Reminiscences of Nasser & Afro-Arab Unity
The following was written by Gamal Nkrumah, the son of Kwame Nkrumah. To mark the anniversary of the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He considers Nasserism’s Pan-African legacy.
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 a historic accident. It is rooted in a common vision, drawn from a common cause. It all started in the late 50s and early 60s, 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 a 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, 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 have had an unusual opportunity to watch Nasser’s Pan- African contribution at close quarters and observe 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 Kwame Nkrumah less than 48 hours after the coup which toppled the latter’s government.
Nasser’s commiseration letter to Ghana’s first- ever 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 the 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 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 mediaeval Arab slave trade. There is open hostility to a perceived “Arab agenda” in the African continent. The ongoing Sudanese civil war 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 is 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 mediaeval, 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” as expounded in his The Philosophy of the Revolution. 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 hisConsciencism: 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 permitted 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 50s. 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 WEB 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 and 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 initiatives. One was the Ghana, Guinea, Mali Union in the early 1960s. 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 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 Abdel-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,” Nujoma said.