visionary African leader all the more appealing.

Especially after declaring for African Socialism in the Arusha Declaration of 1967 (in Kiswahili, Ujamaa na Kujitegemea), Tanzania inspired many African Americans and other blacks in the diaspora to find their way to Dar es Salaam in the 1960s and 1970s. Malcolm X, Robert Williams, Queen Mother Audley Moore, Stokely Carmichael, and a legion of less well-known made their way there. Give us an example of one such person from your book.

Like you mentioned, there are so many personal stories to choose from, and there were people who did not make it into the book. For personal reasons, though, Malcolm X is one such person explored in my book. I came of age during the “Golden Era of Hip Hop” (mid-80s to mid-90s), an era marked by politically conscious, Afrocentric-inspired rap music. As a teenager, I listened to songs that referenced Malcolm X or sampled from his speeches. Rap artists and groups like KRS-One, Lakim Shabazz, Public Enemy, X-Clan, Big Daddy Kane, Paris, and 2Pac memorialized Malcolm X and made him relevant to the post-Civil rights, hip hop generation. You also had the Spike Lee Joint films Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. I was that kid wearing a baseball cap with the ‘X’ on it along with an African leather medallion proudly draped around my neck. Rap music provided me with that introductory education on the civil rights and Black power movements, especially about leaders like Malcolm X. It really sparked my interest in learning more about him because, believe me, he was not being taught in the schools I attended. The Plot To Kill Malcolm X by Karl Evanzz, which looks at the role of the CIA and FBI in Malcolm’s assassination, blew me away as a 15-year old kid. Ever since, I’ve been researching Malcolm X, especially drawn to the last year of his life after he left the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X is such an important historical actor in this book because his visit to Tanzania in 1964 signaled a shift in the Black Freedom Movement in the US. He brought Tanzania to the attention of the Black Power generation of activists I address in the chapters that follow. These young men and women in their mid to late twenties really took to heart Malcolm’s message of connecting with Africa–Tanzania specifically–culturally, politically, psychologically, and spiritually. He laid down this useful model for African Americans to follow in terms of how to internationalize their struggle against racism.

One of the chapters I found most powerful focused upon the career of Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney, who taught for five years at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). He literally wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) while on the faculty. While there, he also inspired and worked with the University Students African Revolutionary Front. These were radical African students—not just Tanzanians—who wanted to push the country into a more avowedly socialist and Pan-African direction. In this chapter and others, you explore the contradictions of promoting a transnational ideology in a single nation. Will you discuss that further?

This story is indeed a cautionary tale about the African postcolonial state and its capacity to liberate, its capacity to collaborate with the grassroots (including the diaspora) against a common foe, its capacity to meet the expectations of its own citizens and its “racial citizens” of the diaspora. In the case of the Africans students, their Marxist interpretation of postcolonial Africa, Tanzania especially, ruffled the feathers of the ruling government and party. Through Walter Rodney’s mentorship, radical African students believed they were helping the government with their criticism of class struggle, socialism and imperialism. The government and party thought otherwise. Due to its promotion of a transnational ideology, the University African Students Revolutionary Front was forced to disband. This chapter essentially tries to illustrate the constraints the Nyerere government imposed on student and diaspora activism within Tanzania as much as it tries to highlight the agency of Walter Rodney and the African students he mentored. This tension is a recurring one that also manifests in the book publishing, anti-apartheid solidarity, and technical skills assistance initiatives explored in the book.

Related to that, talk more about the challenges that Nyerere and his supporters had in carrying through on the Arusha Declaration, on building African Socialism, in Tanzania.

“You can’t build socialism without committed socialists.” That’s what a lot of Tanzanians told me when doing field research for this book. I interpret this to mean that the development of leaders within the government and party was easier said than done. Moreover, the internal class struggle made it difficult to stem the tide of government corruption. Breaking free from the economic legacies of colonialism during the height of the Cold War presented challenges as well. So did the oil crisis of the 1970s followed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank intervention of the 1980s. All of these forces and events contributed greatly to Tanzania becoming one of the poorest countries in Africa by the mid-1980s. The Cold War really wreaked havoc on the African continent, I can’t stress that point enough.

PC: It begs the question, what role democracy in a one-party nation? Tanzania was hardly alone, meaning that in many postcolonial nations, liberation movements immediately became the one political party leading their new nations. What did Nyerere think about multiparty democracy and was this subject a touchy one for blacks coming from the United States or elsewhere outside of Africa?

That’s an interesting question when thinking about what’s happening right now in Tanzania where the party that has been in power since independence is slowing losing the people’s trust and confidence and increasingly throwing their support behind the main opposition party. While Nyerere, no doubt, saw the value in a multi-party system, he took a gradualist approach to its implementation. He believed a democratic culture and ethos could be fostered within a single mass party framework. I do think he also saw the dangers of multi-partyism for newly independent nations, seeing the political-ethnic violence that arose in other countries as warning sign of sorts. If you look at Tanzania’s political history since the 1960s, it not a history colored by extensive political violence, which brings us back to Nyerere and how he viewed nation building in gradual steps and stages. The transition to muti-partyism in Tanzania in the mid-1990s was relatively a smooth one—not a coincidence, I think. At the same time, political violence has erupted during the last two election cycles.

One party rule in Tanzania was not a touchy subject for African Americans. It bothered the moderate civil rights leaders who saw a link between single party rule and communism. But for the people I examine in my book, this issue was not a deal breaker or anything like that. The banning of soul music and the wearing of mini-skirts, and the ways which the government and party policed these polices, were particularly jarring to some. One African American living in Tanzania back then relayed to me a funny story about how Tanzanian youth clandestinely visited his home just to listen to James Brown! The main issue with the ruling party had more to do with a faction within the party comprised of conservatives who were not big fans of the Black Power movement. This faction was largely responsible for the mass arrest of African American expatriates in Tanzania in 1974, which was pretty much the beginning of the end.

Although many who study Pan-Africanism may believe in its basic premises, that does not mean the ideology and practice is without problems. Your book, especially the last few chapters, are far from triumphant. In various ways, you reveal the many real and deep tensions. Can you elaborate?

I guess it depends on how you define triumphant given what the pan-Africanism movement was up against, but I get your point. This moment was transformative for so many people. It was an important stage of political development in their lives. It shaped people’s racial, political, gender, and cultural identities in many positive ways. I hope readers don’t lose sight of those small victories. This is why I’m reluctant to look at this movement as a complete failure or pan-Africanism as a problematic ideology and practice. The problems they encountered provide lessons for future generation of pan-Africanists. The themes and issues I address in my book–like literacy, education, people’s assemblies, international travel and alliance building, and neocolonialism–still hold relevance today. You’re right when you say that some deep tensions are revealed and never get fully resolved but that is something that happens within socio-political movements in general. The people I talk about were trying to build friendships and political alliances across racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, and cultural differences. Despite these differences, they tended to find common ground and build mutually beneficial relationships, and that’s important to keep in mind, when factoring in the reasons for why these alliances were short-lived.

Tell me about how you conducted your research in Tanzania. I’m especially interested in how you found people to interview and conducted your interviews—there and in the United States.

I did research for this book all in the U.S., Tanzania, and Trinidad and Tobago, collecting and reviewing personal papers, newspapers, government documents and reports, FBI and CIA files, journal and magazine articles, letters, diaries, interviews, the list goes on. I also conducted interviews like you mentioned. Judy Richardson and Mejah Mbuya helped me connect with people to interview. I met Judy, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), when I did youth organizing work back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. When I started doing research for the book and came to learn of Judy’s role in Drum and Spear Press, a Black Power publishing company that published books in Kiswahili, Tanzania’s national language, I reached out to her. She got me in touch with a lot of the African Americans I interviewed such as Courtland Cox, Charlie Cobb, Jennifer Lawson, among others. Doing oral histories was one of the best parts of putting this book together. It takes a lot of experimentation and persistence. I got the chance to meet and talk with some remarkable people. On the Tanzania side, I was lucky to link up with an activist named Mejah Mbuya. We met through a mutual friend – an African American lawyer living and working in Tanzania when I first travelled there in 2002. Mejah knew a lot of people from the socialist era. He connected me with Tanzanians like the book publisher Walter Bgoya, former radical students and professors of the University of Dar es Salaam like Karim Hirji and Issa Shivji, and politicians like Paul Bomani, the former ambassador to the U.S. There was this one time when I was interviewing a former member of the ruling party’s youth wing at a café in Dar es Salaam. The person sitting at the table next to us was listening in on the interview turned out to be the daughter of Oscar Kambona, the former Defense Minister of Tanzania! She later introduced me to her mother and gave me access to portions of her father’s personal papers, which included the gift Malcolm X gave him when they met for the first time in Dar es Salaam. This is just to say that luck played a role as well. Sometimes they found me instead of me finding them. I do want to say that each year people from this era are passing away which makes capturing their stories through oral history all the more important.

I know you are greatly interested in hip hop in Tanzania, other parts of Africa, and the United States. This subject is definitely central to 21st century Pan-Africanism. Although you did not discuss them in the book, tell us about this subject. What do you find compelling and where do you see hip hop going in Tanzania and East Africa?

In the conclusion of the book, I mention how, for the past twenty years, Tanzanian hip hop artists have memorialized the Black Power and Ujamaa eras in their music. I partially look at African hip hop as an expression of pan-African solidarity because African youth have taken a diaspora-made culture, made it their own to speak back to the African Americans, to state power, etc. If it’s about looking at hip hop in Tanzania and its ability to foment radical social change, like what’s happened in Senegal with Y’en a Marre, then the hip hop movement has a long way to go. This is not to say that the movement isn’t politicized in any way. But what I find compelling is the growth of hip hop as an artistic culture not so much as a political movement. I’m drawn to how hip hop in Tanzania, and East Africa, is growing beyond rap music. At one time, everybody wanted to be a rapper. Now you have young men and women graffiti writers, dancers, and DJs. To see the emergence of these other core aesthetic elements of the culture are what interest me the most. I’ve also been looking into the link between the war in Afghanistan, the international heroin trade, and hip hop in Tanzania. The heroin epidemic in Tanzania is growing at an alarming rate and, tragically, has taken the lives of hip hop artists like Langa Kileo. I knew Langa personally; he was a very gifted rapper. His death, as result of his addiction, really brought to people’s attention the severity of a problem that is not unique to Tanzania – it’s happening all over Africa. Whether this issue becomes central to 21st century pan-Africanism led by young people remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.