BOOK REVIEW: A Life of a Revolutionary Loyalist

Khamis Abdallah Ameir’s Maisha Yangu is a riveting account of a life that had gone through many vicissitudes but which will remain defined by its participation in the Zanzibar revolution.
Ahmed Rajab18 June 202216 min

Khamis Abdallah Ameir, who turned 92 on May 1, 2022, is the only surviving member of the initial Zanzibar Revolutionary Council which was formed immediately after the isles’ January 12, 1964 revolution.

Ameir was appointed to the council as a trade unionist leader who was also a founding member of the Marxist Umma Party, which was a junior partner in the revolution.  The revolution itself was the handiwork of elements, mostly lumpen, of the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) Youth League.

Ameir served on the dreaded Revolutionary Council for eight years until April 1972, when he was arrested in the wake of the assassination of Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume, the first president of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Tanzania’s First Vice-President.

He, along with his fellow accused, mostly former members or sympathisers of the Umma Party, was tried in a marathon trial which had all the hallmarks of a Kafkaesque setting.  It was the world’s first trial in which the prosecution also acted on behalf of the defendants.  Ameir with a number of his co-accused were initially sentenced to death but their sentence was progressively reduced to prison terms.

The reviewer with Khamis Abdulla Ameir (right) at the Africa Union-sponsored dialogue on Pan-Africanism and Renaissance, Addis Ababa, May 2013. PHOTO | COURTESY

In Maisha Yangu: Miaka Minane Ndani ya Baraza la Mapinduzi — Khaini au Mhanga wa Mapinduzi, his book launched on June 18, 2022, in Zanzibar, Ameir has written a tome which refuses to be compressed under one category. The title of the book translates to My Life: Eight years in the Revolutionary Council — A traitor or a sacrificial lamb? in English.

The 593-page book is, in fact, a composite of genres: part travelogue, part memoir (both haunting and poignant), part history and part a re-evaluation of the roles played by the various actors in the revolution.

Curiously, despite the contrasting genres, there is no narrative tension between the personal and the political.  The narrative voice that emerges out of this door stopper of a book is that of honesty, integrity and fair play. It is a voice imbued with moral values, de-mystifying a lot of the myths of the Zanzibar Revolution.

Reflection on the Zanzibar revolution

In this important sense, the writing functions as Ameir’s reflection on the revolution and its aftermath.   It gives praise where praise is due and exposes the gangsterism, as well as the iniquitous politics of the revolutionary council.  No political party, including Ameir’s own Umma Party, or major political leader, pre-or post-revolution, is spared.

In another sense, the book, published by Buluu Publishing, in Champs-Élysées, Paris, France is a pointer to the dynamics, cultural and political, which have distorted the interpretation of the revolution. Ameir’s contribution to its re-interpretation helps in demythologizing it as an ideological instrument.

Ameir traces his personal and political trajectories beginning with his youthful escapades in the Zanzibar of the late 1940s, and ending with his time in Zanzibar’s then notorious jail as a condemned traitor. His jail experience leads him to ask the pertinent question in the book’s subtitle of whether he was a traitor or a sacrificial lamb of the revolution.

No doubt, to Ameir the revolution heralded hope for a progressive, equitable society but he laments that it quickly degenerated into a catastrophe.  He portrays it as a grandiose spectacle.

At times it was nothing but a thieving enterprise, at times a farce full of laughable absurdities but for most of the time, it was a humiliating experience for those visited by the brutalities of the new regime.  Despite all that, Ameir remained critically loyal to the revolution.

A quintessential Zanzibari, Ameir is a product of two Omani clans (al Hinai and Mazrui) and an African one from Nyasaland, present-day Malawi.  The crisscrossing of his intra-Arab clan connections (even beyond the Hinai and the Mazrui) and the extension to his African tribe provides an interesting case study for socio-anthropologists studying the intersection of ethnic groups in Zanzibar’s political and social spheres as it highlights the kaleidoscope that is Zanzibari society.

In his youth, Ameir wanted to see the world and seek green pastures abroad.  Because of his family’s reduced circumstances, he decided to stow away on an ocean liner, then almost a national pastime for urban Zanzibari youth.  After an eventful two years in Arabia, he finally reached London where he became political, embracing Marxism-Leninism and joining the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

In London, Ameir lived in a house opposite that of Mbiyu Koinange, who represented Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya African Union (KAU).  Ameir and other Zanzibaris, such as Seif Said Al Busaidy, found themselves playing a pan-African role in helping Koinange in his anti-colonial endeavours.

They assisted him in selling the political tracts which Koinange authored.  They spent a lot of time in Koinange’s drawing-room rubbing shoulders with iconic African leaders of the time, including Sir Seretse Khama of the then Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana).

The influence of Babu

Ameir was hugely influenced by two other Zanzibari radicals, Abdulrahman Babu and Ali Sultan Issa who was already a member of the CPGB.   Then Babu, a pan-Africanist, espoused anarchism as his political philosophy before he took to Marxism.  Both Issa and Babu were also active in the anti-colonial struggle and were familiar figures in African political circles.

It was not surprising that Babu, a perceptive thinker, with his charismatic flair and intellectual stamina, would emerge as their natural leader.  Nor was it surprising that when the trio eventually returned to Zanzibar and immersed themselves in the struggle for the isles’ independence, the radicals joined hands with another home-baked Marxist Ahmed Badawi Qullatein to spearhead Zanzibar’s pro-independence progressive wing.

Unlike Babu, Issa and Qullatein who were active in the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP), Ameir refused to join any of the main political parties, neither the ZNP nor the ASP.  He devoted his energies to the trade union movement until when the Marxists within the ZNP broke with their party.

He became a founding member (with Babu, Issa and Qullatein) of the Umma Party, arguably the first fully-fledged Marxist-Leninist party in East Africa.  The Zanzibar Communist Party, which died in its infancy, preceded it by a few months but lacked the organizational structure of a party.

A true Marxist

While in London, Ameir fell in love with, and married, a nurse, Sergut, whose family came from the Ethiopian feudal class with strong connections to Emperor Haile Selassie. They had one issue, Samira.

Ameir took care of her singlehandedly when she was three years old after her mother was summoned to join Haile Selassie’s medical staff when the Emperor was in London on his way to Washington.  Six months later, Ameir took Samira to Ethiopia so they could join her mother.

As he allows us to peer into his first marriage, Ameir portrays a relationship that ricocheted between unadulterated love for his wife and a visceral loathing for the social class to which she belonged.  His in-laws tried very hard to convince him to start a new life in Ethiopia with a promise of a lucrative job.

But, an ardent Marxist that he was, he refused to countenance such an existence which depended largely on nepotism and the largesse of his feudal in-laws.  In the end, the marriage could not withstand such emotional strains and Ameir decided to return to Zanzibar where he made his mark in trade union activism, rising to the post of secretary-general of the Federation of Progressive Trade Unions (FPTU).

It was also in Zanzibar where he contracted his second marriage to a local girl which resulted in two daughters and a son. Ameir was also a natural father to another daughter.

Ameir’s Maisha Yangu is a riveting account of a life that had gone through many vicissitudes but which will remain defined by its participation in the Zanzibar revolution.

It was, by any standard, a sobering experience.

Ahmed Rajab is a London—based Zanzibari-born journalist. He is available on Twitter as @ahmedrajab. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want your views to feature on our pages? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

Ahmed Rajab

One comment

  • Salim Amar

    19 June 2022 at 6:47 AM

    I’m taking this opportunity to congratulate Comrade Khamis Abdalla Ameir Alhinawi for writing this nice book.
    Actually, I have gained alot from his book.
    VENCEREMOS 🌹👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼🌹

    Reply

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