Waiting for Tito: unofficial scenes from a presidential tour of Africa

Red Africa
Read more The history of Soviet relations with Africa, told in pictures

The state visit was a staple of the Cold War. These lavish displays of statesmanship were used to demonstrate ideological fraternity, and to win the affections of wavering parties. Looking back on them now, these visits seem theatrical and often incongruous — today Buckingham Palace no doubt regrets having welcomed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu with open arms back in 1978. The carefully orchestrated artificiality of these high-level meetings is never far from the surface. This is why the many hundreds of photos of Josip Broz Tito’s state visits to Africa housed in his Presidential Archive are so revealing and disconcerting.

As the driving force behind the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia’s globetrotting president devoted a huge amount of time and resources to the newly independent African nations who made up much of its membership. His crew of official photographers were on hand to document the confetti and handshakes. And perhaps, with time on their hands in advance of Tito’s arrival, they also captured the behind-the-scenes world of this “socialist friendship”: empty streets awaiting stretch limos; listless roadside crowds patiently waiting for cavalcade to pass; the banal and personal underbelly to the pomp and circumstance.

Laguat, Algeria, April 1965. Traditional greeting from the inhabitants of Laguat

Achimota, Ghana, March 1961. En route to visit a secondary school

Ark, Kenya, February 1970. Locals at the side of the road en route to the Safari Club in Ark

Conakry, Guinea, March 1961. En route to presidential residence in Conakry

Nakuru, Kenya, February 1970. Welcoming committee at the airport

Ark, Kenya, February 1970. Locals at the side of the road en route to the Safari Club in Ark

Nakuru, Kenya, February 1970. Outside the town hall

“Africa was presented as the domain on which Tito built his reputation as a globally significant political figure,” says Radovan Cukić, head of the Research Department at the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, where the Tito photos are archived. “He claimed the field of foreign policy for his own and nowhere was he more able to act than in African affairs.” Tito’s early moves to charm post-colonial Africa gave Yugoslavia a disproportionate influence in the continent: during the Suez Crisis in 1956 a Yugoslav regiment posted in Sinai was one of the guarantors in establishing peace, and Yugoslavia was a major supporter of Algerian independence, for which it sacrificed its good relationship with France.

Africa was presented as the domain on which Tito built his reputation as a globally significant political figure

Between 1954 and 1979, Tito toured the length and breadth of Africa. Among his closest allies and most frequent hosts were Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he visited more than 20 times in Cairo. These men, along with Houari Boumediene in Algeria and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya became celebrities in Yugoslavia thanks to media coverage of Tito’s exploits. Public affection back home seemed to match Tito’s public fraternal remarks: Cukić notes that the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, first premier of the independent Congo “caused mass demonstrations in Belgrade that resulted in huge disorder and the sacking of the Belgian embassy.”

Accra, Ghana, March 1961. En route to a meeting of the People’s party

Monrovia, Liberia, March 1961. Outside the Liberian parliament building

Nairobi, Kenya, February 1970. Visit to Kabete University Farm

Tripoli, Libya, January 1977. En route to the presidential complex in Tripoli

Nairobi, Kenya, February 1970. Welcoming committee at Nairobi Airport

Achimota, Ghana, March 1961. Visiting a secondary school

Algiers, Algeria, April 1965. Arriving into the port at Algiers

What of the behind-the-scenes shots, with their informality and banality? It is hard to imagine equivalent photos emerging of, say, the Soviet elite. “Nowhere else do we get so many images of landscapes, the rural everyday, scenes of traditional living and even an exploration of human physiognomy as in these informal photos,“ asserts Cukić.

Tito’s photographers were serving a dual purpose: propagandising the president’s work while at the same time making selections to be passed to Tito for his own private presidential collection. “There are 708 boxes worth of these private selections, numbering around 132,000 photos,“ Cukić says. “Clearly not all the informal photographs made it into the press. Many of them were probably preserved for the private collections, making up something like a family album.“

Tripoli, Libya, February 1970. Streets of Tripoli

Entebbe, Uganda, September 1970. Discussion with president Milton Obote on the airstrip prior to departure after the Third Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement

Awash National Park, Ethiopia, December 1955. On safari

Tripoli, Libya, January 1977. Catching up on the press before departure from Libya

Liberia, March 1961. On the road between towns of Totota and Kokota

Bamako, Mali, March 1961. Being shown around town

Collectively, the images offer a tantalising glimpse of the genuine personal emotion underlying the parades and speeches of Cold War diplomacy. In the words of Radovan Cukić, “in the photos of [Tito’s African] visits what is noticeable is the sense of spontaneity. He enjoys local dances, eats traditional food. And this is of a part with his straightforward, warm relationships with African leaders.” The true face, perhaps, of the European statesman — with his elegant white linen suits and penchant for safaris and big-game hunting — abroad in Red Africa.

Images from the archives of the Museum of Yugoslav History are on display in the exhibition Things Fall Apart, part of the Calvert 22 Foundation’s Red Africa season, from February 4th - April 3rd.

Text: Samuel Goff
Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Yugoslav History