US interventions in East Africa: from the Cold War to the ‘War on Terror’ | Amrit Wilson in OpenDemocracy

Wilson CoverPluto’s Amrit Wilson, author of the new book The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar (Pluto, 2013), has written an article for OpenDemocracy this week. In it, she explores a number of the book’s themes.

She argues that during the Cold War years, while British colonialists were being driven out of East Africa, the first US intervention in the region occurred in Zanzibar. It proved to be a model – many aspects of which are being repeated in the ‘War on Terror’.

We’ve reproduced a section of the article below, however to read the whole thing you should go to OpenDemocracy, here.

To buy Amrit’s excellent book, for £17 (that’s 10% off) including free UK P&P, simply click on the cover image.


Amrit Wilson 

In Britain, the attack on the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Kenya in which 130 people lost their lives, is rapidly fading from public memory, already ascribed to just another act of ‘mindless violence’ perpetrated by Islamic terrorists.

But many Kenyans  see things differently. Some regard it as the result of Kenya’s involvement in a proxy war being fought in Somalia on behalf of Europe. Others highlight Israeli or American involvement. The facts support these analyses: the EU provides 124 million euros for peacekeepers in Somalia; a recent Israeli arms deal with Kenya specifically mentioned fighting Al Shabaab; and as for America, its role is an overarching one, in the words of the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, it ‘leverages local and indigenous forces [for use] …aggressively and surgically in Africa and the Arabian peninsula… in close coordination with, and in support of, geographic combatant commander and U.S. embassy country team requirements’.

What were the paths which led from the struggles  against British colonialism in East Africa in the 50s and 60s to what have been called today’s new colonial wars? In my recent book, The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar, I explore this question for a small segment of the vast and diverse region of East Africa, Zanzibar. I focus particularly on the first US intervention in the region which occurred during the Cold War, looking at it partly through the experiences and memories of the members of the Marxist Umma party.  Although unique in many ways, those experiences still provide a microcosm of the mechanisms through which imperialism operated, and to an extent still operates. They remind us also that a different future was, and perhaps still is, possible.

Zanzibar had been a British protectorate with a population of mixed African and Arab heritage, ruled by a feudal Sultan on a wage from the colonialists. The British had done everything possible to engender ethnic tension, and when in 1963 they finally departed, they transferred power to a party representing the Sultan and his allies. Within months the Zanzibar revolution, the first revolution against neocolonialism in Africa,  had swept the islands.  Initially a spontaneous uprising  mainly by African youth, the involvement of the  multi-ethnic Umma party transformed it into a revolutionary insurrection where Arabs and Africans stood together against the neocolonial rulers.  As Abdulrahman Babu leader of the Umma Party put it, the people rose up ‘not simply to overthrow a politically bankrupt government and a caricature monarchy. They revolted in order to change the social system which had oppressed them and for once to take the destiny of their history into their own hands…It aroused hopes far beyond those of the revolutionaries themselves’..

Declassified documents of the period show that it was these hopes of the people, and the possibility of both political and economic liberation, which US and British officials in Zanzibar and other East African countries found most disturbing. They dispatched a hurricane of messages to Washington, about the fate of a NASA tracking station set up on the islands to keep an eye on the Indian Ocean, about the revolution being a ‘coup’  instigated and armed by the ‘ChiComs’ (although they could find no actual evidence of Chinese involvement), about the youth of Zanzibar who had been ‘drilling and training in what can only be described as a militant manner’ and much else.

Panicking, the US State Department moved a battleship several times to and from the shores of Zanzibar, and urged the British to invade. In the next few weeks, however, they began to formulate a longer term ‘Zanzibar Action Plan’. Under this, US officials would work on those Zanzibari leaders they thought they could manipulate to ask for a British military intervention, and so make an invasion look like an African initiative.  Meanwhile, the CIA, anxious that Zanzibar might become  a ‘Cuba of Africa from which sedition would spread to the continent’, began to plan an Africa-wide strategy. This involved bringing the countries of Central and East Africa under their control to prevent socialist influences from the countries of North Africa ­­­ reaching Southern Africa with its host of western investments. It required, most urgently, the ‘neutralisation’ of socialist influence in Zanzibar.

Eventually this was done, not by military conquest, but through subterfuge, bribery and illegal means. A new country Tanzania was created by uniting Zanzibar and Tanganyika, with the connivance of the leaders of Kenya and Uganda, and presided over by Tanganyika’s  President Julius Nyerere. In the days that followed, William Leonhart, the US Ambassador in Tanzania, cabled Washington reporting that ‘Nyerere’s United Republic has given us the initial political framework with which we can work’ and urging the US State Department to give Nyerere ‘the maximum quiet support from the beginning’. The US Ambassador to Kenya noted, meanwhile, that the laws of Tanganyika ‘would become supreme throughout’, adding that ‘the [colonial]Preventative Detention Act could be used to round up radicals in Zanzibar’.

This was indeed what happened. While Zanzibar was almost powerless within the Union, bound to what had been Tanganyika in a semi-colonial relationship, hundreds of Umma party members and sympathisers and others who were seen as critics, or potential critics of the regime in Zanzibar, were arrested and locked up. Torture chambers were established on the main island where men, women, and even children, were brutally tortured. Many were killed.

Nyerere, who had become an object of love and high regard for Western liberals, said and did nothing to stem the horrific violence. Babu and several other leaders of the Umma party were incarcerated in mainland Tanganyika, and charged with treason. They remained there for six years in appalling conditions, until they were released following a powerful international campaign.

The US intervention into Zanzibar and its aftermath brought economic decline to the islands, but people were not much better off in mainland Tanzania. The Revolutionary government of Zanzibar under Babu’s leadership had laid down the blueprint for an independent economy. This involved dismantling the colonial economy, based as it was on production for export, and replacing it with an economy geared to meeting the people’s essential needs while at the same time creating a domestic market. But these plans were forgotten. Under  Nyerere, Tanzania which had once been the largest food exporter in Africa, became one of the poorest countries in the world – dependent on food aid from the West.

In the mid-1980s, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the government, now under Nyerere’s successors, embarked on economic liberalisation. Since then the country has sunk deeper into US domination. Much of mainland Tanzania’s  resources,  precious metals and minerals have  been sold off to the robber barons of global capital, while its fertile agricultural land has been leased off to corporates for growing biofuels and food for export.

This pattern of corporate land grabs was, of course, taking place all over East Africa. In the 1980s, in Somalia, then under the pro-US President Siad Barre, nearly two-thirds of the country’s oil reserves were allocated to the American petroleum giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips.  After Barre was overthrown, the US invaded Somalia primarily to protect these investments. It was one of the markers of a new period, when with the fall of the Soviet Union, the US, suddenly bereft of an enemy, created and targeted a new one – Islamic terrorism. Done in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’, it was in fact the launch of the ‘war on terror’ in the region.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

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