15 June 2016

Sudan: The Zanzibar Uprising 1964 - Are the Arabs African Citizens or Settlers?

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Khartoum — Academic Researcher Dr. Abdallah Ali Ibrahim discusses in this book the background of the gruesome massacre that occurred during the Zanzibar Uprising of 1964 against the Arabs.

The writer has sought to, intellectually, refute the misconception that the Arabs are invaders in Africa or just a collection of settlers who should be wiped out of the Continent. He says his aim is to lay the groundwork for brighter Afro-Arab relations.

From the outset, the author appears very reserved about calling what had happened in Zanzibar a revolution or an uprising. He charges that the incidents that resulted in the ouster of Zanzibar's Sultan Jamshid Bin Abdallah Al Said- a Moslem of Arab origin - cannot be called a national Zanzibari revolution, as it was instigated and led by a Ugandan man with the name John Okello who led a group of East African mainlanders. Further, the stakeholders within the Zanzibari opposition elements had no knowledge about what was really happening. Consequently, the right name that should be given to those incidents should be 'invasion' not 'uprising or revolution'.

The author identifies the mastermind of those events - John Okello - as a homeless Ugandan who crossed into Zanzibar from Kenya in 1959 in search of a living.

Okello had dropped from grade 4 -elementary school- following the death of his parents. He then pursued a number of occupations in the East African Region, finally settling down in Kenya which was, then, rife with the Mau Mau uprising against British rule.

Okello had witnessed the Mau Mau violence. He happened to spend a night at the home of an Arab man who hosted him very well and when it was bedtime, the man asked him not snore, calling him abid (slave). Ever since, Okello continued to dream that he was going to become the liberator of Africans from Western colonization and Arab serfdom. He travelled to Zanzibar, which he considered a God-given land rushed upon by the Portuguese and the Arabs, with British backing. He entertained the belief that the Britons may leave, but the Arabs, who claim the land to be theirs until the day of judgement, would stay behind.

In Zanzibar Okello first joined the Afro-Shirazi party of Sheikh Abeid Karume that opposed the dominant position of the Arabs in the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Okello's speeches denouncing British imperialism, the South Asians from the Indian Sub-continent and the Arabs who dominated the political life of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, won him a following amongst the African population of the Sultanate. He, in particular, continued to speak about slavery and accounted for awesome aspects of the practice. Okello then formed an armed group of volunteers from East African mainlanders and instigated them to take revenge on the Arabs by killing them, expropriating their properties and dislodging them from the area.

The African literature, in particular that written by Tanzanian mainland writers, had tended to deny the massacre claiming it to be no more than an Arab fabrication.

But Okello had kept a round-the-clock record of Arab victims of the massacre which he embodied in his book "The Zanzibar Revolution". Historians had estimated that "Arab Holocaust " victims at 5000-11000. The historians conclude that, as a result of the massacre, the Arab population of Zanzibar had dropped from 50000 in 1963 to 12000-15000. The rest were killed, forced to leave or simply fled.

No Zanzibari African could have done what Okello did for the simple reason that the Island's African dwellers had intermingled with the Arabs, spoke Swahili and embraced Islam, while Okello and his men had no bonds of religion or intermarriage with the Zanzibari ethnic Africans. The core issue during those incidents was ethnic, rather than national, however. While Okello represented pure Africanism, the Sultan of Zanzibar was more Zanzibari than him (Okello).

But what Okello had done - as a claimed liberator of the Africans- had backfired. For, after 50 days of his access to the leadership, he rolled down from the helms and became unwanted, not only in Zanzibar, but also in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. The country's police took him from one custody to another. In their turn, the Zanzibar nationals strived to erase his name from the revolution's records, describing him as a coward and as an opportunist. They also ridiculed his self-proclaimed Field Marshall title for, they argued, Zanzibar had no army in the first place.

The memorials, through which the Westerners had strived to keep the history of slavery in living memory the best they could, was also among the instigating factors for the massacre. As an example, the Church of Zanzibar was built in 1870 on a 19th Century slave market, to keep the hate of Arabs in the hearts of the local population. The Westerners also erected a big portrait at the Makerere University that represented what they called the humanity of the Christian missionaries whom they said had come to Africa to liberate its people from Arab slavery.

The author, however, agrees with writer Jonathan Glassman that the historical ethnic memory does not, all by itself, lead to genocide, as genocide is a result of strenuous work on the part of the concerned group or state. As a proof of this, the author says the massacre against the ethnic Arabs had stopped once Okello was removed from the political stage, while the memory of slavery continued to persist.

The Zanzibar massacre was a bitter fruit of the strong differences among the Sultanate citizens (before independence) on what citizenship should be and on who should rule and on what basis. These differences had awakened the ethnic memories because politicians had exploited the fears of the past in order to win. In this respect the Zanzibari national party had focused on the Islamic Zanzibari nationhood in a bid to isolate the mainland Africans, while their adversaries continued to hammer on the idea that the Arabs were alien to Africa.

Still fear looms that a new catastrophe may occur 50 years after the 1964 massacre because the Zanzibari identity problems unleashed by the massacre are still in place: The ruling Revolution Party of Tanzania had lost its grounds in Zanzibar in the most. The party had had a contender for popular support in the unified Christian front. As a result, the two parties' conflict materialized a visible ethnic content. Ethnic Arab voters vote for the unified front, whereas their mainland adversaries vote for the revolution party. The revolution party accuses its foes as being representative of the interests of the Arabs who wish to reclaim the Sultanate and establish an Islamic republic. On their part, the front party accuse their adversaries of being a party of the mainland African Christians.

In conclusion, the author suggests what he calls the pillars of a strategy for removing the hurdles that face the Afro-Arab relations. Of these pillars, he says, is to bear in mind that Zanzibar still maintains its Arab-Islamic gains and did not lose its old roots to the genocide.

Part of that strategy is also to tighten the intellectual pressure against the notion of negritude that denies Africa's historical mix which has become part of the Continent's cultural and demographic fabric, irrespective of the historical sins committed against either a historical or contemporary sector. An example of this was when Okello assumed the role of the genuine Christian emancipator, forgetting the fact that Christianity was not an indigenous African religion. Okello, by assuming the role of the Christian emancipator, had departed from Africa's traditional faith and started to kill people as aliens to Africa, though these people and their culture were present in Africa centuries before the advent of Christianity.

Moreover, Africa could be said to have become a white continent by the acceptance in South Africa of 6 million eligible white citizens as a result of the policies of the African National Congress Party that made no mention of ethnicity during its long history of struggle against the apartheid.

The author also blames advocates of negritude for not just shedding the blood of non-ethnic Africans, but also for turning a blind eye on the mass killing of Tutsi's in Rwanda that occurred along ethnic lines and under the pretext that they (the Tutsi) were Ethiopian immigrants to the Central African nation. And, in addition, a presidential candidate was denied the right to contend for the presidency because he was considered a foreigner like what happened to Kenneth Kaunda, the founder of the state of Zambia. Here, the word foreigner meant a non-national and not just a Negro.

Another pillar of Ibrahim's strategy is to free the concept of Arabism and Islam from its missionary implications. That is because Arabism and Islam are African without the need to mention their original roots. That is a fact the author said he did not discern well until when Henry Gates visited the City of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa, and was alarmed to see the deterioration of the treasure of books and libraries in that heritage City. The film Gates had shot about those treasures had struck a chord of alarm with the international academics who collected funds to rescue that "African" heritage.

The book was published in 2016 as part of the series "kitabat naqdiyya fi al-fikr waltareekh (critical studies in thought and history), published by the author himself, who is viewed as an outstanding Sudanese thinker, historian, writer and academic. Ibrahim is also an honorary lecturer on history of Africa and Islam in the American Missouri University. He has enriched the Sudanese and the World library with a lot of valuable books. He is also a regular writer in the Sudanese press, tackling various intellectual, historical, social, and political issues.

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