Dar es Salaam. The Chinese government last week conferred on Dr Salim Ahmed Salim the Medal of Friendship award in recognition to his contribution, specifically, in ensuring that the People Republic of China was admitted to the United Nations in 1971, when he was Tanzania’s permanent representative to the UN. The award is prestigious and since it was created in 2018 it has been conferred to people like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Prior to the award last Thursday, on the occasion of the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary, Dr Salim had a chance to meet and talk with the Chinese vice president Li Yuachao when he visited China in May 2018.
The award, a deserving recognition to one of Tanzania’ most decorated diplomats, rekindles the diplomatic war that the then 28 years old Salim waged to have the world’s most populous nation admitted to the assembly of nations. At that age Dr Salim was, definitely, one of the youngest ever ambassadors assigned to the UN.
China had started efforts to get admitted to the UN to take the place of the Republic of China regime based in Taiwan soon after the communists guerillas, led by Chairman Mao, took over the country in the 1949. But the struggle gained momentum as many countries in Africa and Asia gained their independence from colonialists.
By the early 1970’s Africa had already more than 30 countries with votes in the UN General Assembly. And so Dr Salim, having been appointed Tanzania’s UN representative the previous year, by Tanzania founding President Julius Nyerere, led the Africa group at the UN in support of admitting China.
It was Albania that introduced the motion to recognize China into the UN, known as General Assembly Resolution 2758. During the rigorous process that October Dr Salim made passionate speeches, outwitted the then US ambassador to the UN, George H. W. Bush (he later became the 41st American President) on technicalities and when the final tally confirmed that China had been admitted, he was overjoyed. The representatives of Western powers and a section of the Western media accused him of dancing with joy in the UN corridors, charge he has repeatedly including in an interview with Mwananchi Communications journalists in 2014 at his residence in Masaki.
“We were, obviously, very happy but we did not dance. It was unfortunate that some diplomats were calling upon our governments to recall us from the UN for the unbecoming behaviour,” Dr Salim said.
In an interview with EfM’s Hamza Kassongo in 2016 Dr Salim said: “It was anachronistic to think that you can have the UN without China, a nation of close to one billion people at that time...” Available video clips of the event show African delegations at the UN General Assembly chamber jumping and shouting with joy after the vote was announced. 76 countries voted in favour, 35 countries opposed admitting China and 78 countries abstained.
Dr Salim’s craftsmanship, which was the hallmark of a fine diplomat and a skilled mobiliser, was his ability to bring together the disparate French and English speaking African countries to vote for a common cause. These groups were not always concordant, especially on matters that concerned the interests of the “metropoles.” He maintained this ability all through his almost ten years as Tanzania’s representative to the UN, rising to become the president of the 34th General Assembly-elected in September 1979. He was the unchallenged choice to the position for all the 49 African members of the UN at that time. At 37 Dr Salim was the youngest diplomat to ever hold that position. An account in the New York Times, published in September 19, one day after Dr Salim was elected the president of the UN General Assembly, quoted a British diplomat saying the Tanzanian diplomat was the “the most powerful African at the United Nations” on account of his capacity to bring together Africans that the UN.
The admission of China was the subject of the recently unearthed racist telephone conversation between the late Ronald Reagan, who was then the governor of California and former President Richard Nixon. Reagan called the African delegations who jumped with joy after the vote “monkeys” and urged President Nixon to do something about it. Nixon laughed and termed the success of the Africans in admitting China as “the tail wagging the dog.” Nixon quickly started making “overtures” to China, where he visited only four months after China was admitted to the UN.
Africans successes at the UN on issues such as the admission of China kick started a retrogressive America’s attitude towards the UN.
The 1971 success cost Africans, in general, and Dr Salim, in particular in future. At the height of the struggle for the new world order, which had unprecedented support from leaders from both the “North” and “South” countries, the efforts to have the UN exercise authority the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and other international agencies were flatly “discouraged” by the US. It was at the Cancun summit in 1981 where Reagan, whom Nixon had described as the “spokesperson of the racists” in the infamous telephone call after the 1971 UN vote on China, fiercely faced off with Nyerere, one of the critical supporters for the new world order. Reagan intervened Nyerere’s speech four times, as he defended unfettered free-market in agriculture in poor countries. Nyerere opposed the notion of free markets because of the fact that farmers from rich countries received billions of dollars of subsidies. And, according to later interviews by Nyerere, calls for the new world order disappear completely when Reagan was in office. Reagan also went on to throw America’s political and economic weight behind the South Africa’s Apartheid regime hampering all efforts to achieve Namibia’s independence and establish a free, democratic South Africa.
The payback to Dr Salim came the same year, 1981, when he presented his candidature for the position of the Secretary General of the UN. He was by then the minister for Foreign Affairs and had overwhelming support from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and South Pacific and from some European countries. The Reagan’s administration used its veto to block Dr Salim’s candidacy. Its preferred candidate, Kurt Waldheim from Austria was also vetoed by China. The fierce elections was repeated 16 times. While the UK and Russia abstained, France voted for Dr Salim, who decided to withdraw his candidature. The Peruvian Javier Perez de Cuellar was eventually elected as the compromise candidate.