For centuries Africa was exploited by the colonialists. With its vast natural resources, wide geographic area, and its strategic significance, it attracted empires such the British and the French to set up their colonies in Africa. This left its mark on Africa, a continent which began to gain its independence in the decades following the 1950s. Israel played a significant role in the ‘nation-building’ of the newborn African states in this era.
Photo: Samuel Wilner
Dr. Arye Oded, who currently works as a researcher at the Truman Institute in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a long-serving veteran Israeli diplomat; an ambassador who has been working for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) since his graduation from the Hebrew University in 1957, where he completed his master’s degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern history. Dr. Arye Oded’s first mission abroad was in Uganda in 1961.
The 1950s and 1960s were decades when Africa started to get independence from its colonial masters. ”In 1961 the MFA sent me to Uganda to get acquainted with the country, its leaders and its people. It was the time when Uganda was still under British rule and not independent,” recalls Dr. Oded. At that time, the only university in East Africa was in Kampala, Uganda. It was called Makerere University. “I stayed there for one year as a research scholar dealing with Islam in Uganda.”
When Uganda became independent in 1962, Oded worked in the Israeli embassy there. “I liked the work very much, because I felt that we were contributing to African development and sharing our experience, especially in nation- building, agriculture, irrigation, education, community development and manpower training, both in the civilian and military spheres. For instance, we trained Uganda''s first pilots”, says Dr. Arye Oded.
After Uganda, Arye Oded served as an ambassador in several other African countries: Kenya, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Dr. Arye Oded explains how Israeli diplomatic efforts have evolved over time from the early years when it sent hundreds of advisors to Africa; to nowadays, when it is mainly instructing manpower through MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. "We are concentrating more on economy”, explains Dr. Oded.
Why Israel decided to move into Africa: According to Dr. Oded, Israel’s diplomatic efforts in Africa started after the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955. It was an Afro-Asian conference. “Israel tried very hard to get an invitation. All the Arab countries were invited. Israel was not. Moshe Sharett, who at that time was the Prime Minister, said that “It was a hard disappointment”. He used the Hebrew word ‘Ma’apala’, ''failure'' for Israel’s foreign policy.
After the Bandung conference, the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion had said: "African countries are gaining their independence; we have been very disappointed with the Asian countries; why not move into the African continent? We can contribute a lot to African countries in their nation-building“. In addition, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, later to become the Prime Minister, commented in her memoirs that “at that time, we did not have many friends in the world. So why not go to Africa? We can help them in many ways, and build good relations.”
Israel was one of the first countries to open embassies in Africa and in the 1960s it already had 33 embassies in that continent. According to Dr. Oded, many African countries admired Israel because of what they had seen Israel achieving in a very few years in agriculture; victories it had had against the Arab states; also the Bible was an important factor: Many African leaders believed in it and read from the Bible that one day Israel would be victorious. In addition to their biblical beliefs, they also saw all the good things Israel had done in other African countries and wanted the same. In order to see the achievements of the country, many African leaders visited Israel.
Biblical Beliefs, Zionism and African freedom: The very important thing was the influence of some of the African ideologists, such as Edward Blyden, who called his movement ‘Black Zionism’. Blyden wanted African countries to go from slavery to freedom, and was very much influenced by Israel and the Jewish people returning back into their homeland. This was one of the reasons why they were such good friends with Israel. There were Pan-African movements already at the end of ninetieth century that saw Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish, as an example and inspiration to their national movement. Also they were influenced by the Bible.
Evolving friendships: Idi Amin, the president and dictator, ruled Uganda from 1971, when he toppled his predecessor, until 1979. “At that time we did not know that he was planning to stage a coup; we were surprised. The first year of his rule we continued our activities, which then were the widest in Africa”.
Dr. Oded tells a story about Idi Amin. “During one of Idi Amin’s visits to Israel, he asked Israel to loan him ten million pounds sterling. Israel replied, ''We don’t have the money to give but instead we can advise and help you''. Idi Amin refused."
“Another time he asked Golda Meir to give him some Phantoms [American fighter jets]. Golda Meir responded to Idi Amin’s request by asking him: ''Why do you need Phantoms?'' Idi Amin replied that he wanted to conquer a port from Tanzania, called Tanga, a port that was built by the Germans, and the land corridor to the port, because Uganda was landlocked. Golda Meir responded that Israel needed the Phantoms for itself and could not give him them.”
“Then he wrote a letter to Moshe Dayan asking him to give some war vessels to be used in Lake Victoria against Tanzania that was at that time his enemy. Again Moshe Dayan, then the Defense Minister, replied that “we need them ourselves; we can’t give to you”, tells Dr. Oded.
“Then Idi Amin sent one of his ministers to Sadat, the President of Egypt, to ask him for some financial help. Sadat replied that ''Egypt is unable to help, but go to Gaddafi instead''. So he went to Gaddafi in February 1972.”
“Gaddafi, the President of Libya, told Idi Amin that he was ready to give him whatever he needed but, in return, he wanted him to expel the Israelis from Uganda. At the end of their meeting, they published a joint communiqué in which they declared that Uganda was a Muslim country (just because the ruler Idi Amin was a Muslim, although 70 percent of the country was Christian) and they condemned Israel. After his visit to Libya, Idi Amin decided to expel all the Israelis, including the Israeli military staff that were training his army, within one week. It was a very hard blow for us and the trauma still influences Israel''s activities in Africa. Even today, many Israeli companies think twice before operating in Africa.”
“After Idi Amin gave our ambassador’s residence to the PLO, they started to run their terrorist activities through the premises.” A few years later, in July 1976, the PLO assisted a group of terrorists who hijacked an Air France plane and forced it to land in Entebbe airport in Uganda. “Operation Entebbe” became one of Israel’s most famous and successful rescue operations.
"Only in 1994, when I was Israeli ambassador in Kenya, did we renew our diplomatic relations with Uganda. Nowadays Uganda is one of our best friends in Africa. I signed the declaration of renewal, thereby closing the circle of my long relationship with Uganda."
After retirement: “I retired from the Foreign Ministry in 1994. After my service in the Foreign Ministry, I went to the university but still worked as an advisor for about two years. I concentrated on African affairs, specializing in Islam in Africa because of my background in Arabic and Islam, and my skills in Swahili. I also published a book called ‘Swahili for Hebrew speakers’. I was asked to teach Swahili in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem universities, and other courses on African affairs. Since those days, I have been working for the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University publishing several books and writing multiple research articles. My current project is about ‘Islam and State in East Africa’. “
Optimism for Africa: “Once there was only one university in East Africa. Now there are many universities and thousands of students. There is a trend towards democratization and liberalization of the economy. Africa is very rich in natural resources."
According to Dr. Arye Oded, Africa has gone through several stages: When African nations gained their independence, they inherited parliaments, but it was just a façade. Then there was a period of army rule in many countries, followed by one-party-states. Nowadays, many African countries have a multiparty system but there is still lot of misrule. “However," Dr. Oded concluded, "I am optimistic about Africa”.