By NAVROZ LAKHANI
Vazir Hon. Al Noor Kassum, popularly known as Nick Kassum, a retired Tanzanian politician passed away peacefully in Dar es Salaam on Thursday, November 18, 2021. His three sons, Saleem, Diamond and Jemal-ud-Din (Jamil) all flew to the Tanzanian capital from North America to be with their father at his bedside in the last few hours of his life.
Educated in Tanzania, India and the United Kingdom where he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1954, Al Noor Kassum was a prominent figure in Tanzanian politics as well as in the Ismaili Muslim community (Jamat) where he served initially as an Education Administrator in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, and later towards the end of his life as the first Personal Representative of His Highness the Aga Khan in Tanzania.
Born as Noordin (‘Light of the Faith’) into the well-known Ismaili family of Count Kassum Sunderji, known for his years of dedicated service to the Imamat and at whose residence, the 48th Ismaili Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1885-1957), stayed during his Diamond Jubilee in 1945.
Nick grew up in a family where service to the Jamat and the Imam-of-the-Time was a natural part of life. Nick was raised in colonial Tanganyika, as Tanzania was known before independence, where access to education was not available to the largest segment of society. Colonial society being highly stratified, opportunities for both basic and higher education were allocated strictly on racial lines. However, Nick was fortunate. By dint of family circumstances, for his further education he was able to go first to Britain and then to India. His early education was disrupted by the Second World War which was raging while he was still a teenager, and in 1950, Nick found himself back in Tanganyika working in his father’s business.
In 1950, at the suggestion of the British Governor in Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, Nick decided to go to England to study for the Bar. His father was not keen on Nick leaving his young family and going away for studies. Nick wrote to Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah for advice and the Imam blessed his endeavour, highlighting that people like him would be needed in public life in the years to come. Consequently, in 1951 Nick left for the United Kingdom with his wife Shirin and their three infant sons. Meanwhile, as Nick’s professional career unfolded, Shirin dedicated her life to the family, the Jamat and the Ismaili Imamat.
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In London while studying for his law qualification, Nick played an important role in serving the Ismaili Jamat (community). He was appointed by the Imam to be the first President of the Ismaili Council of the United Kingdom, in a Jamat that was mainly made up of students from East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. It was during Nick’s tenure as President that 51 Kensington Court was purchased under guidance from Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. This address became the first centre for the Ismaili community in the UK. This was soon followed by 5 Palace Gate in South Kensington which remained the centre until 1985 when the newly purpose-built Ismail Centre in South Kensington was inaugurated as a special Silver Jubilee Project of the 49th Imam, Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan IV (henceforth referred to as the Aga Khan).
The years Nick studied in England were momentous ones for the decolonisation of Africa, with leading Africans such as Hastings Banda, Seretse Khama, Kwame Nkrumah, and others studying in the country and aspiring to go back to Africa someday to lead the campaign for political freedom. Little did Nick realise then that he too, one day, would become part of this movement, if not at the grassroots level, then certainly as its spokesperson at the highest fora in the world. After qualifying as a barrister, Nick went back to Tanganyika in 1954 where he enrolled as an Advocate of the High Court of Tanganyika and entered into legal practice, first with an established firm, Dharsee and Mc Roberts, and soon thereafter, on his own.
In 1954, Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan appointed Nick as the Administrator of the Aga Khan Schools in Tanganyika — a position he held for the next 10 years. The Imam also bestowed upon him the title of “Vazir” for his many years of meritorious service. These ten years were crucial in the history of Tanganyika as the country attained its independence in 1961.
Immediately prior to independence, the new Aga Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan, on assuming his role as the 49th Imam of the Ismailis decided to realign the education institutions pioneered in his grandfather’s time under the old colonial system of government to the dynamics of new modern African states with their own needs for nation building. Nick was allocated this task in Tanganyika, which entailed upgrading existing schools and building new ones. Many students of both genders at the Aga Khan schools now sought scholarships to pursue higher education both in East Africa and overseas, a facility that was made possible by the Aga Khan. Consequently, a large number of men and women gained admission to institutions of higher learning in East Africa and some went to the United Kingdom, the USA, and elsewhere.
It was in early 1961, just after the country attained self-rule, that Nick was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education and Information, Oscar Kambona. Within months, Kambona was appointed Tanganyika’s first Foreign Minister and was succeeded by Solomon Eliufoo. Nick was asked by Eliufoo to join Tanganyika’s delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in France. It was during UNESCO’s General Conference that Eliufoo suddenly fell ill, and Nick found himself heading the delegation. At the General Conference, Nick was appointed as Rapporteur to the one of the two commissions set up by the General Conference, called the Administrative Commission. Soon thereafter, he was appointed as a co-Chair of this Commission. One of the tasks of the Commission then was to preserve the monuments of Nubia (The Temples of Abu Simbel) in the face of the ecological threat posed by the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Nick worked very closely with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan who was appointed by UNESCO to be the Executive Secretary of the International Action Committee for the Preservation of Nubia. According to Prince Sadruddin, the campaign to save the monuments of Nubia, was one of UNESCO’s great achievements.
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With a background in, and a passion for, education, Nick spent his early years after the country’s independence (late 1961) with educational issues, the main national objective being to enhance opportunities in primary education and to promote adult literacy. The building of a national university was very high on the priority list of the new country. Nick devoted his time mainly to the educational priorities of the country. This was not his only preoccupation, for he was also instrumental in setting up the Mwananchi Development Corporation that became the primary agency for the Tanzanian Government to ensure that it was able to govern the country’s resources more effectively and equitably for national development. In 1964 after the revolution in Zanzibar, when Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form the new Republic of Tanzania, Nick was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Industries, Natural Resources, and Power.
These early days of his political career were momentous for various developments that were taking place in Africa where Tanzania under the stewardship of Julius Nyerere was beginning to play an important international role. These developments included the advent of independence in Uganda and Kenya in 1962 and 1963 respectively, the founding of the Organization for African Unity in Addis Ababa in 1963 and the mobilisation of major freedom movements in Southern Africa. The banning of political parties in South Africa and Mozambique led to thousands of political refugees seeking asylum in Tanzania. President Nyerere, a Pan Africanist par excellence, played a major supportive role in all these freedom movements.
In early 1965, at the behest of then then Director General of UNESCO, Rene Maheu, and with the approval of President Nyerere, Nick was appointed as Senior Liaison Officer, Bureau of Relations with International Organizations and Programmes at UNESCO in Paris — a position he held for two years. His work entailed coordinating UNESCO’s activities in the field of education with various international agencies such as the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) in Rome and the ILO (International Labour Organization) in Geneva. It also included persuading the UNDP (United Nationals Development Programme) in New York and the World Bank in Washington DC to finance various UNESCO projects.
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Among other duties Nick performed was participating in international conferences of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN’s Administrative Committee on Coordination in both Geneva and New York. At the end of 1966, Rene Maheu asked Nick if he would be happy to head UNESCO’s Liaison Office at the UN in New York. Nick once again sought Nyerere’s approval, took up the offer and moved to New York in 1967. It was at the end of his two-year assignment in New York that C.V. Narasimhan of India, Chef de Cabinet to the UN Secretary General U Thant, invited Nick to join the UN Secretariat as assistant Secretary General at which time Nick again sought Nyerere’s approval only to be told that Tanzania needed his services more than the UN. Nick placed service to his country before service to his international career and came back to Tanzania to take on some pivotal national positions offered to him by the president.
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For the next 50 years, Nick made Tanzania his principal residence and served in a number of capacities. We will just make brief mention of these in order to show the energy he brought to the positions he was asked to head and the innovations he made. On his return to Tanzania in 1969, he was appointed as Deputy General Manager of Williamson Diamond Mines in Mwadui near Shinyanga in which the Government of Tanzania was a shareholder but was often kept in the dark with regard to major decision making. Nick went down Shinyanga to the mine and spent the next few years studying the operational dynamics and suggesting significant changes in management. He commissioned a report called the Mwadui Report that showed the workings on the ground to the chagrin of the administration. This led to the appointment of the first Black African, Matthew Luhanga, as the General Manager of Williamson Diamond Mines.
In 1972, President Nyerere once again called upon Nick to play an important role in the country, this time as the East African Community (EAC) Minister of Finance and Administration. The appointment had to be endorsed by the Presidents of the three East African countries that made up the EAC which are Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Nick feared that Idi Amin, who had constantly been attacking the Asians in Uganda, would withhold his ratification but surprisingly Idi Amin added his signature without demure six months before he expelled all the Asians from Uganda. Even so, Amin always treated Nick with courtesy and respect. During Nick’s tenure as East African Minister for Finance and Administration, the United Nations invited him to chair a group of 25 experts evaluating how the United Nations system could be restructured, following a UN resolution on the New World Economic Order. After the report was submitted to the UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim, a workshop was held where the panelists included Kurt Waldheim, and US Senator Edward Kennedy. The report was then placed before the UN General Assembly.
In March 1977, anticipating the impending demise of the EAC, President Nyerere invited Nick to head the Ministry of Water, Energy and Minerals. This was a few years after the price of petroleum soared as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israel war. The government established the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) as the chief purchasing agency, and the task of obtaining oil for the country on the world market for the very little foreign exchange that Tanzania had at that time devolved on Nick’s shoulders. Nick led ministerial delegations to places as diverse as Angola, Libya, Iran and Algeria, and his basic message was: “We are having temporary problems and so cannot pay immediately for the oil we need. However, we do have natural resources and so can pay you in the longer term. Could you please let us have oil on credit? And they did so.” (Al Noor Kassum, Africa’s Winds of Change: Memoirs of an International Tanzanian, p. 123, see book highlight below).
In 1991, after retiring from politics, His Highness the Aga Khan appointed Nick as his Personal Representative in Tanzania in which capacity Nick helped with the establishment of projects undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Tanzania. These ranged from healthcare and education to culture and tourism. Nick also helped in negotiating the Protocol of Cooperation between the Government of Tanzania and the AKDN, which facilitated the AKDN’s contribution to Tanzania’s social and economic development. Nick held this position till 2002.
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In 1993, President Ali Hassan Mwinyi appointed Nick as the Chancellor of Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, and also bestowed on Nick the title of ‘Honourable’ for life. On November 28 1997, as Chancellor of the University, it fell upon Nick to award an honorary degree in philosophy to Nyerere in recognition of his lifelong service to humanity and his support to African countries struggling for their independence (see photo at the beginning of this post). To come back full circle, a year earlier Nyerere had appointed Nick as a trustee of a new foundation bearing his name called the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, established to promote peace, unity and people-centred development in Africa. On January 10 2000, after President Nyerere’s death, the Board of Trustees appointed Nick as interim Chairman for one year. Hon. Salim Ahmed Salim, a former Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity and former President of the UN General Assembly then succeeded Nick to this position.
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Nick’s funeral at the Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam on November 20, 2021 was attended by leading members of the Tanzanian Government. The venue, where some sixty years earlier he had crossed the floor to join the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), was dignified but not sad because it celebrated a life well lived in the service of the country and community. His funeral was attended by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, ex-President Jakaya Kikwete, ex-President Amani Karume, ex-Prime Minister Joseph Warioba and many prominent Government officials and dignitaries who paid their respect.
Conveying condolence on behalf of President Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan to the Kassum family, the Tanzanian nation, the Aga Khan and the Ismaili community, the Prime Minister recollected the years of dedicated service Vazir Hon. Al Noor Kassum had rendered to the country, highlighting Nick’s mentorship to so many individuals who would become leaders of Tanzania. The Prime Minister also mentioned the deep friendship that Nick had enjoyed with President Nyerere and the bond of trust they shared in the service of the country, which he referred to as unique and very special. During the dignified funeral, Nick’s eldest son Saleem, on behalf of the Kassum family, thanked the past and present leaders of Tanzania, the leaders of the Ismaili Jamat and the AKDN for their presence, and for their kind words of tribute to Nick’s life .
According to Mohamed M. Keshavjee, an international specialist on cross cultural mediation: “Nick Kassum was a very special individual of prodigious diplomatic capability whose multiple talents were underpinned by sound administrative competence and hard work. Nick served Tanzania as a diplomat in the formative years of its evolution. He served the UN at a critical time of decolonisation. He enjoyed President Nyerere’s full confidence and was asked to come back to serve the country in a number of critical portfolios. Nick acquitted himself with great aplomb and assiduity of purpose. He excelled in whatever was assigned to him but, in the process, he never lost his humility and compassionate disposition which allowed others to shine when he found them capable of serving the country he so dearly loved.”
Rest in Peace dear Nick. What you had; you gave. What you could, you did.
Date posted: February 15, 2022.
Last updated: February 24, 2022 (new photo, Mawlana Hazar Imam with East African Ismaili education administrators)
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About the writer: Navroz Lakhani (B.Sc Special Mathematics, London University, 1970), worked as a Software Engineer at major corporations, British Gas, Bell Canada and Saudi Arabian Airlines. From 2011-2016, he served as Management & Program Liaison Officer (MPLO) at the AKDN Diplomatic Office in Tanzania. Currently he is conducting research on the history of Ismaili Muslims in Africa and the contribution of AKDN in several countries in a rising Africa.
Al Noor Kassum’s Africa’s Winds of Change — Memoirs of an International Tanzanian documents the changes that took place in Tanzania from the middle of the 20th century to around the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, through the prism of an East African Asian experience. The author sheds new light on the character and legacy of Julius Nyerere, who emerges as radically different from the stereotypical anti-Western firebrand which became his image in the West. Africa’s Winds of Change offers a fascinating personal history of a unique African nation at a critical stage in its development. Africa’s Winds of Change, hardback, 256 pages, was first published by I.B Tauris in October 2007. It is currently unavailable at new and used booksellers as well as other online sources that we checked out, including Amazon, AbeBooks and eBay.
More tributes to Al Noor Kassam (external links):
1. Daily News (Tanzania) — Reflections on Contributions, Legacy of Al Noor Kassum
2. The Citizen (Tanzania) — The Life and Times of Nick Kassum
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