One has to understand the context in which the request for the TAZARA was made by then President of Tanzania Nyerere. This was at the height of the Cold War, and it was fashionable to attack China. One example I can tell is, when Premier Zhou Enlai visited Africa for the first time, he made a famous statement in Somalia.
He said, “Africa is ripe for revolution.” Then there was a brutal attack on him, saying he was bringing subversion. President Nyerere came out very strongly to say that Zhou Enlai was right, “Africa is ripe for revolution.”
The revolution they talked about was the liberation of the African continent. So the chemistry between Premier Zhou Enlai and President Nyerere was very good.
When President Nyerere paid a state visit to China, he was received very warmly and met all the top leaders of China. President Nyerere made the request for the TAZARA first and foremost out of consideration of the economic and social development of Tanzania. But more fundamentally, this request was made in the context of the evolving situation in Southern Africa.
In a sense, the TAZARA became a liberation for the people of Tanzania and Zambia, and liberation for the people of Southern Africa as a whole, because the removal of dependence on the part of Zambia made it possible for the frontline states to be able to operate more effectively.
So the TAZARA, or the Freedom Railway as we used to call it, symbolized a number of things. It was not just a railway by which people could get transported, it had all these implications.
I went to China in April 1969 as Tanzanian ambassador to China. This was the period of preparation for construction, though the actual construction of the TAZARA started in 1970.
I was in China for less than one year, but I met Premier Zhou Enlai at least 9 or 10 times. And I had the freedom to travel in China. I was treated as a part of the family. Meeting Premier Zhou Enlai for me was always a discovery.
He was a man who knew so many things, who had grasped the realities and complexities of the Chinese society and had a fantastic memory in terms of statistics, not only about China, but also about other countries. Every time I met him we would also discuss the TAZARA and how things were moving. For us, the railway was the number one project.
There were no myths, misunderstanding or misinformation about China in Tanzania. And whatever the Tanzanian leadership did had the support of the Chinese people because they knew what was going on in Tanzania. The majority of African countries sup-ported China’s restoration in the UN.
I went to the UN in 1970, but it was in 1971 that we were able to organize ourselves and really push for the Chinese restoration. A number of factors helped us. For example, the US at that time was adamantly opposed to the Chinese restoration in our terms and doing everything to obstruct China. We began to operate a “surprise”. Our group included Tanzania, Zambia, Congo Brazzaville, Pakistan, Syria, Algeria, Albania and Romania, among other countries.
And we pushed for the vote at a time when the Americans and their friends did not expect us to do. So we learned from this that pressure was mounting from different places, and decided to push. In the midst of the vote, when the Pres-ident of the UN General Assembly had announced that voting began, Ambassador Bush of the US went to the podium and said he was to move for an amendment.
Our resolution was to restore the lawful rights of the PRC and to expel forthwith the Chiang Kai-shek gang, but Bush wanted to delete the latter. But the UN General Assembly rules are very clear. When the process of voting has begun one can’t interrupt voting, and can’t move an amendment. So that was my opportunity.
I also went to the podium and said to the President, “Mr. President, the American Ambassador is out of order, because the rules of procedure say no one, not even the United States, can interrupt voting when the process has begun.” The poor President had to say, “The representative from Tanzania is right; the American ambassador is out of order.” So that was a significant event in terms of the process.
When the voting came, we got the votes and there was a lot of euphoria. People were happy, especially those of us who did this. At that time I was a young man, and young people have young blood and don’t care anything.
Then they asked me, “Have you been reprimanded by your president? Will you be withdrawn from here?” I said, “You don’t know my president. Actually, he commended me. You think he was going to reprimand me?” Things are changing radically in China and in Africa. I’ve been to China several times, and every time I go, I don’t recognize China.
It’s a different China. China is different, and so is Africa. Now China has become a very important pillar of South-South Cooperation. And of course, the Freedom Railway (the TAZARA) was an eloquent manifestation of South-South Cooperation in very difficult times.
Many people believed this thing couldn’t have been done. But through thick and thin it was done. And that is something we all should be proud of. And we shall let the younger generation know the history of the TAZARA and China-Africa friendship.
It’s not just China’s problem; it is also a problem of African countries. It’s a question of lack of aware-ness. So the challenge of the leadership is to make sure the people are conscious and aware of history, which is extremely important. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you’re in trouble to find out where you’re going. Whether it is possible that another big project like the TAZARA could be pushed forward by China in the future, it depends. We can’t rule out anything, because everything comes with a need of the reality and the development of a situation. I think frankly the potential for China-Africa cooperation is absolutely immense.
(This article is an excerpt of Dr Salim Ahmed Salim’s narration about TAZARA and China-Tanzania relations, which was included in the book: A Monument to China-Africa Friendship: Firsthand Account of the Building of the TAZARA).