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Be a Sultan of Democracy

The East African, (Nairobi), 31 January 2000

Nairobi - The President of Zanzibar, Dr Salmin Amour, bears the nickname "Komandoo," for his political combativeness and finely honed survival instincts.

During the celebrations to mark the 36th anniversary of the Zanzibar revolution in early January, Dr Amour told a rally in Zanzibar that he had pardoned the exiled former Sultan of Zanzibar, Jamshid Abdallah, saying the latter was free to return to the Isles on condition that he did so as an ordinary citizen.

While many welcomed the gesture as humane and timely, cynics said it smacked of political opportunism.

With a general election round the corner, in October 2000, and growing fears that plans are afoot to change the Isles' constitution to facilitate a third term for Dr Amour, the Abdallah clemency could indeed prove a valuable card in the latter's hand.

Sultan Abdallah, a frail and sickly man of 71, is of Arabic ancestry; he presided over a racist oligarchy that consigned black Zanzibaris to the bottom rungs of society. The revolution that overthrew him therefore also restored the human dignity of black Zanzibaris.

With the passage of time, relations between the two races have grown progressively more cordial; with the pardoning of the former ruler, the hatchet can be said to have been truly buried - even if Dr Amour is motivated more by the desire to woo the support of Zanzibaris of Arab stock than by historical magnanimity.

Critics say Dr Amour's let-bygones-be-bygones stance would have been even more meaningful had he extended the conciliatory gesture to the opposition Civic United Front (CUF), whose candidate in the 1995 polls, Mr. Seif Shariff Hamad, he beat very narrowly in a vote count whose accuracy is still in question.

The government could, for a start, have dropped the treason charges against 18 CUF activists. Instead, after nearly two years, hearing of the charges began last week, with a violent confrontation between police and stone-throwing CUF supporters.

Dr Amour also needs to clarify his position on the constitution change issue, which is generating great heat. He must distance himself from the proponents of change to counter charges that he is the chief schemer.

The Zanzibar leader, for instance, never comments on the provocative outbursts of his sports adviser, Mr. Mohammed Raza, on both Zanzibar and Union affairs, thereby creating the impression that the latter is Dr Amour's "point man".

Dr Amour must, ultimately, decide what his legacy is to be - one of democracy and reconciliation, or one of repression and manipulation.