Tanzania, Africa: A Panther in Arusha
When the ngoma (talkingdrum) beat sounded, the two men opened the tap and let the freshwater fill a large gourd. The significance of the gesture, marking the inauguration of a community water project, was only outweighed by the significance of the meeting between these men, both of whom elderly men of a powerful stature Ė one with greying dreadlocks and the other with his head shaved bald.It had been more than 30 years since Pete OíNeal and Geronimo ji Jagga had last met, then as members of the Black Panther Party in the United States. Since those politically-charged days, when the Black Panthers took up arms to defend the rights of African-Americans, Jagga had been wrongly imprisoned for 26 years for a murder he did not commit; OíNeal had been exiled, living as a fugitive in Tanzania to this day. Both had been provocative leaders in the Black Panthers, OíNeal being the chairman of the partyís Kansas City chapter from 1968-70 and Jagga heading the chapter in Los Angeles. Last August, the former Black Panther leaders joined forces again and rejoiced with some 150 Tanzanians in celebration of a new water tap just outside OíNealís home in Imbaseni village near Arusha. Spouting water after a borehole was drilled, the tap will provide a reliable water supply to many families in the area who now have to walk several miles daily to meet their daily water needs. The site is also home to the United African-American Community Centre (UAACC), which OíNeal founded in 1990 and which offers a number of free arts, language and computer courses for Tanzanians in the area. OíNeal and company also engage in student exchanges, whereby Tanzanians go to the US for short education courses and young African-Americans come to Tanzania.
Through the UAACC, OíNeal headed the water project along with the support of Jaggaís Africa development group, the Kuji Foundation.
"Everything we do here in Tanzania is a refined version of what we were doing in the late 1960s with the Panthers," OíNeal says. "Geronimo and I
have been through a hell of a lot since those days. But that hasnít deterred us from trying to impact individual lives and hope that weíre making some kind of contribution to the larger picture. "Besides reflecting a momentous period of American history, the story of Pete OíNeal recounts the relatively unknown history of African-Americans in Tanzania. On the eve of the Sixth Pan African Conference in Dar in 1974, the population of African-Americans residing in Tanzania was estimated at 700-800. The numbers would soon dwindle, however, after an incident that is known today as the Big Bust.Felix "Pete" OíNeal Jr was born in 1940 and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, on the cityís historic 12th Street, once home to many of the greatest blues and jazz artistes of all time such as Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Mary Lou Williams. After becoming a self-professed "street hustler" as a young man, OíNeal turned his life around when he heard a speech by the founders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, in Oakland, California. "Man, I canít say this well enough: when I became a member of the Black Panther Party, it saved my life. I was on the edge of an abyss at that point. If I had fallen in, I would never have got out," OíNeal recalls "I am in debt to the revolutionary concept of the Panthers. I live that concept here in Tanzania. I need that belief structure to survive. And I'm not letting it go for you, for anybody else, for exile, for the police, for nothing. "Espousing a Marxist-Leninist philosophy and the need for revolution to end the persecution of African-Americans, the Black Panther Party had chapters in 48 states and won wide international support in the late 1960s. They also enacted several social programmes to help the poor and needy in their communities. The former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) J. Edgar Hoover, once labeled them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States." Taking heed, the FBI initiated a now notorious campaign (cointelpro) to undermine the party through informants and covert, sometimes illegal, activities .In 1968, OíNeal became the head of the Black Panthers in Kansas City and quickly attracted the attention of the media and law enforcement officials with his controversial remarks and actions. To a national television audience, he once declared that he would like to "shoot his way into the House of Representatives" and "take the head" of a high-ranking politician. He also accused the Kansas City Police Chief at the time of funneling guns to right-wing organizations, and he later disrupted US Senate hearing over the matter, claiming the Senate committee had disregarded valid evidence that he had obtained. Shortly after the hearing, he was arrested for carrying an illegal shotgun across state lines and convicted and sentenced to four years in prison in 1970. While out on bail awaiting appeal, he overheard a police officer say that the only way OíNeal was going to leave prison was in a coffin, implying that the police could have him killed while in custody. OíNeal believed him and, along with his wife, fled to Algeria, via Sweden, with fake passports obtained from New York City Revolutionaries.
"Three weeks to the day after that hearing, they came back and got me. Thereís no doubt in my mind that the government wanted me to go down after I raised hell at the Senate hearing," OíNeal says. "And what did they get me on? They got me on a gun charge that was so bogus that it was pathetic. "To this day, OíNeal maintains that he did not carry the shotgun across the state line that divides Kansas City between Kansas and Missouri. He says a friend of his had taken the gun from his house, crossed the line and was then arrested. "I said I didnít carry that gun across state line. Man, I carried more guns across that state line than you can count. I have had police friends carry guns for me. You see, Kansas City is one town divided by a state line. The cops actually sold the gun and FBI had to get the gun from someone else, so they could arrest me! "Pete and Charlotte arrived in Dar in 1972, after spending two years in Algiers. At that time, Tanzania was a haven for African-American activists and revolutionaries of every breed Ė from Malcolm X to Che Guevera to Tanzaniaís homegrown revolutionary, Mohammed Babu. Several other Black Panthers also visited or resided in the country. As freedom movements in Mozambique and all across Southern Africa, began to flare, Tanzania became a hub of Pan-African activity. OíNeal estimates that the African-American population peaked at around 800 or so in 1974. Since those heady days, OíNealís home near Arusha has also been a gathering point for African-Americans living or traveling in the country. "There was a huge population. It was amazing," OíNeal recalls. "There was an excitement here. There were so many African-Americans here and everybody had at least some kind of vague sense of revolution. They definitely felt Pan-Africanism. And everybody wanted to be a part. You had your cultural nationalists. You had your Pan-Africanists. Old Garveyites. Hereís a bit of trivia, too: There has always been a larger presence of African-Americans in Tanzania who are from around the Kansas City area, whether back in the day when there were 800, or today, when there are less than 50, because the Tanzania ambassador to the US went to the University of Kansas to make a speech in the 1960s, welcoming African-Americans to participate in nation-building at home. "In many ways, the departure of the African-American community from the nation coincides with the plummeting Tanzanian economy in the late 1970s. However, a single, little documented event, which has popularly become known as the Big Bust, sparked the exodus.
On Friday, May 24, 1974, two young African-Americans passed through Dar port
Customs with a six-tonne container full of machinery and various
goods that had arrived on a ship from New York City .The two had intended to take the goods to Kirongwe village, Mara, as a
part of a nation-building skills project. As Customs officials inspected
the containers, however, they apparently discovered several guns and
bullets that had not been declared on the manifest.
According to the government-run Kiswahili daily newspaper, Uhuru, dated May 28, 1974, the Americans were immediately detained for interrogation."So here come Americans bringing in these things and bureaucrats and
security officials immediately jumped to the conclusion that the
African-Americans in Tanzania were a fifth column working for the CIA to
overthrow the Tanzanian government!" OíNeal explains. "This seed of doubt was planted into the minds of a few people. It went
way up to the top. And it became the idea that there could be an
aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. So, they busted people. They
started busting a lot of people. Just about every African-American was
under house arrest or they were in jail and in detention. "OíNealís account of the events is supported by a book titled Guns and
Gandhi in Africa by Bill Sutherland. An African-American and once a
personal friend of the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Sutherland had
worked with the Tanzanian government since the mid-1960s, often acting
as a liaison between the government and the African-American community
in the country. As he tells it, he personally spoke with the president and the former
vice-president Rashid Kawawa to try to resolve the situation. There was
also an outcry in the US for the release of the prisoners. As June and July wore on, however, African-Americans continued to be
incarcerated, placed under house arrest, shuffled and interrogated
between prisons in Arusha and Dar ."If any African-American had a gun around, or even a walkie-talkie, they
were imprisoned," Sutherland writes in the book. "It was quite a tragic moment. Tanzania had represented, for the
African-American community, what Cuba represented for the left in
general: a sign of hope and possibility. After these incidents, there
was tremendous disillusionment. "After about four months, no further evidence was discovered to support
the CIA collusion theory and all of the African-American prisoners were
released, in part due to an effort by Kawawa. Nyerere never made any further comment on the incident, other than
saying that he felt his security forces had overreacted. Sutherland
points to the division within the Tanganyika African National Union(Tanu) at the time over the presence and nation-building work of
African-Americans in the country.
While Nyerere and several other politicians welcomed African-Americans, a number of Tanu officials were outwardly resentful of their work, believing it unbalanced the nationís power structure.Other accounts maintain that certain Tanu officials orchestrated the Big Bust as a means of diverting attention away from the historic Sixth Pan African Congress, which began just three weeks after the first African-Americans were arrested at the port. One thing is definite: shortly after the Big Bust, many African-Americans started to leave the country ."Yeah, soon thereafter the exodus started," OíNeal says. "And you compact that situation with the war with Idi Amin and the falling economy; by the early 1980s, nearly everybody was ready to leave. "Back at the UAACC compound in Imbaseni village, OíNeal strolls past a mural of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Artwork and colorful murals decorate many of the walls in the small, sloping compound, some of them designed by the celebrated artist, Pete's wife Charlotte OíNeal. Old photos adorn other walls, including a couple of Pete and Charlotte wearing the Panther signature outfit of black leather jackets and gloves, sunglasses and berets and bearing rifles. "This is not the Tanzania of old. And revolutionary spirit, it no longer exists," OíNeal laments. "But I am hopeful that the foundation that was laid when that spirit was at its highest will serve Tanzania well. Although itís changing, it is still an island of stability in a sea of turmoil. "Not only has OíNeal never stepped on a plane since he arrived in Tanzania in 1972, he rarely leaves Imbaseni village. "My longest journey is to Arusha town and back," he says. "I have been an isolationist in the extreme. I don't travel. I've become phobic. But thatís not because I'm not afraid of anyone bothering me. I don't think the US government is even thinking of me these days, pressing for extradition or anything. Nobody is looking to arrest me. More than likely, they are saying, ĎPlease don't let this man back into the United States because it would be an embarrassment to put an old man like me in jail.í And they would. "If OíNeal attempted to return to the US, he would be facing up to 15years in prison. He is currently engaged in a federal appeals case to over turn his conviction. In the past, a number of his appeals have been turned down, as he sees it not because of their lack of merit but because of his fugitive status. When his late father, Felix OíNeal Sr visited him in the late 1980s, he was held and interrogated upon his return to the US, because the FBI at first believed they had finally captured the Black Panther fugitive. In 1997, when Charlotte OíNealís mother passed away, agents flooded the Kansas City airport, anticipating Peteís return. Can I see myself ever going back to Kansas City? Iíve asked myself that a thousand times. I donít know how to answer. I canít even envision it. To go back there now would be a culture shock that I donít know if I could handle. Letís get one thing straight: I am not sitting here planning to return to the US. I donít know anything about the United States. There are Tanzanians that know more about it than I do. What would I do if I went back to the States? I am 62 years old. My life here has a meaning. There, I would go and probably hold on to Charlotteís shirt tail all the time. "OíNeal remains determined to fight his conviction, contending that even if he never returns to the US, he wants to put right a wrong that was done to him. "The government lied, they connived, and they conspired, like they did to bring down so many of the Panthers. I am going to make them pay for it," he says. "Iím going to fight to the last day. And if I prevail, as believe I will, I am going to sue and make them pay. I am going to build some more water holes and do some more community projects around Arusha. "As with Geronimo ji Jagga, who finally walked out of prison in 1997after taking 26 years to overturn his FBI-framed murder conviction, a Pantherís revolutionary spirit never dies.
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