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According to the United Nations, by April 2004, 750,000 of its six million inhabitants

have been internally displaced by the conflict, while a further 110,000 have sought

refuge in Chad. 10,000 have reportedly been killed since the eruption of the conflict



Towards a Strategic Geopolitical Vision of Afro-Arab Relations

By Kwesi Kwaa Prah


Paper Submitted to the African Union (AU)

 Experts’ Meeting on a Strategic Geopolitic Vision

of Afro-Arab Relations. AU Headquarters, Addis Abba, 11-12 May 2004.



I have decided to put down on paper the gist of my thinking on the above matter, in order to avoid possible misconstruction of my viewpoint. Afro-Arab relations are matters of the most serious order in a rapidly globalizing world in which we all must learn to live cheek to jowl. This point is particularly underscored by the fact that the two people, Arabs and Africans, are immediate neighbours on this planet. They are the main cultural and national groups on the continent, with relations, which did not originate today or yesterday, but rather date from antiquity.

Because our relationship dates from the depths of time, it is important to understand that its present status is a historical product, and cannot be properly understood or adequately discussed without an appreciation of where we are coming from. We need to learn from this history in order to construct a better future. Indeed, we cannot construct a future without reference to the past. Furthermore, what we learn from the past is not always complimentary and may throw up painful and difficult lessons which some might like to prefer to forget. But if progress is to be made, then we should be prepared to face the truth however trying and ugly it may be.

Africans have tended to be rather squeamish about articulating their misgivings, doubts and objections about Afro-Arab relations on the continent. There tends to be even silence about the history of Arab-led slavery on this continent. What is the nature of this past in Afro-Arab relations? What are the positive and negative aspects of this history? What features of this past are clearly discernible in the present? How do we build a future free from the limitations of the past. These are some of the issues I want to raise here.

The Arab conquest of North Africa and the Arabization of the area started in the 7th century AD.1 Until the mid-7th century, North Africa west of Egypt was under Byzantine control. Egypt, was conquered between 640 and 645 AD. Arabs soon pushed west in the direction of the area they called the Maghrib (West). This area includes much of present-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The Arabs succeeded in temporarily driving the Byzantine overlords out of Tripoli in 645 AD, but this was neither immediately consolidate nor quickly followed up with permanent presence in the area. In 661 AD, when the new Umayyad dynasty inaugurated its rule, a new period of Muslim expansion commenced.

A campaign to conquer North Africa began in 663 AD, and the Arabs were soon in control of most of the major cities in Libya. Tripoli fell again in 666 AD, and this time the Muslims ensured their control of their new lands by not immediately retreating to Egypt after the conquest. By 670 AD, the Arabs had taken Tunisia, and by 675 AD, they had completed construction of Kairouan, the city that would become the premier Arab base in North Africa. Kairouan was later to become the third holiest city in Islam in the medieval period, after Mecca and Medina. From Kairouan, the Arabs turned to Carthage, north of Kairouan. Carthage was first raided in 678 AD. By 695 AD, Carthage had been taken.

With the defeat of the Byzantine Empire, attention was turned to the Islamic conversion of the Berbers. By the early 8th century, the Arab armies included 12,000 Berbers. Ultimately, Berber cooperation was crucial for the expansion of the empire to the Atlantic. In 710, Tangier was taken under the command of a Berber, Tariq, at the head of the Arab army. Tariq led the army into Spain in 711. It is in the light of this early history of conquest and imperialism that the process of Islamization and Arabization, and its movement southwards has to be seen. Till today, cultural freedom, particularly linguistic rights are demanded by some Berber groups in the region.

In much of West Africa, Islam has blended in many ways with African culture and civilization. Islam has been largely indigenized. In eastern and south-eastern Africa, again Islam has been largely given an African cultural packaging, in much the same way as has happened in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India and Pakistan. Islam does not culturally denationalize people and turn them into Arabs. However there is a step further which leads to denationalization and Arabization.

This involves linguistic usurpation and the replacement of African customary practices with Arab ones. The most contentious geographical point of this today lies in the Afro-Arab borderlands in areas straddling Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and the Sudan. Indeed, in many ways Sudan and Mauritania are the frontlines of this civilizational clash. We are well aware of the fact that on the map of the states of the Arab League, the Arab world ends literally on the equator at the border between the Sudan and Uganda. It needs to be said without fear or favour that Africans cannot accept a slow encroachment of their national areas by the Arab world.

One of the most important adoptions, which the African encounter with Arabs has produced has been the introduction and use of the Arabic script for the writing of African languages. The Ajami script has produced a wealth of materials in very many parts of Africa, particularly in the east and the west. In the West languages like Hausa, Fulful, Wolof, Soninke, Bambara and Dyula have all historical materials written in Ajami. Much of the early Swahili literature is in Ajami. And in South Africa the earliest writing of the Afrikaans language were done in Arabic script. Indeed in a paper I wrote for a meeting (L’Interaction culturelle entre la culture arabe et les autres cultures) of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), which was held in Tunis in 1997, I made the point that this body of work in African languages written in the Arabic script needs to be a central area for research collaboration between Africans and Arabs.(2)

Interest in Afro-Arab relations has history with CASAS. In March 1999, the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), together with the Arab Research Centre for Afro-Arab Studies (ARCASSD) and the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific organization (ALECSO) jointly held a seminar hosted by CASAS in Cape Town, South Africa with the Director-General of ALECSO, Mr. M. El Meli and the then Chairperson of the South African Parliamentary Committee for Culture, Arts, Science and Technology, Dr Wally Serote in attendance. The participants of the workshop from different parts of Africa and the Arab world shared views on Afro-Arab cooperation.

Since the beginning of the era of African independence much has been made on public platforms for and about Afro-Arab relations. In recent history, Afro-Arab relations, as they are currently generally perceived, date from the joint experience of anti-colonial struggles of the post-2nd World War era. Of particular note, was the cooperation between, Nasser, Nkrumah, Keita, Toure, Ben Bella and Bourgiba. Nkrumah actively supported the Algerian war against French colonialism. However, rather quickly, by the late 1970s, Afro-Arab relations had peaked. From that point onwards much of the steam and activity petered out. The Zanzibar revolution of 1964 was a reminder of the legacies of the past.

Clearly, after the first two decades of the independence era, Afro-Arab cooperation as an idea and practice has greatly shrunk. The 10th periodical (every two years) Afro-Arab Parliamentary Conference which was held in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) from 8th to 10th  January 2003 was a conference that was jointly organized by both the African Parliamentary Union (APU) and the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU). Delegations representing member parliaments in both the APU and the AIPU took part in this conference. The conference amongst other things discussed matters of interest to African and Arab peoples and parliaments.

In the preparatory documentation for this meeting, which was drafted during the 9th Afro-Arab Parliamentary Conference, the Agenda read as follows:

1)      Election of the Committee Bureau (Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Rapporteur)

2)      Adoption of the agenda

3)      Report of the Follow-up Committee

4)      General debate on political, economic and social situation in the world

5)      Afro-Arab cooperation for:

a.       Putting an end to the war of Israel against Palestinian people and securing protection for them, as well as implementing the international legitimacy Resolutions, relevant to the Palestinian cause and Arab-Israeli conflict.

b.      Supporting the exerted regional and international efforts aiming at finding a solution for the Iraqi issue through the United Nations.

c.       Supporting the current changes in Africa towards unity, as well as political and economic integration.

d.      Drawing up a vision for a comprehensive Afro-Arab partnership;

6)      Brain drain from African and Arab countries and its consequences

7)      Cooperation between the two Unions in the IPU conferences

a.       Taking a unified stand on IPU reform issue,

b.      Practical suggestions to improve cooperation and coordination between African and Arab delegations.

8)      Forming the new Follow-up Committee.

9)      Venue and date of the forthcoming 11th Afro-Arab parliamentary Conference.

Of the nine items listed, only the fifth has any substance and that is linked directly to Arab concerns outside the immediate interpenetrative area on the continent. Item 6 is arguably a weak issue. Substantial continental issues are excluded. No discussion on the war in the Sudan, in the south of the country, Africa’s longest war. There was nothing about the oppressive situation in Mauritana with particular respect to the fate of the Haratines and other African groups. No discussion about the Nile waters and their distribution.

In other words, issues, which have serious and profound implications for both the past and present have been ignored. Too often in the past, Afro-Arab platforms have canvassed wider Arab interests at the expense of Africans. Issues affecting Afro-Arab relations in the areas of the continent when the two peoples meet are what we need to discuss, not the use of African influence to serve extra-African interests. Increasingly, younger African scholars are saying they will have none of this.

In a recent edited volume, in a paper by Salam Diakite of the University of Mali, he argued that; attitudes of racial superiority of the white communities (Moors and Arabs) toward the non-white populations (Soninkes, Fulanis, Wolofs, Tukulors) along the Mauritanian borders on the one hand, the use of derogative nicknames, and the perception that the different ethnic groups in the northern regions of Mali (Touaregs, Moors, Arabs, Songhais, Fulanis, Bellas) have of each other on the other, have given rise to an atmosphere of mistrust and insecurity not likely to contribute to any peaceful and economic development in the areas concerned.(3) 

Another contributor to the same volume, Garba Diallo, points out that; for the citizens of Mauritania, racism and its ugliest feature, slavery, is not the thing of the past. “Our country was the last on earth to declare slavery illegal (for the third time since 1960) in 1980 and the only state which still refuses to take any measures to end slavery. This is because the very foundation of Mauritanian regime is based on a de facto apartheid and slavery. Thus the regime has adamantly refused to legalize the anti-slavery (SOS-Slaves) and the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights together with the Front of the Liberation of Africans in Mauritania (FLAM). The government regards those who work for democracy, human rights and the emancipation of the slave as enemies of the state”.(4)

Adwok Nyaba with usual candidness writes that, “the Sudan features daily in the news media because of war. A war waged by a minority of Arabs against the majority Black Africans but it is also a war of resistance – African resistance in the Sudan against de-Africanization at the hands of Arabs. The war indeed is the continuation of the Afro-Arab conflict that commenced fourteen centuries ago when the Arabs set foot on the African soil”.(5)

In a paper by one of the most consistent observers of Afro-Arab relations, Helmy Sharawi writes that; “many of the African analysts hide the complicity between Arabs and Africans in the slave trade and do not situate it in its social context; …..Many also are those who neglected the solidarity between Arab and African national liberation movements especially within the Nkrumahist and Nasserist streams and other, within the first period of Independence. If this fraternity had been known, it would have avoided the stories of the Arab slave trade and would have replaced a partisan view with a more just image, the one of militant support within the ranks of the Liberation Committee and the defending of Lumumba. The Arabs have been preoccupied with rejecting the accusation of slavery, trying to deny a social manifestation, which occurred in all societies.

Objective history has clearly shown the role of this practice in Arab-feudal society, which had millions of European, Asian and African slaves. History has also shown the role of the African tribes in furnishing to the European slave trade companies millions of slaves, which led to the destruction of the ancient African States, which were replaced by a narrow tribal ideology. Instead of rallying against feudalism and imperialism, the involved parties are engaged in a finger-pointing exercise of justification and a struggle without respite, which moderated in the 1960s only to intensify again during the era of petro-dollars, despite claims of Afro-Arab co-operation and solidarity in the Arab-African era!”(6)

Much has, in the past, been made of ostensible petro-dollars, which were to come to Africa as a benefit for Afro-Arab cooperation. Neither much petrol nor dollars have actually changed hands. In any case, cooperation that is literally bought cannot endure. Fruitful cooperation can only be based on mutual respect, trust and respect for each other’s vital interests. To imply that because of anti-colonialist nationalist solidarity of the late 1950s and 1960s, particularly the Nkrumanhist and Nasserist cooperation, we should be blind to over 1000 years of troubled relations is indeed woefully disingenuous.

In the mid-eighties, in a conversation with the late Sudanese African nationalist Joseph Oduho, he informed me that as both a student and later teacher, during his lifetime in the Sudan, the history of slavery was left out of the curriculum. There was total silence about this in the educational system. Obviously the policy of the regime in Khartoum was that the story of slavery should not be told. Thus the truth is rather that, generally, while a great deal of attention has been paid to Western-led slavery, i.e., the Atlantic slave trade, there is extraordinary silence about Arab-led slavery.

Nasser’s attitude to Africa and Africans was not above reproach. In his The Philosophy of the Revolution he identified three circles, which form the framework for the articulation of Egyptian policy. The first of this is the Arab world; the second Africa; and the third the Islamic world. He wrote that, “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked. ….”(7) The second circle, Africa, the “Dark Continent” was in his view such that “we will never in any circumstances be able to relinquish our responsibility to support, with all our might, the spread of enlightenment and civilization to the remotest depths of the jungle”(8).

Sharawi is right when he points to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist solidarity, which flourished in the late 1950; and 1960s. But this solidarity was a much more extensive affair than simply Afro-Arab. Indeed, it had been in place as a semi-institutionalized expression from the time of the Bandung Conference and was in the first place an expression of a wider Afro-Asian solidarity, which included Afro-Arab solidarity. From an African viewpoint, Afro-Asian solidarity at that time included, Afro-Arab, Afro-Chinese, Afro-Indian, Afro-Indonesia and other areas of the emergent Third World.

At Bandung in 1955 the principles of the solidarity of the peoples and states of the Third World were systematically formulated. The conference declared its support of the principle of self-determination of peoples and nations. It rejected the bogey of communism, which was used as rhetoric during the early cold war period to condemn radical and progressive anti-colonial movements in various parts of the world. The countries, which supported the goals of the Bandung conference also refused to subject their independence to the conditionality of arrangements of collective defense to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers.

The Bandung conference favoured the principle of ‘positive neutrality’ that eschewed either a leaning to the Western powers or the Soviet Union. On these foundations various organizations for Afro-Asian co-operation were established, including the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization in Cairo. Be that as it may, the historical fact of that solidarity cannot deny or efface the centuries of Arab-led slavery in Africa. Taunting Blacks with catcalls of abeed (slave) are not uncommon in the Arab world. What is perhaps more grievous and criminal is that these slave capturing and trading practices continue to the present day in the Sudan, in particular. In any case, the legacy and reality of Arab-led slavery in Africa still lives with us in political, economic and social terms.

The tragedy of ethnic cleansing in Darfur has been a rude awakening for those who have for long played the proverbial ostrich. In a report put out as the Press Release of the 4th May, 2004, by the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT) we are informed that, Darfur has been the scene of one of the worst humanitarian crises. According to the United Nations, by April 2004, 750,000 of its six million inhabitants have been internally displaced by the conflict, while a further 110,000 have sought refuge in Chad. 10,000 have reportedly been killed since the eruption of the conflict, many of whom are civilians. The situation was compounded by the restrictions by the government of Sudan and the escalation of violence and attacks in the region making it a no go area for relief agencies nor allowing for monitoring of the situation.

Following much international pressure and demands for humanitarian access a ceasefire truce was signed on 8 April 2004 in N’Djamena between the government of Sudan and the two main rebel groups, Sudan Liberation Army / Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement, which came into effect on 12 April 2004. Under the terms of the deal signed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, the parties have agreed to cease hostilities within 72 hours, for a renewable period of 45 days. They also agreed to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian aid to the region and to free prisoners of war and to disarm militias ‘Janjaweed’ who have been blamed for much of the “ethnic cleansing” and “atrocities” against civilians. These concerns were demonstrated in the Report of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights mission to Chad, April 5-15, 2004, which reports on a “reign of terror” which includes the following elements:

a. Repeated attacks on civilians by Government of Sudan military and its proxy militia forces with a view to their displacement;

b. The use of disproportional force by the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed forces;

c. That the Janjaweed have operated with total impunity and in close coordination with the forces of the Government of Sudan;

d. The use of systematic and indiscriminate aerial bombardments and ground attacks on unarmed civilians; the attacks appear to have been ethnically based with the groups targeted being essentially the following tribes reportedly of African origin: Zaghawas, Masaalit, and Furs. Men and young boys appear to have been particularly targeted in ground attacks.

The pattern of attacks on civilians includes killing, rape, pillage, including of livestock, and destruction of property, including water sources.(9) Darfur has become the latest flashpoint for Afro-Arab conflict in the Afro-Arab borderlands. What we all need to understand is that ethnic cleansing and genocide is unacceptable to Africans and the rest of the human community. They constitute crimes against humanity. Afro-Arab relations will remain conflictual for as long as Arab slavery of Africans persists, and ethnic cleansing and claims of lebensraum either for water or land continue.

If we do not want Israeli land-grabbing in Palestine we also do not want Arab land-grabbing in Africa of African lands. Just like Palestinians resist this Africans will also fight this. Many Africans take great exception to the sentiments and views expressed by Col. Khadafi at the March 2001, Amman, Jordan meeting of the Arab League where he said that, ‘the third of the Arab community living outside Africa should move in with the two-thirds on the continent and join the African Union “which is the only space we have”.(10)

One of the most progressive developments of Arab politics in the post-Second World War has been the emergence of the Arab League. The Egyptian government first proposed the Arab League in 1943. The original charter of the Arab League created a regional organization of sovereign Arab states. The Arab League was founded in Cairo in 1945 by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arab, Syria, Transjordan (Jordan, from 1950), and Yemen. It represents the ideal of Arab unity, el watani el arabi, the quest for the united Arab nation. As a democratic process, which seeks the emancipation of Arabs it should enjoy the support of all freedom loving peoples round the world.

It is not in the first instance a geographical organization but rather a national, cultural, linguistic and historical entity. Africans also aspire to, and need their equivalent of this, so that the African Union (AU) can be more meaningfully what it is; a continental or geographical  body concerned with issues of the continent, and where Africans and Arabs meet to consider matter of mutual national concern. Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism are historically parallel but separate processes and represent the aspirations of Arabs and Africans respectively.

Africans and Arabs need to create platforms and bases for a civilizational dialogue, which will help to advance mutual understanding and foster coexistence in peace and prosperity. For as long as one party regards the other as a “civilization vacuum” which needs to be occupied civilizationally, there is little hope for long term peace on this continent. Afro-Arab cooperation will not be achievable in any serious sense if efforts are accompanied, willy nilly, by obfuscation and the philandering of time. What we need is openness and critical discussion. No issues should be embargoed; the search should be for amicable, neighbourly and brotherly or sisterly solutions, which bring democracy in all areas of social life. If this cannot be achieved, then we should be able to go our separate ways in peace in the Afro-Arab borderlands. Africans will be custodians of their own destiny and will fight to achieve this.


 1 M. Brett. The Arab Conquest and the Rise of Islam in North Africa. In, J.D. Fage (ed.), The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol.2 (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 490-555.J.D. Fage, A History of Africa, 2nd edition (London, 1988), pp. 143-157.

  2 K.K. Prah. L’Etude generale de la literature ajami: un exemple de cooperation culturelle afro-arabe. In, Le Dialogue entre la Culture Arabe et les Autres Cultures. ALECSO. Tunis. 1999.

 3 Salaam Diakite. Racial Prejudices and Inter-ethnic Conflicts: The Case of the Afro-Arab Borderlands in Western Sahel. Appearing in,

           K.K. Prah & N. Sudarkasa (eds.) Racism in the Global African Experience. CASAS Book Series No. 23. Cape Town. 2004.

 4 Garba Diallo. The Triple Crisis of Slavery, Racism and Dictatorship in Mauritania and the Afro-Arab Borderlands. Ibid.

 5 Peter Adwok Nyaba. Arab Racism in the Sudan:  its Historical Source and Modern Manifestation. Ibid.

 6 Helmy Sharawi. Arab culture and African culture: Ambiguous Relations. (Mimeo). Arab Research Centre. Cairo. 2001.

 7 General Abdul Nasser. Egypt’s Liberation. The Philosophy of the Revolution. Public Affairs Press. Washington D.C. 1955. P.88.

 8 Ibid. Pp. 109-110.

 9 See, Two Zaghawa tribe members arrested and tortured. Press Release of the 4th May, 2004, by the Sudan Organization Against Torture (SOAT).

10 Khadafi Invites Arabs to Join the African Union. Panafrican News Agency. Dakar. March 28, 2001.

Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah is a sociologist and anthropologist. He is currently the Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) in Cape Town, South Africa. He has worked in a number if universities in Africa, Europe and Asia researching and teaching Sociology and Anthropology in various universities.He is the author of a number of books including 'Beyond the Colour Line' (1997).[2]

Other Links: casa papers / http://www.Casas Books  / SIU Publications

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