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Meeting Babu

I first met Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu in 1983. He had been invited to speak at an event at the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University addressing the imprisonment of former Harvard professor—and Zairean/Congolese activist—Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba. Wamba had been jailed by the notorious then president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko.


I had heard of Babu. In reading about the life of Malcolm X, Babu’s name had appeared. And in Black radical circles there was periodic and passing reference to the revolution that had taken place in Zanzibar, off the coast of then Tanganyika, in 1964; a revolution in which Babu was a major leader.

In anticipation of meeting a legendary figure, one tends to create ‘pictures’ in one’s mind of what they expect to encounter. The man who appeared at the Afro-American Studies Department was not announced with trumpets; there was no armed (or unarmed) guard preceding him. Instead a very handsome “older” gentleman appeared on the scene with a smile and greeting that one generally reserves for old friends. He addressed the audience, describing for us the struggles on the continent for democracy and liberation and the importance of building a global campaign to free Wamba-dia-Wamba.

Over the subsequent years I got to know Babu. The last time that I saw him was in 1990 at a commemorative conference for the life and work of Malcolm X. He had moved to Britain, after several years in the United States, and had returned to participate in the conference. His smile and greeting was just as strong, and his words were even stronger. He had come to symbolize for me someone who, in the face of adversity, had retained his commitment to Pan Africanism, socialism and genuine internationalism.

In large part due to having known Babu I was thrilled to read Amrit Wilson’s The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar. I have always felt that the Zanzibar Revolution in general, and Babu in particular, failed to receive the attention that they both deserved. Wilson did not disappoint me in her examination of the Zanzibar Revolution.


Wilson chronicles the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, setting it historically at a moment of developing crisis in newly independent nation-states of Africa. Zanzibar, a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural island nation, was in fact a neo-colony of Britain and, secondarily, the United States. The revolution that unfolded, ultimately led by the Umma Party (of which Babu was a key leader), shocked Britain, the United States, and many African leaders who found themselves facing a successful left-wing insurrection set on an—initial—course of constructing a truly independent and socialist-oriented Zanzibar.

The Zanzibar Revolution failed. It was subverted internally by forces that feared the direction of the revolution but it was also, in effect, crushed by the de facto seizure of Zanzibar by Tanganyika, then ruled by Julius Nyerere. It is here that the book raises some particularly disturbing issues. The fact that Britain and the USA feared the Umma-led revolution was no surprise. The leadership was committed to a pro-socialist and independent path and sought normal relations with the USSR, China and Cuba. The USA was most concerned that Zanzibar could become the “Cuba” of East Africa.

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Yet it was the role of Tanganyika’s Julius Nyerere that Wilson explores and that leaves the reader unsettled. Nyerere, viewed by many progressives and leftists of the 1960s and 1970s as a great hero, absorbed Zanzibar and ensured that the revolution would proceed no further. In fact, as Wilson shows, Nyerere was viewed by Britain and the USA as an acceptable moderate leader and one to be counterposed to leftists such as Babu.

The crushing of the Zanzibar Revolution brought with it terrific repression against Zanzibar’s Left. Movement leaders, including Babu, were imprisoned and tortured. Nyerere, at least according to Wilson, did nothing of any significance to remedy this situation. As a result, many of the leaders, to the extent possible, went into hiding and/or went into exile.

The Zanzibar Revolution was a revolution against neo-colonialism and, as such, differed from the independence movements and struggles against white minority rule. The enemy was not, at least overtly, European or North American, but was represented by a leadership from within. The forces grouped around the Umma Party recognized this significant difference and worked to build a broad, progressive united front that could win and sustain power. Wilson offers a convincing case that the Zanzibar Revolution might just have succeeded had it not been thwarted by the combined efforts of outside imperial forces, internal struggle with reactionaries, and the forced merger with Tanganyika. The revolutionary forces were, in this case, outmatched.

The Threat of Liberation is a compelling story that is worthy of a serious read. It raises questions regarding alternative directions that African countries could have journeyed, but also raises questions as to how progressive forces can actually tackle neo-colonial regimes and their imperial allies.

Wilson takes the reader into an exploration of contemporary Zanzibar, showing that while in the 1960s the neo-colonial forces used the bogey-man of “communism” as the means justify the repression of progressive efforts at genuine national independence, today’s situation in Zanzibar is marked by the use of the threat of Islamic terrorism as a means of repressing dissent. While I have no doubt as to the facts of this, I believe that the book would have been strengthened, not by a connection with contemporary Zanzibar, but rather had it explored the Zanzibar Revolution in the context of other African movements in the period of the mid to late 1960s. Babu and others in the Umma Party were not the only ones attempting to confront the challenge of both neo-colonial regimes and, in a different context, frustrated national democratic movements (i.e., national democratic efforts that had stalled, such as Algeria after the overthrow of Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965). Each of these movements were either side-tracked or met with severe repression. And while movements against South African apartheid, Rhodesian white minority rule and Portuguese colonialism all resulted in liberation, the aftermath of each victory has been complicated, if not problematic, forcing one to consider the issues that Babu and his comrades attempted to address.

In reading The Threat of Liberation one senses the excitement and the possibilities that emerged with the Zanzibar Revolution. It is a tribute to Wilson that she is so successful in conveying this sentiment. That alone justifies reading this book. But it is the deeper analysis of the challenges faced by the revolutionary movement that leaves one reflecting on a question which probably haunted Babu and his comrades: was there a different course that they could have pursued that would have resulted in a different and positive outcome?

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Thursday, 7 November 2013