Jul 27, 2009

Race, Revolution and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar (Part 2)

 As a follow up of UNPO’s weekly serialization on Professor G. Thomas Burgess’ new book 'Race, Revolution and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar'. The second part focuses on the first of the two key figures in Zanzibar's postcolonial history: Ali Sultan Issa.



Below is the second extract from the 'Race, Revolution and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar' :


Ali Sultan Issa

The first memoir is that of Ali Sultan Issa, an icon of Zanzibar’s revolutionary past, whose life is thoroughly cosmopolitan, but not in the centuries-old sense of close ties between Zanzibar and the world of the western Indian Ocean.  Issa’s connections are more distant; his most influential experiences came in London, Moscow, and Beijing; and he even expresses open contempt for the “backwardness” of aspects of Arab, Indian, and African societies that do not measure up in his estimation to the enlightened ways of more “scientific” lands. His Arab ancestry and allegiance to scientific socialism meant that only through a remarkable chain of events did he come to wholeheartedly serve an African nationalist regime and to seek new ways to impose the revolution. His inclusion in the cabinet and even his physical survival were rather fortuitous, given the execution, at Karume’s order, of four of the other original nine cabinet ministers serving him in the 1960s.

Issa’s life story has value on a number of levels.  It provides unity and coherence to the abrupt transitions of the last half-century of Zanzibari history.  Issa’s life, it can be said, has come full circle in many of the same ways as his island society.  His life reveals how socialism enjoyed allure in a colonial society and came to influence a revolution of have-nots. His story illustrates how socialism was closely associated with the youthful years of a post–World War II generation from across the islands’ racial spectrum endowed with the unique privilege of imagining a new future. The worldview of Issa and his like-minded contemporaries was more expansive than that of their elders and more dismissive of the familiar than the exotic. It was nurtured by the stories and experiences of friends who seized opportunities to see the world, of which Issa may be regarded as exemplary. Setting out at the age of eighteen, he spent two years as a seaman and stowaway, spending months in Calcutta, Cape Town, and Vancouver.  Arriving in London, he assimilated into the circles of East African workers and students in the city but ultimately gravitated toward the multiracial but predominantly white society of the British Communist Party.  There he gained access to a world of secular intellectuals thousands of miles away from the colonial and qur’anic schools of his youth.  He studied political economy and absorbed the vocabulary, class taxonomies, and views of world history espoused by his socialist mentors.  He attended the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 at his own expense and then returned to Zanzibar and took up full-time work for the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP).

As his party’s representative overseas, Issa obtained and distributed hundreds of scholarships to Eastern Bloc colleges and universities, intent on influencing a rising generation of nationalists. In doing so, he and a few others literally put Zanzibar on the socialist map of the world.  In their time abroad, Zanzibaris reflected on island history and came to believe they understood its essential injustices, contradictions, and medievalisms. They learned to regard themselves as a cosmopolitan elite with access to a ready-made template to erase all the ills of island society.  They adopted a general historical sense that socialism had and would continue to be adopted by the planet’s most progressive nations.  They began their analysis of island history not from the moment Arabs first civilized or enslaved Africans, but from an imaginary future when Zanzibar would fully realize its capacities for development.  They sought to convince others that Zanzibar could become something completely different and better by radically departing from centuries of its own historical evolution.  Issa and his comrades adopted an imported future that forced their secession from the ZNP and compelled their support for a revolution they sought and failed to control.

Issa’s story, then, provides intellectual context to the revolution.  Issa’s stated intent is, in fact, to suggest that he and his comrades were a vanguard responsible for nearly all that was enlightened about the revolution and that had they been able to influence leaders like Karume to genuinely follow socialism, the revolution would have succeeded. In this respect, Issa echoes his life-long associate, A. M. Babu, who claimed the comrades intervened to broaden “the objectives of the uprising from a narrow, lumpen, anti-Arab, anti-privilege, anti-this and anti-that perspective into a serious social revolution with far-reaching political, social and economic objectives.” Given time and influence, the comrades could have fully developed the nation’s productive forces.  They were thwarted, however, by “novices” who ruled the islands “with the caution of a bull in a china shop” and who relegated Zanzibar to “permanent stagnation.”  Zanzibar, once “a brilliant revolutionary star of Africa, was henceforth to be reduced to one of the worst bungling and tyrannical petty-bourgeois despotisms in Africa.”

Issa endorses selected aspects of the revolution and exonerates himself from others.  His narrative is at times a confession, a polemic, and a dispassionate account of revolutionary events.  He distances himself from the racial politics espoused by the regime he served, yet he helped introduce socialist purge categories like “capitalists” that served as popular labels for Arabs and Asians.  As a cabinet minister for eight years, Issa enforced a quota system that ended Asian and Arab domination of secondary education. He nationalized Arab and Asian properties in Zanzibar Town and established youth-labor camps in the countryside. Though one of the most controversial personalities the revolution ever produced, Issa makes no apologies. He sees himself as the wise and incorruptible civil servant, trying to build the nation, yet continually undermined by the public’s “unscientific” habits and worldviews.

In this sense, he represents a generation of officials whose ideas of revolution were deeply embedded in their ambivalent views toward island society. If Zanzibar wasn’t exactly “the laziest place on earth,” as one visiting Western journalist put it in 1962, it was a culture in need of reform according to socialist precepts.  Specimens of what Frantz Fanon referred to as “underdeveloped humanity,” Zanzibaris needed to renounce “the gentle life” for a heavy dose of revolutionary discipline.  Like British colonials, the comrades wanted to instill the work habits of industrialized society, yet the “crooked timber” of humanity could not always be made to conform to the socialist ideal.

The discipline that Issa preached in public did not always extend to his private life, as his story abundantly reveals.  He moved in a world of hotel lobbies, nightclubs, and international conferences. As a minister, he enjoyed a relatively lavish salary, land in the countryside, a seaside villa, servants, and mistresses. Rather scandalously, he married an English woman without revolutionary convictions, who gave him four children.  While he survived and even benefited from the revolution, Issa became increasingly disillusioned with Karume’s regime, which either failed in its nation-building imperative or was simply too cruel and capricious. Eventually, the wrath of the regime came down on Issa’s head. His arrest, torture, and death sentence following Karume’s assassination in 1972 provoked considerable reflection on his part. While in prison, he read the Qur’an three times and reembraced Islamic beliefs; and upon his release, he devoted himself to reconstructing his life through trade and entrepreneurship, rather than politics. In the 1980s, he thoroughly accommodated himself to the realities of a new world order. Don Petterson, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, remarked in his memoirs that “in 1964, there was no more zealous Marxist in the whole of Zanzibar [than Issa].”  Yet at a reception held in 1987, Issa “showed up wearing a three-piece suit and presented me with his business card, ”his appearance suggestive of the new “entrepreneurial spirit” in the islands.  This spirit has ever since been dedicated to turning Zanzibar into a place for fun and relaxation more than for work: with Italian financing, Issa opened Zanzibar’s first beach resort hotel.

Today, Issa exudes almost equal amounts of pride for his part in the development of tourism and for his role in constructing socialism in the 1960s.  Instead of touring the island with Che Guevara, ticking off for his visitor visual signs of Zanzibar’s revolutionary development, the intent is now to obscure from the gaze of hotel guests anything that is industrial or not quaint.  Yet he still retains more than a nostalgic belief in socialism; this may be witnessed, as I have seen, when he sings revolutionary songs in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese to his slightly disoriented Italian hotel staff.  In 1996, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and then made another to Cuba, to attend a socialist youth festival.  When interviewed by a Cuban television crew about his memories of Che, he wept uncontrollably, until the crew was forced to end the interview. Issa would probably say, quoting Mao, these are all “non-antagonistic contradictions;” and in a way, he is right.  The historic appeal of socialism in Zanzibar, as in Ethiopia, may be attributed to the power of “a story of how a weak and backward collection of nationalities, located outside of Western Europe, attained unity, wealth, and international respect: the allegory of the Russian and, later, the Chinese, revolution.”  Yet socialism also responded to universal desires for grandeur and destiny.  An Argentine journalist writing about the Zanzibari Revolution in 1965 claimed it offered the latest evidence that revolution was changing humanity: “The armed struggle breaks up the old routine life of the countryside and villages, excites, exalts...Life acquires a sense, a transcendence, an object.”  Issa’s life and exploits should at least partially be understood through his pursuit of such transcendence on both a personal and a communal basis. If Issa can freely recollect episodes from his past, without regret or conscious irony, events that are scandalous by local standards, it is perhaps because the God he came to accept in midlife is the kind of nation-building god that is sympathetic or forgiving of such pursuits.  If there is anything clear about his memoir, it is that the eye of Issa’s memory is turned toward both the past and the prospect of a future judgment. Having escaped the worst punishments of man, he is preparing to meet a socialist minded deity.


In part three, to be released on the UNPO website next week, Professor G. Thomas Burgess continues the story of Zanzibar with an introduction to the life of Seif Sharif Hamad.

To purchase a copy of 'Race, Revolution and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar', please visit the University of Ohio Press, by clicking here .