[Documents menu] Documents menu

Isn't It Time Tanzania Rethought Its Union?

An Opinion in The Nation, 4 February 2001

Nairobi - The idea was once considered taboo. Perhaps not any longer. As waves of unprecedented political upheavals engulf the once tranquil isles of Zanzibar and Pemba, more and more people are beginning to ask: Is Tanzania's hallowed Unity constitution absolutely inviolate? Isn't it time, maybe, for a rethink?

On January 26, policemen mercilessly broke up rallies in Zanzibar and Pemba organised by the Civic United Front, the political movement challenging Chama Cha Mapinduzi's stranglehold on power on the isles.

Sixteen people were shot dead when police opened fire on the demonstrators. CUF chairman Ibrahim Lipumba suffered a broken left arm by being whacked by the police. He was then promptly locked up.

Kenyans woke up to scenes of terrified Zanzibaris fleeing the isles for the relative safety of Msambweni, on the South Coast. They came in canoes and makeshift boats, most with nothing other than the clothes they were in. Some had gunshot wounds. All narrated shocking tales of an island homeland going to the dogs.

This is not the image Kenya and the world got about Tanzania. For good reason, Tanzania has long enjoyed the reputation of being among Africa's most stable states politically. The mess in Zanzibar is quite needlessly soiling this reputation.

The CUF is an umbrella for activists of all manner and persuasions. There are the straightforward sort. They have no major quarrel with the Tanzanian constitution per se. They believe there is room in this arrangement for political plurality and for the CCM's power to be opposed in a peaceful and constitutional way, as the CUF says it is doing in Zanzibar and Pemba.

But the ascendant strain in the CUF is for a basic overhaul of the Union constitution to create three autonomous governments as opposed to the present two: one for Zanzibar, a second for Tanganyika (the mainland) and an Union umbrella. The current arrangement has the Union government under President Ben Mkapa, and a semi-autonomous administration for Zanzibar and Pemba, headed by President Amani Karume of the CCM.

Though many Zanzibaris will not listen to it, an enviable share of power is reserved for the isles under the Union arrangement. Where the Union President is from the mainland, like Mr. Mkapa is, his first vice-president must come from the isles. This arrangement is tailored to guarantee that a Zanzibari succeeds a mainlander in high office, as Mr. Ali Hassan Mwinyi did when founding father Julius Nyerere stepped down.

It is also true that the isles enjoy a great deal of autonomy in the circumstances. Where security, intelligence and immigration come under the ambit of the Union government, Zanzibar takes care of its other affairs, such as the courts and the ports administration.

But, as the cloud hanging over the isles has darkened, a loony fringe has emerged which wants no less than reversion to the old days of the Sultanate, abolished in the revolution of 1964. This fringe is especially manifest in Pemba, with her large population of Arab descent. Disturbingly, it is also associated with calls for Sharia law over the islands, a development the Union's judicial system would not countenance.

Pemba, in fact, is the epicentre of the raging dispute for other reasons. The island, though it produces the bulk of the cloves on which Zanzibar's prosperity rests, is poorer and less developed than Unguja (the Swahili name for Zanzibar proper). Inevitably, deep discontent in Pemba has emerged over what the islanders consider to be wilful neglect and marginalisation by the CCM overlords in the islands.

To its discredit, the CCM has badly bungled the situation on the isles. A problem that could have been managed more peacefully and with a surer political touch has been allowed to fester into an outright political crisis. For starters, the October elections on the isles, pitting the CCM against the CUF, were a total sham. Just about every observer agrees the Tanzanian authorities should not have given a seal of approval to those elections.

The Mkapa government needs to calmly face up to the fact that the CCM's popularity in Zanzibar has been greatly eroded. It is pointless for the authorities to keep trying to ram into Zanzibari throats something they clearly do not like. Rather than react creatively to the demand for separatism that has been simmering since the 80s, Dar es Salaam and its CCM pointment in Zanzibar have resorted to crude repression. That's the mistake.

There is the legitimate question, of course, which Dar es Salaam is raising about national security and the imperative of ensuring that the Union endures, come what come may.

It would be helpful, all the same, for the CCM government to reflect back on how this Union came about in the first place. The circumstances of that time have since then greatly altered to the extent that a demand to disengage should no longer be looked at as high treason.

There was nothing preordained about this Union. It simply happened because Nyerere decided, in the aftermath of the 1964 Zanzibari revolution, to move in to lock Zanzibar into Tanganyika's embrace as a way of ensuring the isles did not fall into the hands of revolutionary extremists, as was feared.

That revolution, which overthrew the Sultanate, was the work of the Afro- Shirazi movement, in alliance with one John Okello, a colourful Ugandan revolutionary of murky pedigree who was later locked up in a mainland jail before eventually disappearing into Idi Amin's domain and into history. In 1972 the Afro-Shirazi Party, under Sheikh Abedi Karume, father of the present president, was coaxed into a merger with Nyerere's Tanu to form the CCM.

At the time of the Zanzibari uprising, the Cold War was at its height and the West was in a fit that Zanzibar should not turn out to be the Cuba of Eastern Africa. Much as Nyerere was to become idolised by leftist ideologues in Africa, his act of engineering this Union was a major favour for which the West remained eternally grateful.

Times, of course, have changed. The notion of Zanzibar being the staging ground for instability across the mainland sounds somewhat ridiculous today. Zanzibar is too puny compared with the mainland's combined might. Besides, it is so closely tied culturally and linguistically to the mainland, especially the coastal part, that it cannot afford to stray too far way independently, Union or no Union.

Neither will the world cave in on Dar es Salaam if Zanzibar and Pemba were allowed to come under an administration other than the CCM. If you isolate the pro-Sultanate potheads and the Islamic and racist extremists in the CUF, you are left with an outfit like any of the other parties Tanzania has allowed to be registered - one that's responsible, moderate and, as is the CUF case, committed to the welfare of the isles.