Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu was born in 1924 in Zanzibar in East Africa, then a British protectorate. He described the place and period in which he grew up in a brief autobiographical sketch which was intended to form the basis of the memoirs which he had been commissioned to write, but which were always postponed by more immediate work relating to contemporary struggles:
‘Zanzibar, with its trade and maritime links all over the world, was a unique place in which to grow up. Although for all practical purposes a British colony with all the complexities of a racially stratified society, it had a rich and dynamic culture peculiar to its situation. During World War 2 many young Zanzibaris were drafted to fight in British armies, mostly in Africa and Asia…in the post-war period they returned from the war zones bringing back the reality and scale of imperialist violence. Their stories of meeting recruits from other colonies (especially those from the ‘Gold Coast’ now Ghana, in the Burma campaign) helped make us in Zanzibar aware of the possibilities of solidarity and revolution.
Meanwhile, East Africa itself was entering the epoch of rebellion. The youth of Zanzibar were engulfed in the mood of the epoch. Jomo Kenyatta’s mobilisation of Kenya Africans in a political party against the white-settler rule in Kenya brought home to the rest of us in E. Africa the need for a national political organisation. The rise of the Kenya ‘freedom fighters’, which later led to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya gave us the deeper meaning of liberation struggle’.
In 1951 Babu went to Britain to study Philosophy and English Literature and was drawn first to Anarchism and then to Marxism. London was then a center for anti-colonial movements and Babu was to play a key role in the well-known left-led Movement for Colonial Freedom which had its base there.
Babu writes of the impact on his generation of Nkrumah’s victory in Ghana in 1956, ‘coming as it did after the Chinese Revolution, the Viet Minh victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu and the Algerian Revolution, it gave us a new awareness of the importance and effectiveness of the `mass political party’ against colonialism’. In 1957 Babu returned to Zanzibar to become Secretary General of Zanzibar’s first political party, the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP). Under Babu’s leadership the party organised urban workers, rural workers and seafaring workers and mobilised the urban petty bourgeoisie. The party developed a consistent anti-colonialist political line; a grassroots organisation of party branches at local level; and links with the worldwide, and especially African, anti-imperialist struggle.
This was the era when the movement for Pan African Unity was emerging, and Babu participated in the historic All African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana in 1958 along with Nkrumah, Franz Fanon and Patrice Lumumba, whom Babu and his comrades ‘discovered’ when traveling through the Congo on the way to the conference, and took with them to Accra. In the same period, Babu describes how `I was the first liberation fighter from East and Central Africa to visit revolutionary China, in 1959/60. From then on I was keenly following the ups and downs of the Chinese experiences; meetings with Mao, Chou En Lai, Marshal Chen Yi, Deng Tsiao Ping, and others, immensely heightened my revolutionary spirit and optimism. I became a correspondent for the Chinese News Agency HSINHUA for East and Central Africa, which deepened my knowledge of the Chinese revolutionary trends, especially the underlying causes and the significance of the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’.
Seeing Babu as a threat to continuing post-independence neo-colonial domination, and a source of ‘Chinese influence’ in the region, the British, with the collaboration of reactionary elements within the ZNP itself, had Babu imprisoned for two years on charges of `sedition’.
The independence which was negotiated in 1962 led to the formation of a right-wing coalition government still controlled by the British, which intensified repression against trade unionists, youth leaders and other progressive elements. By 1963 it was clear that the left could no longer play an effective role within the ZNP and under the leadership of Babu, a mass revolutionary party, the Umma (People’s) Party, was launched, galvanising working class and peasant youth across racial groupings into action. The Zanzibar Revolution took place in 1964 – an uprising led by a number of political forces which the Umma Party was able to partially transform into a socialist revolution. For the U.S., Zanzibar was now the ‘Cuba of Africa’ from which communism would spread across the continent, and there followed a period of intense CIA activity. Only four months after the Revolution, the U.S. succeeded in engineering a union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar (to form Tanzania) which effectively crushed the progressive potential of the revolution and `neutralised’ Zanzibar.
Between 1964 and 1972, Babu headed various ministries in the Tanzanian government, in particular the Ministry of Planning. This was the phase in which he negotiated the construction of the historic Tanzania/Zambia Railways (TAZARA) by China. He also played an active role in the international arena in this period when the Cold War was at its height, making links with Che Guevara, Castro and others. Visiting New York as leader of the Tanzanian delegation to the U.N. he spoke at a historic mass rally with Malcolm X in Harlem. The relationship with Malcolm X deepened and Babu was one of the key influences who led Malcolm to an anti-imperialist world view.
However throughout this period there were sharp contradictions between President Nyerere’s policies of so-called ‘African Socialism’ which focused on ‘welfarism’ neglecting the crucial task of restructuring the colonial economy, and Babu’s scientific socialism to which the development of the productive forces was central. In 1972, Babu along with other comrades from the Umma Party were arrested on false charges of murdering President Karume of Zanzibar. Though never convicted, Babu remained in prison in Tanzania until 1978, when he was released under international pressure. During his time in prison, Babu wrote his classic book ‘African Socialism or Socialist Africa?’ outlining a comprehensive strategy for Africa’s economic and political development.
After his release Babu lived first in America for four years and then in London. Taking up teaching posts in a series of Universities, he became highly respected as a scholar and commentator. His enthusiasm, warmth, openness and clarity made him an immensely popular teacher. Living in London Babu became a friend and source of strength to struggling peoples all over the world. Among the many visits which he made in this context was one to IPKF-occupied Jaffna in Sri Lanka in 1989, to commemorate the Tamil human rights activist and feminist Rajani Thiranagama, murdered by the LTTE.
But most importantly perhaps, Babu continued to play a unique role in African politics. In the face of the intensifying economic stranglehold and ideological hegemony of Western agencies he spoke and wrote of the need for a second liberation of Africa. In much of his work economic nationalism was a central theme. He believed passionately that only by channeling the people’s energies into developing the productive forces could the vicious circle of poverty, aid and dependency be broken. He was always searching for sparks of hope and ready to fan them, and became a close adviser and mentor to a whole range of progressive movements – such as those in Eritrea, Uganda and Ethiopia – challenging neo-colonial military regimes and IMF/World Bank dominance. He was also instrumental in the resurgence of Pan Africanism with a relevance to contemporary conditions.
This led to the establishment of a Pan African Movement which held the historic 7th Pan African Congress in Kampala, Uganda in April 1994, under the slogans ‘Resist Recolonisation!’ and ‘Don’t Agonise, Organise!’
In 1995 when Tanzania held its first multi-party elections, the main opposition party in mainland Tanzania, the NCCR-Mageuzi, with a strong base among urban working class youth and sections of the peasantry, asked Babu to stand as Vice-Presidential candidate. Babu identified the party as having the potential to challenge the hegemony of the corrupt ruling CCM which had essentially become the party of neo-colonialism and reduced Tanzania to the second poorest country in the world. The NCCR had a mass popular base and Babu saw its policies as ‘progressive and democratic, with an economic programme which, with some modification, could lead the way out of the blind alley into which the CCM has lead the country’.
He returned to Tanzania in August 1995 to a massive and ecstatic welcome from the people. However he was eventually prevented from standing by the legal manipulations of the ruling party. As always putting political commitment before personal ego, Babu remained in the country tirelessly campaigning for the party. When the NCCR lost after massive rigging by the ruling party, Babu wrote two seminal pamphlets (‘Tanzania’s first multi-party elections’ and ‘Wanted: a Third Force in Zanzibar’)analysing the situation and suggesting a way forward.
As an Eritrean liberation fighter put it, Babu had ‘the courage to say what he thought, the foresight to be optimistic about Africa’s potential and the integrity to live in accordance with the dictates of his conscience when doing all this was neither fashionable nor expedient’. Throughout his political life Babu remained a communist, for whom Marxism was not only an ideology but a method of analysis. It was this dialectical approach which enabled him to identify without dogma or sectarianism the forces of progress and change within any situation, while at the same time never losing his commitment to the socialist future of Africa and of the world.
Klintvägen 16 C 36
Author of Modern Zanzibar Cuisine