Panthers in Tanzania

Panthers in Tanzania

Felix "Pete" O'Neal

Jaguars and mountain lions don’t exist in East Africa, but Black Panthers do.

While some names like Huey Newton, Edlridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale are still recognized in the U.S. with the historic Black Panther Movement, in Tanzania there’s an even more famous panther, Felix “Pete” O’Neal.

Like many panthers, Pete sticks close to his territory, a village (now suburb) of Arusha. He fled there as a fugitive who jumped bail in 1970, and he’s never left. His wife has traveled for him, and recently he hosted an alumni party of sorts for the American Black Panther Party.

But like all hunted cats, he stays in the shadows.

It would be nice to believe his story, that he was completely framed by a racist, viper vengeful FBI. In fact the same FBI that hunted down Pete nailed several of my close friends in the anti-war movement. So I have no doubt that every Dicky Trick in the book was used to get him.

I believe him completely, though, about why he fled bail. He had been convicted of a relatively minor felony of transporting a gun across state lines. As head of the Kansas City Black Panthers, that would have been easy. The state line runs through town.

He was out on bail awaiting a maximum sentence of 4 years when he overheard one of his FBI minders say that the only way he was going to leave jail was in a coffin.

He was a kid; in fact a kid from the bad part of town who had been energized by the 1960s revolution, just like I was. We all really believed in the power of the people, and in fact, we won most battles in the end. (Only to watch the emasculation of progressivism, today, by Obama, but that’s another blog.)

But the most feared institution in America was the FBI, and J-Edgar was known to take the law into his own hands. His henchmen were lynchers. Pete fled, first to Switzerland since that country was still giving asylum to anti-war protestors, and then to Algeria, which was at the time incapable of giving up anything to anyone, and finally to Tanzania in 1970.

Tanzania welcomed nearly 800 Afro-Americans fleeing American oppression. There weren’t many – like Pete – who were actually fleeing the law, rather they were mostly fleeing racism and the draft.

At the time Tanzania was fervently socialist. China and the Soviet Union were paying its bills. The Afro-American community fit right into the socialist, Marxist ideas of Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa and other communist-like credos.

[Blog Footnote: Mwalimu Nyerere was one of the greatest early African presidents which existed. He bankrupt his country by paying lip service to his East-leaning paymasters, but by so doing he educated the population and broke down ethnic schisms. It’s the reason that today, although Kenya and Tanzania share a lot of failings, Kenya can erupt in ethnic conflicts and Tanzania won’t.]

So the black kids fleeing America fit right in, and despite most of them coming from pretty impoverished backgrounds, they were still rich by Tanzanian standards. They started a number of community projects.

Containers started to arrive Tanzania with books, shovels, building materials, water pumps and all sorts of things to help one village after another start developing. The Afro-American community gained enormous respect from local Tanzanians.

“There was a huge population. It was amazing,” O’Neal recalled recently to the Arusha Times. “There was an excitement here. There were so many African-Americans here and everybody had at least some kind of vague sense of revolution.”

Then, they blew it. It was called the Big Bust.

May 24, 1974: I was back in my village in western Kenya having returned from a probably ill-advised trip into Idi Amin’s Uganda. We had seen some horrible things, there, and the rumor was that Tanzania was getting really fed up with Idi. Everyone was preparing for war.

I was listening to the radio and Kenya (which at the time was no friend of Tanzania) re-reported a Tanzanian broadcasting report that two young African-Americans had been detained in Dar trying to enter the country with guns.

One of the containers that Pete and others were using to develop Tanzanian villages had been laced with guns and ammo. Bad idea.

Tanzanians went ballistic. It was a six ton container filled with predominantly farm implements… but also two guns and a “few” bullets.

The Tanzanians felt double-crossed, and also vulnerable. The U.S. was viciously anti-Tanzanian at the time (because Tanzania was friends with the east, and the friend of your enemy….). It’s uncertain that Nyerere himself agreed, but the official Tanzanian line was that the Afro-Americans were a CIA plot to overthrow Tanzania.

Probably 600 of the 800 Afro-Americans living in the country were jailed and virtually all the others were put under house arrest.

About four months after the initial arrests, no more evidence that the CIA was involved could be presented, and everyone started to be released. Almost all of them went home.

“The exodus started [then],” Pete told the Arusha Times. “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. ”

Pete O’Neal didn’t. He stayed and literally became Tanzanian. He rarely leaves his little village outside Arusha town, and he’s warmly accepted today by the community.

When asked if he would ever want to return to the U.S., he affirmed that endless legal battles being waged for him in the U.S. continue, but right now, if he set foot in the U.S., the next day would begin a minimum 15-year jail sentence.

“And I’m an old man,” he explains.