Mbughuni: Why did East African Federation initiative collapse in 1963?

Dr. Kenneth Kaunda of North Rhodesia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Dr. Milton Obote of Uganda at the East African Heads of Government Conference, 1964 (photo source: Trip Down Memory Lane blog)

A treaty establishing the East African Community was finally ratified in 1999 and took effect in 2000. The journey towards East African political Federation reached a milestone in April of 2014 when the heads of state decided to start the process of drafting a constitution for political federation. This was not the first time that East African leaders came to the table with the goal of establishing a Federation. The heads of state from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika, signed the Declaration of Federation in June 5, 1963. The initiative never came to fruition as both internal and external factors led to the collapse of the negotiations. While there was a fair share of blame on all the parties involved, there is one particular factor for the collapse of the 1963 East African Federation initiative that deserves closer scrutiny: the role of Ghana in killing the East African Federation. 

Two giants emerged in the African political scene of the early 1960s: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania. The two were staunch proponents of Pan Africanism, an ideology and a movement that encourages the solidarity of Africans in Africa and around the world. Nkrumah and Nyerere ultimately wanted to see continental unity and the establishment of a “United States of Africa.” However, by the end of 1961, the two differed on the approaches to achieving their common goal of unifying Africa. Nkrumah called for the immediate establishment of the “United States of Africa.” Nyerere on the other hand, argued that the best approach is a regional approach. Build regional unity first and eventually bring them together to create a “United States of Africa.” This approach, Nyerere would argue, was more practical.

The quest for African unity remains elusive a little more than 50 years later. There is a raging debate on whose approach was correct. On one side, there are those who blame the adherents of regional approach for the decision to reject Nkrumah’s proposal at the first and second OAU Summits. They argue that the Second OAU conference in Cairo was the last nail in the coffin for any hopes of building continental unity. These pundits point to the failure of the regional attempts to build unity as an example of the futility of such initiatives. This debate exhumes passion from adherents of both sides. While Nkrumah’s call for an immediate establishment of the “United States of Africa” was never given a chance, it must be pointed out that regional political Federation was never given an opportunity to be tested either.

Nkrumah started as a staunch supporter of building regional unity. He called for regional Federation in 1953. He worked diligently to establish West African Federation in the 1950s after Ghana (then Gold Coast) won self-government. The initiative eventually failed. Nkrumah was briefly successful with the Ghana-Guinea Union of 1958. The two countries were joined by Mali in 1961 to form the Union of Ghana, Guinea, and Mali. The Union faced many challenges from the outset. The Union of the three countries failed by the end of 1961.

Nyerere came to view regional unity as the correct path for building African unity in the end of the 1950s. Nyerere and Tom Mboya of Kenya discussed the idea of building regional unity in 1958 after returning from Ghana’s first independence anniversary celebrations. The two east African leaders decided to establish a Pan African regional body to bring together independence movements from the region to share ideas, resources, and build unity. Nyerere was the only one in position to establish such an organization. TANU had just won the first Legislative Council elections and it was clear that self-government was within reach. Thus in September of 1958, Tanganyika leaders called a conference in Mwanza that led to the establishment of Pan African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA). Delegates came from Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Zanzibar. One of the agendas discussed at the conference was the question of Federation. A decision was made to postpone the issue of Federation until a later date. It was decided that the question of Federation should be revisited once the territories had advanced towards independence and won self-government.

The idea of Federation was forefront in Nyerere’s plans for east Africa. The victory of 1958 and 1959 elections guaranteed that Tanganyika would win self-government soon. This victory indicated to Nyerere that the time was ripe to start campaigning for East African Federation. He announced through BBC London on January 1, 1960 his desire to see Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda join together in a Federation. Nyerere then took his case to the Conference of Independent African States in Ethiopia in June of 1960. He announced his willingness to delay Tanganyika’s independence up to six months to allow for the formation of East African Federation.

Nkrumah and Nyerere, the two African giants, followed a similar path, but at different times. Nkrumah announced in 1953 after the Gold Coast won self-government that he wanted to see the “amalgamation of territories on a regional basis and methods of progress towards an ultimate Pan-African Commonwealth of Free, Independent United States of Africa.” This quest remained unattainable as each territory moved closer to independence in West Africa. Nkrumah’s failure to build regional unity would eventually convince him to bitterly oppose any such attempts elsewhere.

Nyerere moved full force after 1960 in his quest to establish East African Federation. He took the case to the PAFMECA Conference in Mbale, Uganda in December of 1960. Nyerere tabled a memorandum entitled “East African Federation (Freedom and Unity)” for discussion and approval. He continued to push for Federation with Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar leaders between 1961 and 1962.

Nkrumah changed his mind by late 1961 on the merits of a regional approach to build African unity. He not only came to view regional approach as wrong, he came to see it as a serious threat to the quest for building African unity. He would argue that regional groupings were part of “Balkanization of Africa,” borrowing from a 19th century saying that described the disintegration into smaller territories of the Balkans in Eastern Europe. According to Nkrumah, regional groups were a major threat to the quest for establishing the “United States of Africa.”

Efforts to speed up the process towards East African Federation increased in the course of 1962. Nyerere lobbied with his counterparts in Uganda and Kenya. He published an article in March of 1963 entitled “A United States of Africa.” The article was the most explicit explanation of his vision for a united Africa. Nyerere argued eloquently that Africa must unite. He asserted, “For the sake of all African states, large or small, African unity must come and it must be real unity,” and added, “Our goal must be a United States of Africa.” As for the approach, Nyerere argued “This goal must be achieved, and it does not matter whether this is done by one step or by many…” Nyerere was committed to building a “United States of Africa.”

The situation in African scene was tense in the first half of 1963. To make matters worse, tension between Tanganyika and Ghana increased after the assassination of the President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio in January 13, 1963. Nyerere sat with his hands on his head and wept after announcing the assassination of President Olympio. The assassination shocked many African leaders. Tanganyika did not hide its suspicion that Ghana played a role in the assassination. Ghana and Togo were involved in a tug of war over its borders. Nkrumah had laid claims to parts of Togo. It was partly in reaction to this crisis and the assassination of President Olympio that Tanganyika would take a strong position at the First OAU Summit in Ethiopia in 1963 on the issue of respecting existing borders and not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. This, some critics have argued, killed any hopes of achieving continental unity. But did it? What of regional approach? What happened to that initiative?

Nyerere and Nkrumah clashes became more pronounced at the First OAU Summit in Ethiopia. Oscar Kambona, Tanganyika Foreign Minister, was selected as the chairman of the powerful Political Committee. The decision by the majority of African leaders to give that important position to a Tanganyikan instead of a Ghanaian, was telling. The decision gave some indication on where the majority of African leaders stood on the Nyerere Vs. Nkrumah dispute. In the end, Kambona played a major role in shaping the final OAU charter. This was the first blow to Nkrumah. Another blow to Nkrumah was the decision by the OAU to exclude Ghana from the Committee of Nine (African Liberation Committee). Nkrumah took umbrage at the decisions made by the OAU in May and June of 1963 that excluded his country.

The move towards East African Federation showed most promise in June of 1963 when Jomo Kenyatta, Milton Obote, and Nyerere agreed to work on establishing the East African Federation. It was at this point that the opposition to the Federation initiative by Ghana went from rhetoric into action. Ghana organized a campaign to sabotage the East African Federation. The efforts concentrated in Uganda. But efforts were also made by Ghana to convince Kenya, Zambia and Malawi leaders to reject Federation. The focal point of the campaign centered on Uganda.
The clash between Nkrumah and Nyerere reached its apex after East African leaders issued the Declaration of Federation. Nkrumah moved with full force to torpedo the initiative. He wrote “Having accepted a common destiny for Africa at Addis Ababa, we can no longer stand aloof in the fact of any danger that threatens our common cause. It is for this reason that I have been compelled to express my own apprehensions concerning the proposal to unite East African States into a single political entity.” Nkrumah would claim that the scheme would build regional royalty and frustrate any hopes of a continental unity. He also expressed worries that the East African Federation was an imperialist scheme because it received support of the West. There could only be one solution for him: take action to kill the East African initiative. This Nkrumah did skillfully.

Obote, Nyerere, and Kenyatta issued the Federation Declaration on June 5, 1963. The Declaration stated: “We, the leaders of the people and governments of East Africa… pledge ourselves to the political federation of East Africa. Our meeting today is motivated by the spirit of Pan-Africanism, and not by mere selfish regional interests. … We believe that the East African Federation can be a practical step towards the goal of Pan-African unity. We share a common past, and are convinced of our common destinies.” This Nairobi agreement was the closest East African leaders would come to establishing a Federation. The position of Uganda would change drastically in the months to come leading to the collapse of the negotiations. About two months after the Declaration was issued, Nyerere would tell an American diplomat that Uganda was pulling out of the agreement they signed in June of 1963. Nyerere told the diplomat that the problem was not with the concept of Federation itself, but that Uganda leaders were making frivolous demands such as the site of the capital and demands for jobs. What was the cause of this policy reversal?
 
Part of the explanation lies with external influences on Uganda stemming from Ghana. Nkrumah told the Ghana National Assembly in June 21, 1963 that the “idea of a political federation of East Africa” was supported by the British government because they wanted to be “sure of retaining their rapidly waning influence in Africa.” Nkrumah dispatched his most skillful lieutenants to East and Central Africa. He concentrated his efforts in Uganda where Milton Obote was one of his greatest admirers. He sent Busumtwi-Sam to Uganda. Nkrumah also dispatched A.K. Barden, the former head of the powerful Africa Bureau, to East Africa. Barden, a former police, had recruited police into the Bureau and ran successful operations. Ghana High Commission in Tanganyika was reduced to a handful of people after June of 1963 as tension between Tanganyika and Ghana rose. Some of the Ghanaian diplomats were transferred from Tanganyika to Uganda.

The Government of Ghana poured money into Uganda between 1962 and 1963. Paulo Muwanga, Ugandan MP, received $39,000 from Ghana in 1963 to start farmer’s council in Uganda. Ghanaian funds were also funneled to Uganda through trade unions. For example, the Uganda Federation of Labor had cozy relations with Ghana labor and farmer’s unions AATUF and AAFU. Ghana gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Uganda labor union UFL. It is not surprising that UFL took the Ghana view of the immediate establishment of “United States of Africa.” TheTimes of UK reported in September 1963 that Nkrumah was “bitterly opposed to an East African Federation and is influential with Mr. Obote..” One of the most telling examples of Obote’s close relations to Nkrumah took place after Obote married Miria Kalule in November of 1963. Ghana Air Force plane was sent to pick up the newly weds to fly to Accra for their honeymoon. It cannot be denied that the Ugandan position could have come from the conviction that immediate establishment of continental unity was the best approach, yet it would be injudicious to dismiss the possibility that the large sums of money handed to the Ugandan leaders did not influence their views.

Obote and Benedicto Kiwanuka came to oppose the East African Federation initiative. The reasons given by Uganda leaders for the opposition after signing the Federation Declaration varied from frivolous to serious concerns. For example, Adoko Nekyon, Uganda delegate to the East African Federation negotiations and Obote’s brother in-law, demanded that each country should have a separate foreign representation. There were also fears that Uganda’s trade surplus and balanced budget would crumble once they united with their neighbors. The Ugandans claimed to be in support of East African Federation, but raised some of the above issues to say it would not work out for them. The negotiations for political Federation reached a stalemate. Numerous subsequent attempts were made to revive the talks; such attempts were eventually unsuccessful.

The resistance from Uganda after July of 1963 led Nyerere to conclude that there were external interference that led to the change of heart by Uganda. Nyerere told an American diplomat in August of 1963 that “various external influences” were at work in Kampala. Talks continued and eventually an agreement was reached for the establishment of East African Community that lasted from 1967 to 1977; however, the grand scheme of an East African political Federation was never given an opportunity to be established and tested. Like Nkrumah’s continental unity initiative, Nyerere’s attempt to build regional unity through Federation was also never given a chance. In a speech given in January of 1964, Nyerere would pronounce: “The Challenges of the 20th Century is the conversion of nationalism into internationalism.” This is a challenge that remains elusive in the 21st century. It remains to be seen if East African leaders will rise to the challenge and make the dream of a united East Africa a reality. This dream must include measures to build continental unity. For it is with the “United States of Africa” that the hopes of a vibrant and flourishing Africa lies.

This article was published by Business Times (Tanzania), October 3, 2014

Azaria Mbughuni is an Assistant Professor of History at Spelman College, Atlanta, USA. ([email protected]). Follow me on Twitter @AzariaTZ
© Azaria Mbughuni

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  • The above article was cross-posted from the write's blog: United Africa