Monday, 25 November 2013


US interventions in East Africa: from the Cold War to the 'war on terror'

In case you have not seen it. Following is an article from Amrit  Wilson, the author of "The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar," published by Pluto Books AMRIT WILSON 18 November 2013 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'. 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.

 In Somalia today the US and Britain, with the help of their many proxy  fighters and 'peacekeepers' claim to be fighting Al-Shabaab.  Tomorrow, it could be a different terrorist group or a different  country which is targeted. In Africa, as elsewhere, the 'war on  terror' can always find ‘terrorists’ to fight - they could be ordinary  people going about their business which happens to stand in the way of  corporate loot, or groups which grow under the shadow of imperialism  generated by people’s anger against its injustices, or encouraged and  created by imperialism itself . What is common to all recent American interventions, however, is that  they occur in regions rich in resources. Contemporary US cables  revealed by WikiLeaks clarify this link between the 'War on Terror'  and America's hunger for African land and its oil, gas and minerals.  They provide some clues too about the regional context for the  evolution of AFRICOM, the highly sophisticated US military command in  Africa, which claims, among other things, to protect the continent  from terrorism. We learn, for example, that in 2006, (at a time when the 

US military  were already entrenched in Africa) the government of Tanzania had  agreed to the establishment of a 'Civil Affairs presence' in Zanzibar  by the US Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. This 'Civil  Affairs team (which we have rebranded as "AFRICOM")', the cables tell  us some three years later, is carrying out 'humanitarian' operations  and helping build 'Civil Military Operations (CMOs)… capacity within  the Tanzania Peoples Defense Forces’. What are CMOs? The US army provides us with an explanation. They are  ‘a primary military instrument to synchronize military and nonmilitary  instruments of national power’. Their work includes surveillance,  abduction, rendition and torture, providing bases for drone aircraft  and similar operations. Only now it is to be done by the Tanzanian  army, thanks to capacity building by AFRICOM .
CMOs deal, the document goes on, with ‘potential challenges’ such as  ethnic and religious conflict, cultural and socioeconomic differences,  terrorism and insurgencies, the proliferation of weapons of mass  destruction, and most significantly perhaps - the ‘sharpening  competition/exploitation of dwindling natural resources [my italics]’.  In other words they can, where necessary, provide military force to  secure the resources that the US wants from Africa.

As for the 'sharpening competition', other contemporary cables make it  clear that this is a reference to America's old Cold War enemy, China.  While in the 60s, the US worried about Chinese arms and influence,  today it is concerned about its burgeoning imports from, and exports  to, the countries of Africa. Chinese strategy in Africa today is very  different from that of the US, it has been willing to obtain its  resources through trade, providing light industrial goods in return  for raw materials; and building and developing infrastructure –  railways and bridges, for example, to facilitate this process. China's increasing presence in Africa is, in fact, one of the  strategic reasons behind the setting up of AFRICOM. One AFRICOM study  even claiming with a touch of Cold War hysteria that ‘The  extrapolation of history predicts that distrust and uncertainty will  inevitably lead the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to Africa in  staggering numbers’. However, US diplomatic messages make it clear, through reports on  private conversations, conference briefings, and personal assessments,  that the structures of imperialist exploitation have changed.  Corporates are far more powerful, and in this neoliberal era, they  thrive on both the expropriation of resources and the 'war on terror'.

  Currently, American troops are being deployed in 35 African countries.  In every case there are huge profits to be made, not only from the  resources taken over, but from the sale of weapons, training and  armaments of all kinds. It is ultimately on behalf of big business too, as US cables show,  that teams of US and EU officials, supported by donors, have been  putting pressure on the politicians of Zanzibar to provide the  'stable' infrastructures which would make the potentially lucrative  oil deposits, found in the waters of the islands not long ago,  accessible. And if this requires Zanzibar to leave the Union with  mainland Tanzania - so be it. As for AFRICOM, it is mainly in East Africa that relations with it  have been welcomed. In 2007, the Southern Africa Development  Community, made up of 14 African countries, openly denounced it; and  in 2008, the African Union categorically rejected President Bush's  plan for AFRICOM to be based in Africa. 

But in East Africa, leaders  such as Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete and intra-government  organisations like the East African Community, have been ready to  provide the political framework for US military penetration - eagerly  signing Memoranda of Understanding on joint military cooperation on  'counterinsurgency, peace-building and peace keeping, with operations  on both land and sea.’
However, despite their leaders compliance, in East Africa too, people  are angry that Africans are being killed fighting wars with other  Africans on behalf of the west. People's resistance to imperialism is  growing through anti-land grab movements and in struggles against  giant mining companies. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Zanzibar  revolution approaching, people's anger against the surrogates of  imperialism on the islands is palpable. Will Zanzibar prevent its oil  being taken over by foreign oil companies? Will it be able to use it  to transform the acute poverty which stalks the islands? These are the  questions which hang in the balance.

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