Al Noor Kassum, known popularly as Nick to friends and colleagues all over the world, passed away peacefully in Dar es Salaam on Thursday 18 November 2021, flanked by his three sons, Saleem, Diamond and Jemal-ud Din who flew in specially to the Tanzanian capital to be with their father at his bedside in the last few hours of his life.
A retired Tanzanian politician, Nick Kassum served the Ismaili community, Tanzania and the United Nations in various capacities during his long and eventful life.
Born as Noordin (‘Light of the Faith’) into the well-known Ismaili family of Count Kassum Sunderji, a leading Asian businessman, Nick was very fortunate to be sent overseas for further education at a very young age, first to the United Kingdom and thereafter to India. His education was disrupted by the Second World War which was raging while he was still a teenager. Subsequently, he found himself back in Tanzania in 1950, playing an important role in his father’s business. During these student years, Nick served as a volunteer in the Ismaili community in India and Tanzania.
At the suggestion of the British Governor in Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, in 1950 Nick decided to go back to England to study for the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. His father was not in favour of this decision as Nick had married just a few years earlier and had a very young family to bring up. Nick sought the guidance of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, who blessed his endeavour emphasising that people like him would be needed in the years to come. In 1951 Nick left for the United Kingdom with his wife Shirin and three infant sons. Shirin was to play a major supporting role in his education in England and thereafter in his early political career in Tanganyika and subsequently at the UN in Paris and then in New York.
In London, as a law student, Nick continued his service to the Ismaili community and Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan appointed him to be the first President of the Ismaili Council in the United Kingdom which at that time consisted mainly of students from Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. It was during Nick’s tenure as President that the first Ismaili centre was established through the purchase of a property at 51 Kensington Gardens. Much later, the centre moved to Palace Gate and in the 1980s to the present site, a building in Cromwell Gardens designed by the bespoke Casson Condor Partnership.
In 1954, after being called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in London, Nick returned to Tanganyika to practice law in Dar es Salaam, whereupon Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan appointed him as the Administrator of the Aga Khan Schools in Tanganyika.
Born in Tanganyika where society was stratified along racial lines, Nick realised early in life that educational opportunities were strictly restricted according to the colour of one’s skin. Opportunities were not many for non-Whites, but Nick, by dint of family circumstances, was fortunate to be sent overseas for further studies. The ten years during which he was Education Administrator for the Aga Khan schools were important ones in Tanganyika’s history as the country was preparing itself for independence through the untiring work of a president-to-be (Julius Nyerere) who was a teacher by profession.
Prior to independence, the new Aga Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan 1V, on assuming his role as the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, decided to realign the educational institutions of the Ismaili community. These institutions which had been pioneered in the previous Aga Khan’s time under the old colonial system of government now needed to be upgraded in order to respond to the dynamics of a new modern African state with its own needs of nation building. Nick was allocated this task in Tanganyika which entailed building new schools, upgrading existing ones and helping students to access higher education in countries in East Africa and overseas — a process hugely facilitated by the Aga Khan. Undoubtedly, Nick’s path in this process was going to intersect with that of Julius Nyerere who would be president within the next five years.
In early 1961, soon after Tanganyika attained internal self-rule, Nick was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education and Information, Oscar Kambona. Kambona was soon appointed as Foreign Minister and succeeded by Soloman Eliufoo who took Nick as part of the Tanganyika delegation to the UNESCO General Conference. In Paris, Nick was appointed as Rapporteur to one of the two Commissions called the Administrative Commission set up by the General Conference. Soon thereafter, he was appointed its Co-Chair.
Back in Tanzania, Nick was involved with national educational issues — the main priority being primary education as well as the promotion of adult literacy. The setting up of a national university was also high on the agenda. Nick was deeply involved with the conceptualisation of a national educational strategy. During this time, he also was instrumental in setting up the Mwananchi Development Corporation that became the primary agency through which the country was able to govern and allocate its national resources. In 1964, following the merger of Zanzibar and Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Nick was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Industries, Natural Resources and Water.
It was in the mid-60s that at the request of Rene Maheu, Director General of UNESCO, and with the blessing of President Nyerere, that Nick took on the position as Senior Liaison Officer, Bureau of Relations with International Organisations and Programmes at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Two years later, Maheu, once again asked Nick if he would head UNESCO’s Liaison Office in New York. With President Nyerere’s approval he took up the position which he held for three years. At the end of his New York tenure, Nick was asked by CV Narasimhan to join the UN Secretariat as Assistant Secretary General. Nick once again sought President Nyerere’s approval through UN Secretary-General U Thant only to be told that Tanzania needed his services more than the UN. Nick came back home to Tanzania and made Tanzania his principal residence for the next 50 years.
During this time, Nick held important positions such as Deputy General Manager of the Williamson Diamond Mines. His tenure ended with the Mwadui Report leading to the appointment of the first Black African as General Manager. President Nyerere then appointed Nick as the Minister of Finance of the East African Community (EAC) — a significant appointment as it coincided with the expulsion of the Asian community from Uganda. Nick was largely responsible for building the EACs headquarters building in Arusha, Tanzania. In March 1977, President Nyerere appointed Nick as the head of the Ministry of Water, Energy and Minerals. It thus fell on Nick’s shoulders to ensure that the cash-strapped economy of the country was able to acquire petroleum freely from various countries of the world. Through dexterous negotiations, Nick was able to ensure a free flow of oil and petroleum products into the country at a very difficult time.
In 1991 Nick retired from politics and the Aga Khan appointed him his Personal Representative in Tanzania in which capacity he helped with the establishment of projects and programmes undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Tanzania. He also helped negotiate the Protocol of Cooperation between the Government of Tanzania and the AKDN which facilitated the AKDN’s contribution to Tanzania’s social, economic and cultural development.
However, education returned to play a role in his life when, in 1993, Ali Hassan Mwinyi appointed Nick as the Chancellor of the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, and President Ali Mwinyi bestowed the title of ‘Honourable’ on him for life. On 28 November 1997, as Chancellor of the University, it fell upon Nick’s shoulders to award an honorary degree in philosophy to Julius Nyerere, a man whom he admired profoundly and with whom he laid the educational foundations of modern Tanzania.
Nick’s funeral at the Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam on Saturday 20 November 2021 was a fitting metaphor for his variegated and cosmopolitan life characterised by the different publics he served. The Tanzanian Government was represented by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, ex-President Jakaya Kikwete, ex-President Amani Karume, ex-Prime Minister Joseph Warioba and many government officials, leaders and members of the Ismaili community, civic dignitaries from Dar es Salaam, and members of the Kassum family represented by Nick’s eldest son Saleem, himself an ex-UN Diplomat. The message of condolence from President Samia Suluhu Hassan to the country, to the Aga Khan and to the Kassum family recollected Nick’s years of untiring service and mentorship to so many individuals who would become leaders of the country. The Prime Minister highlighted the deep friendship Nick enjoyed with Mwalimu Nyerere and the bond of trust they shared in the service of the country which they both loved and served.
Nick Kassum was a very fortunate man who served his community, his country and the international community in turn. At every stage he excelled in what he did and left behind a fragrance of a man who never lost his sense of humility and compassion while allowing others to shine and serve the country he loved so much.
Nick is survived by his first wife Shirin and their three sons, the children of his second wife Yasmin by her first marriage, and numerous nephews and nieces in different parts of the world. Yasmin, who was with him for the latter part of his life, predeceased him in 2016.
RIP Nick you had a full life and you lived every moment of it!