When Dar, the haven of peace, was the Mecca of revolutionaries

Friday January 4 2013

The late Walter Rodney. Photos/FILE

The late Walter Rodney. In May 1970 at Makerere University, Prof Ali Mazrui met his match in intellectual wit from another well-grounded academic and political activist from the University of Dar es Salaam - Rodney. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Ciugu Mwagiru

When Tanzania celebrated its 51st independence anniversary on Sunday, December 9, many will have recalled how the attainment of freedom was followed by an era of idealistic fervour.

Indeed, right through the 1960s and 70s, the country’s capital Dar es Salaam attracted the global revolutionary set like a beacon. Among them was the late Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, the 32nd anniversary of whose assassination was marked in June this year.

He was among numerous academics, intellectuals, political activists, freedom fighters and dreamers from around the world who settled in Tanzania at different times during the Ujamaa era.

Many of these wanderers, fired by the utopian promise of the late President Nyerere’s Ujamaa philosophy, flocked to the coastal capital, revelling in an atmosphere that not only fuelled their idealism but also served as a hothouse to incubate ideologies and movements they believed would change the world.

From the earliest days of Independence in 1961, Tanganyika under the Tanganyika African National Union, Tanu, served as a base for various liberation movements fighting against colonialism and settler-colonialism, particularly in Southern Africa.

Dar es Salaam gained particular prominence after the military coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party government in Ghana ended Accra’s tenure as the fount of pan-Africanism.

The Organisation of African Unity Liberation Committee – earlier based in Accra, Ghana – moved its headquarters to Dar-es-Salaam, from where it supplied training, material aid and organisational support to the mass organisations and independence movements in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and other African colonies still struggling for Independence.

Tanzania became a reliable rear base for Namibia’s South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) and the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) as well South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Hence, apart from the intellectuals from different parts of the world who flocked to Dar during its golden era as a centre of revolutionary discourse, numerous freedom fighters from different parts of Africa also found succour there.

Having operated from Tanzania for many years, people like current Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba and his predecessor Dr Sam Nujoma retain fond memories of their years there. Their sojourns in the country are said to be a treasured part of the folklore of places such as Mtwara, Morogoro, Dodoma and Mbeya.

The late president Julius Nyerere’s leadership had made it clear that freedom for the country was meaningless as long as other African countries remained under colonial rule. It therefore welcomed African freedom fighters with open hands, including some who would eventually perish in the course of the struggle.

Among them was Eduardo Mondlane, the former Frelimo president who was assassinated in 1969 by a parcel bomb sent to him at the Frelimo headquarters in Dar es Salaam. The same method would years later be used to assassinate the white South African anti-apartheid campaigner Ruth First.

Apart from the hands-on freedom fighters and activists, many distinguished academics and intellectuals were also drawn by the political environment in Dar.

Thus Walter Rodney, who would influence so many African Independence-era intellectuals with his 1972 treatise How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, had two stints teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam.

According to Horace Campbell, a renowned scholar, professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York and the author of Rasta and Resistance From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, Rodney’s time in Tanzania was “perhaps the most important in the formation of [his] ideas”, and while based in Dar, “he was at the forefront of establishing an intellectual tradition which still today makes Dar es Salaam one of the centres of discussion of African politics and history.”

Campbell later wrote that it was within the context of those discussions that Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was written.

In addition to that major historical text, during the same period Rodney also wrote numerous papers and critical articles on the then vastly popular Tanzanian philosophy of Ujamaa.

He had a particularly soft spot for the populist philosophy, coming as he did from a working class background, his father having been a tailor and his mother a seamstress.

Still youthful and idealistic, the prolific Rodney also wrote avidly on issues such as imperialism, underdevelopment and the problems of state and class formation in Africa, while in the meantime developing a reputation as a Pan-Africanist theoretician and spokesperson.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, on March 23, 1942, Rodney won an open scholarship to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1964, where in 1966, at the age of 24, he was awarded a PhD with honours in African History.

His dissertation, which focused on the slave trade on the Upper Guinea Coast, was published by the Oxford University Press in 1970 under the title A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800.

Rodney took up his first teaching appointment at the University of Dar es Salaam in 1966, returning to his alma mater, the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Mona campus, in 1968. While based at the latter institution, Rodney was noted for being sharply critical of the middle class and what he viewed as its retrogressive role in the post-Independence Caribbean.

The renowned historian and scholar was also an important actor in the fledgling Black Power movement in the Caribbean and North America.

Perhaps predictably, that stance would result in Rodney being unceremoniously thrown out of the faculty at the University of the West Indies and being declared persona non grata by that country’s government on October 15, 1968, while he was attending a Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada.

That move would have dire consequences as the following day, October 16, saw student riots erupt at the Mona campus. The violent protests, that are still remembered as the “Rodney Riots,” claimed the lives of several people and caused millions of dollars in damages. As they intensified, the Mona campus was cordoned off by the police and military for two weeks.

Despite the harsh reaction by the Jamaican authorities, the riots triggered an increase in political awareness across the Caribbean, especially among the Afro-centric Rastafarian movement in Jamaica itself. The background of that highly politicised quasi-religious grouping was to later be documented by Rodney in his popular pamphlet, The Groundings With My Brothers.

Rodney was soon back in Tanzania, following a stint in Cuba. Having begun his academic career at the University of Dar es Salaam barely two years earlier, Rodney was to serve there as a professor of history between 1969 and 1974.

The radical historian’s return to the University of Dar es Salaam saw him intensifying his scholarly work on African history as well as his collaboration with liberation movements based in the Tanzanian capital. It was during that period that his classic book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was written.

While living in Dar es Salaam, a newly energised Rodney was also influential in developing a new centre of African learning and discussion.

By then he was a family man, having got married to Dr Patricia Rodney and settled down in a union that produced three children — Shaka, Kanini and Asha.

Rodney, together with other Pan-Africanists, participated in the discussions leading up to the Sixth Pan-African Congress, held in Dar es Salaam in 1974. Dubbed Six-PAC, the meeting brought together leading African political lights of the era, as well as a massive contingent of Black American thinkers determined to have a role in the emergence of their motherland, then just emerging from colonialism.

Prolific as ever, before the Congress Prof Rodney wrote a much-quoted paper titled Towards the Sixth Pan-African Congress: Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America. The avant-garde academic eventually returned to his native Guyana in 1974.

Pursued by a relentless fate, Rodney was however denied employment at the University of Guyana by the administration of Forbes Burnham. That move notwithstanding, Rodney soon embarked on political activism, and as one of the leaders of the Working People’s Alliance was soon a marked man.

Always under threat from government agents, he was eventually killed on June 13, 1980, when a bomb he thought was a walkie-talkie detonated.

The slaying, during which Rodney’s brother Donald was also injured, took place a month after Rodney returned from the Independence celebrations in Zimbabwe, and was still immersed in a period of intense political activism.

Rodney was survived by his wife, Pat, and three children. Dr Patricia Rodney would years later be one of several guest speakers at the University of the West Indies 60th Anniversary Walter Rodney Conference held at its Mona Campus on October 16-18, 2008. The memorial marked the 40th anniversary of the Rodney Riots.

Apart from memorials, Rodney’s legacy was continued through the appearance of yet another major book, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, which was published posthumously in 1981.