For African leaders, Fidel Castro was a comrade in arms

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More than a dozen presidents and prime ministers from around the world will be present to bid Fidel Castro goodbye

During Castro's time in power, he provided military aid for some African countries

CNN  — 

Many of Africa’s leaders are turning up for Fidel Castro’s funeral in what reads like a who’s who of the continent’s longest-serving presidents.

Many of them took a leaf out of Castro’s book, holding onto power far longer than their democratic counterparts.

At the last count, 15 presidents and six prime ministers from around the world will bid goodbye to Fidel Castro. Among the African leaders attending are South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

“Fidel was not just your leader. He was our leader and the leader of all revolutionaries. We followed him, listened to him, and tried to emulate him,” Mugabe said upon arrival in Cuba, according to Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald.

“We could not just stay away and keep away now that he is gone. We could not just keep away without coming to say farewell to our dear brother, farewell revolutionary.”

A partner in liberation

As the Cold War seeped onto African shores in the 1950s, it was Castro’s revolutionary ideas that inspired liberation leaders on the continent.

Freedom fighters saw similarities in their struggle, a seeming David and Goliath story of a small group trying to stand up against an outsized enemy, whether it be the United States, as in the case of Cuba, or the grip of colonizing powers, as in Africa.

 Africa was in need of friends, and while western leaders largely ignored the independence struggle, Fidel Castro did not.

South Africa’s Nelson Mandela spoke of approaching the United States government for assistance during the nation’s anti-apartheid struggles, only to be refused.

“But Cuba, the moment we appealed for assistance they were ready to do so and they did so,” Mandela is quoted as saying during a 1990 documentary.

“Why would we now listen to the Western world when they say we should have nothing to do with Cuba? It’s just unreasonable.”

Cuban soldiers in African world

Castro’s influence on African independence movements went beyond revolutionary thought. He backed it up with manpower.

Across the continent, Castro provided arms and training to guerrilla movements.

It was Castro who came to Angola’s assistance in 1975 by sending 36,000 Cubans to resist the South Africans, despite opposition from its ally, the Soviet Union. Thousands of Cuban soldiers died and drained Cuba’s economy in a war with no obvious military victory in what became known as “South Africa’s Vietnam”.

The stalemate, however, inspired a resurgence of resistance to colonial power in Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, in large part due to Castro’s stance.

In the mid-1960’s it was Castro’s instruction to Che Guevara that had the Cuban doctor fighting alongside the socialist Lumumba loyalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo as they tried to remove the US-backed Mobutu regime.

Castro’s move to “Cubanise” African independence struggles did not go unnoticed, and served to further isolate Castro’s Cuba from the West in the height of the Cold War.

However, for many Africans, there was no finer proof of solidarity than the willingness of Cubans to lay down their lives for African freedom. And in Castro, many Africans found a lifelong comrade.

An outsize influence

Signs of the tiny Caribbean island’s influence on the vast African continent remain.

Within days of the Ebola crisis two years ago, it was Cuba which sent the largest contingent of international doctors in West Africa in those frightening first days of the outbreak.

In South Sudan’s capital of Juba there’s a community known as ‘Cuban Jubans,’ refugees fleeing civil war, who found education and shelter in Cuba before returning home.

In remote regions of South Africa, you may come across a Cuban doctor. And from Ghana to Namibia, many more African doctors were trained by Cubans. More than a thousand South African medical students also travel to Cuba every year. 

Mandela showed his appreciation by traveling to Havana soon after his release after 27 years behind bars. And when Africa’s most loved president found himself being inaugurated as South Africa’s first black President, Castro was in attendance. Mandela called him “a source of inspiration to all freedom loving people.”

And when President Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand for the first time, arguably setting in motion the thawing of diplomatic relations, he did it at Nelson Mandela’s funeral on African soil.