When Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and Rhodesians Talked About Race Revisiting Nigeria – Zimbabwe Relations

While Nigerian support for Zimbabwean and broader southern African liberation was extensive, it was considerably more nuanced and more fractured than often remembered.

Panashe Chigumadzi’s provocative essay, Why I’m No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race, has generated a number of responses. One of these, by Sa’eed Husaini, notes that there remains a racialized component to Nigerian politics: ‘the north has long feared that the stronger British colonial influence on the south is a reason for distrust; the south has always feared that Islam and the northern aristocratic tradition, which were respected and cultivated by the British, have turned the north into a ticking timebomb.’

This dichotomy may be the basis that elucidates the historical perspective on solidarity politics in which Chigumadzi, a South African-Zimbabwean writer, situates her argument concerning the failing of contemporary Nigerians to identify with international black struggles. She states, ‘The irony which seems to be lost on Nigerians who choose to dismiss the struggles of their black sisters is that their country has a long tradition of supporting the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa’s minority white settler regimes.’

While Nigerian support for southern African liberation was extensive, it was considerably more nuanced than the aforementioned quote suggests. This was especially true in the moment immediately following Nigerian independence when Zimbabwean nationalists expressed major frustration with Nigeria’s foreign policy. In some respects, the distinctions within this heritage bolsters Chigumadzi’s argument, in others it reveals a bifurcated framework which affirms Husaini’s determination to ‘keep talking to Southern Africans about race…’

Rhodesians Woo Nigeria

In April 1960, on the eve of Nigeria’s independence, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a sub-imperial body linking today’s Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, but then dominated by the white settlers of Southern Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe), established a diplomatic mission in Lagos.  It would become the only diplomatic mission maintained by that body in an independent African country outside of apartheid South Africa. The Federation was committed to the undefined, but helpful sounding idea of ‘Partnership’, which to the extent it actually existed, consisted of a white ruling class of senior partners overseeing subordinate black junior partners.

Nonetheless, ‘Partnership’ provided a basis for some dialogue with non-settler African states. After independence that October, the mission remained —a vigorous push to close it may very well have damaged relations with the British and been a fight that the young Nigerian state did not wish to pick. The mission didn’t endure for long, closing in late 1963 (ostensibly due to financial difficulties), several months before the Federation dissolved at the end of the year amidst the triumph of anti-colonial liberation movements in Malawi and Zambia.

The diplomatic correspondence of the mission reveals that it sought to exploit the northern aristocratic tradition, which it thought might be receptive to the Federation’s vision of a paternalistic white rule gradually raising ‘standards’ across Africa. During a visit to Kano, Kaduna, and Zaria, the mission’s first High Commissioner, the Oxford University trained JF Bowles reported:

These people of the North are gentlemen in the true sense of the word, and so[original emphasis] different from the aggressive and conceited southerners whom they despise for their bad manners – amongst other reasons. I think we could reap rich dividends here with bold policies on aid, on which I shall write to you when I get back.

White ministers from the Federation attended both Nigeria’s independence celebration as well as the ceremony marking the installation of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the father of Nigerian nationalism, as the new state’s governor-general, shortly thereafter. At the latter, ‘Father Zimbabwe’, the nationalist Joshua Nkomo, was also present and Azikiwe implicitly criticized the racism prevailing in the Federation. However, the Rhodesian presence in Lagos constituted a wedge by which Rhodesian settlers sought, with no lasting success, to project their views on the maintenance of ‘civilised standards’ across what they called ‘evolving Africa.’

The Rhodesians also sought to legitimize their policies by inviting Africans from newly independent countries to visit the Federation. Nigerians were among the most eager to accept these offers and a number of Nigerian academics, diplomats, and MPs undertook junkets funded by the Federation. These visits caused considerable angst in black nationalist circles across the Federation.

Zimbabwe’s Nationalists Clap Back

When a group of Nigerian MPs (representing both national and regional parliaments) travelled to the Federation in 1962 under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the Malawian nationalist leader who had then attained significant control of government machinery following reforms in colonial Malawi, refused to welcome them. The MPs skipped the Federation’s smallest constituent territory entirely, missing out on a planned visit to Malawian tea estates and the scenic Zomba Plateau. The Zimbabwean nationalist movement, ZAPU, issued a telegram condemning the visit: ‘we feel we should not be doing the cause of Pan-Africanism any service if we did not voice our opposition to the current flirting between the Nigerian Government and Sir Roy Welensky.’

The criticism intensified several months later, ahead of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The Nigerian prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, stated that he did not believe the federal prime minister, Roy Welensky, with whom he had been acquainted since the 1940s, supported discrimination. This time, ZAPU responded less diplomatically. A telegram signed by Robert Mugabe accused Balewa of behaving like ‘an imperialist puppet.’ Edson Sithole, Zimbabwe’s prominent pan-African legal mind, then aligned with a smaller faction of nationalists, piled on the criticism. He penned an op-ed which derisively proclaimed that ‘no one in his five senses in this country could take Nigeria to be our brother in the struggle.’

However, Nigerian support for the Federation had considerable limits and contacts between the Nigerian government and the nationalists were significant. Rhodesian officials were disappointed that Balewa failed to provide the highest stamp of authority by making his own visit or reciprocating by opening a mission in the Federal capital, Salisbury (present day Harare), both of which the Nigerians had hinted would be forthcoming.

Bowles was succeeded not by another white, but by Mike Hove, formerly one of the few black MPs in the Federation. Perhaps this was an indication that Nigerian diplomacy, then more subtle, was making an impact. When Hove presented his credentials to Balewa, the media reported that the Nigerian prime minister cast aside cautious diplomacy and urged for the Federation to be dissolved.

The Rhodesians unsuccessfully sought to prevent Zimbabwean nationalists from accessing Nigerian officials. A steady stream of Zimbabwean nationalists canvassing for international support visited Lagos. ZAPU’s Secretary for External Affairs, Leopold Takawira, was quoted speaking unfavourably about the Federation (he dubbed Welensky ‘the bulwark of white supremacy and arch-enemy of the black man’) in a press release issued by the Nigerian Ministry of Information in April 1962 that recounted a conversation with Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Jaja Wachuku. The Federation lodged an official protest, for which they do not appear to have received a satisfactory apology. The Federation’s mission also reported that Balewa’s government, as part of a burgeoning rivalry with Ghana and in a bid to undermine the influence of Kwame Nkrumah on the Zimbabwean nationalists, provided ZAPU with significant funding on the condition that it contest upcoming elections, which Nkrumah wanted them to boycott.

The Consolidation of a pan-African Alliance of Liberation

The Rhodesians also experienced mixed results in their efforts to woo Nigerians on the cultural front. Efforts to host a Nigerian football team for a friendly in Salisbury didn’t come to fruition, but propaganda value was derived from a visit to the Federation by Saburi Biobaku, the pioneering Nigerian historian who opened the 1962 International Congress of African Culture in Salisbury. This government-funded effort, in association with the Rhodes National Gallery sought to signal that while the Federation may have been opposed to an African Personality in politics, it supported the idea in culture. However, several months previously, Chinua Achebe, on a tour of southern and east Africa found Salisbury to be plagued by racial discrimination. The local press somewhat diplomatically quoted him as saying he found Southern Rhodesia to be ‘a strange country.’

In the post-independence moment, Rhodesians in Nigeria were talking about race and Zimbabweans in Nigeria were doing the same. Nigerians also came to Southern Rhodesia and were given significant coverage in the local press. These dialogues were simultaneously opaque and earnest. White Rhodesians sought to justify their privilege while black Zimbabwean nationalists aimed to secure Nigeria’s financial and moral support. Some Nigerian officials appear to have unscrupulously accepted paid junkets to tour Victoria Falls and Rhodesian game reserves while others sought to more genuinely promote West African cultural and political achievements.

In the early 1960s, to a varying extent, each side achieved some success. However, the end of the Federation in 1963 and the rise of the Rhodesian Front, an even more intransigent white political party in Southern Rhodesia signalled a decisive shift in these relationships. These whites were not interested in talking and did not care about and were probably ignorant to, any regional differences within Nigeria.

Rhodesian political figures, like Prime Minister Ian Smith, gleefully celebrated Balewa’s 1966 assassination in a military coup. He was overthrown just days after Nigeria hosted a special Commonwealth heads of government summit, the first outside of London, to discuss strategies to end Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Balewa’s demise did not necessarily mark a decisive shift to a less complicated brand of pan-African diplomacy with southern Africa. Tanzania and Zambia, two of the most significant supporters of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, subsequently extended diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Biafra. However, the end of Federation and UDI in 1965 marked a significant transformation. Thereafter, Nigerian support for southern African liberation struggles was markedly less compromising.

Perhaps Chigumadzi’s clarion call will inaugurate a similar re-alignment