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Zanzibar: in the eye of the storm

Kirsty Hughes
8 October 2003

As policy-makers worry about how to develop their security, foreign and development strategies in the face of the ‘war on terror’, the intricate political realities of a particular country or region can offer their own insight into the grand strategic designs that seek to capture them. Zanzibar – beautiful Indian Ocean spice island and historic cultural crossroads – is one such territory that brings home both the specificity of local politics and their links with international networks of power.

Tanzania, the East African state with which Zanzibar has formed a union since 1964, is in many ways a test case of how a developing country copes with complex and characteristically global problems. It is politically stable despite being one of the poorest countries in the world (with a GDP per head of $200); it currently is host to around half a million refugees from the regional conflicts in Congo, Burundi and Rwanda; its population of almost 35 million includes 14 million Muslims yet there are remarkably few Christian-Muslim tensions, even in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam or the Mombasa bombings in neighbouring Kenya in December 2002 (which led the US and Britain to publish a ‘high risk’ terror warning for Tanzania).

Where political tensions do exist within the country, it is Zanzibar – with its old and atmospheric Stone Town, now declared a Unesco ‘world heritage’ site – which most vividly exemplifies them. It was here in August 2003 that I interviewed a leading opposition politician, both to try to make sense of the recently turbulent politics of the island, and to understand what illumination Zanzibar can offer on the urgent global issues in which it also is enmeshed.

The legacy of massacre

Both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar itself are governed by the CCM, the party of Tanzania’s former president, Julius Nyerere. Zanzibar has semi-autonomous status and a separate house of representatives. But sharp political tensions remain after the last two elections of 1995 and 2000, which were characterised by violence and accusations of fraud. In 2001, at least 22 people were killed and many more injured in opposition protests at the election results; Amnesty International reported rape cases and torture inflicted on many of the hundreds arrested.

Despite government attempts to paint the opposition as potentially linked to Islamic fundamentalists, the political instability in Zanzibar has not yet become routinely violent. But the international terror warnings imposed by the US and Britain impact in a different direction – onto the local economy, not least in a fall-off in tourism earnings. This does nothing to lessen local political tensions. 9/11 casts a long shadow in Zanzibar too.

Jaw-jaw on Jaws Corner

In the humidity of a sultry Zanzibar day, I pass through the sprawling market that divides the maze of streets and alleys of Zanzibar’s Stone Town from the shacks and urban sprawl of the rest of the city. Down a lane behind the market, full of cheap clothes and household goods, where few tourists venture, is the headquarters of the main opposition party in Zanzibar, the Civic United Front (CUF) where I came to interview one of Zanzibar’s main opposition leaders, Juma Duni Haji.

In a small room I talked to Juma Duni Haji about the political prospects in Zanzibar ahead of the next Tanzanian general elections due in 2005, as well as the wider international situation after the Iraq war. It is intensely hot and a large fan barely moves the faded rose-patterned curtains that hang against the blue painted walls as we talk. Duni Haji, the CUF’s deputy secretary-general in Zanzibar, is a determined man, angry about the events of recent years – “there was a real massacre here”. But he recognises some changes have occurred in the last two years, since a ‘peace’ agreement between the two main parties in autumn 2001:

“We agreed with CCM that we could do our political activities in towns and villages without harassment. Before that our people were being harassed by the police. Now local politics is quiet and we can engage in engaging [sic] people in politics; since the accord there has been very little harassment.”

I see one local example of this at the intersection of two lanes back in Stone Town, known as ‘Jaws Corner’ where CUF supporters sit and drink coffee, argue and gossip. Two years earlier, I was told, Jaws Corner was empty as police would be liable to arrest the CUF coffee-drinkers.

The agreement between the two main parties, which included promises of reform of the electoral commission, freedom of the media, and independence of the police and judiciary, has been an important step forward towards stability. But Duni Haji is not convinced that this progress ensures fair elections in 2005. He believes that violence is much less likely now, but is concerned that the government may instead use the courts to try to block a CUF victory:

“They know they cannot use force any more as people are so much more motivated and conscious of their rights. If they use force again there will be a lot of bloodshed, so they may use the court as an alternative.”

He cites an ongoing case against CUF secretary-general and presidential candidate Seif Shariff Hamad that has been running for almost three years. The case, he says, keeps getting postponed because the police have no witnesses (to an alleged theft of a machine gun from the police) but he worries that the intention is to prolong it until the next election to try to impede Shariff Hamad’s candidacy: “Our assumption is that they have an ill intention to stop him running in 2005.”

Democracy, just

The May 2003 by-elections in Pemba (the northern island which is part of Zanzibar) went smoothly and were welcomed by local and international observers as an important step forward from the violence of two years earlier. CUF won eleven out of the seventeen seats being contested – but its remaining six candidates were disqualified, after legal challenges by another small opposition party, NCCR-Mageuzi, allowed the government to win them, despite a huge percentage of spoiled ballots.

Such conflicts among opposition parties are not unusual in Tanzanian politics, though Juma Duni Haji suspects government involvement. CUF is appealing against the results in these six seats but the case has not yet been heard: “symptoms”, he says, “that they would use the court to rig the election – it gives us a suspicion.”

The day after the interview, I travel to one of the CUF rallies, squeezed into one of the daladala (minivans) that jolt along the roads. A few thousand people, mostly but not all men, assemble on dirt ground a few kilometres out of town, just beyond the Stalinist tower blocks built in the 1950s with assistance from the then East Germany. The crowd listens patiently to long speeches from the CUF politicians, occasionally responding with laughter and shouts. Then, suddenly, the microphone is cut off. Electricity cuts are common enough in Zanzibar, but this too is seen as likely to be deliberate sabotage rather than chance.

Islam and politics

Duni Haji is very sensitive to suggestions that CUF is an Islamic party: “this is the wrong notion,” he says. Its opponents call the CUF Islamic because they want to equate Islam and terrorism. Beneath this dispute lies a different issue, that Tanzania does not allow the registration of religious parties.

Duni Haji says that if the CUF is to be called Islamic because the chairman, vice-chairman and secretary-general are Muslim, then the governing CCM is clearly a Christian party since its chair and vice-chairs are Catholic. In any case, CUF’s two main priorities in Zanzibar, according to Duni Haji, concern the union agreement with mainland Tanzania, and the state of the economy – not religion.

Renegotiating Tanzania’s future

It is in fact the potential for the union agreement to crumble that worries some about the likelihood of a future CUF victory in Zanzibar. Fair elections and resolution of political tensions in a predominantly Muslim island may be only too welcome to the international community, but the risks of instability that might arise from a divorce between Zanzibar and the mainland are much more worrying.

Duni Haji, like other opposition politicians, insists that the aim is to renegotiate the agreement rather than to end it: “we would like to transform it into a better union, we want three governments of a federal nature.”

To a European visitor this sounds distinctly reminiscent of some European arguments about the future of the European Union. Indeed, Duni Haji invokes the EU as an example of why Zanzibar’s small size (almost a million people) should be “irrelevant” when discussing its sovereignty and its relationship to the larger mainland. The arguments here are not only about institutional structures. Zanzibar and other islands off Tanzania’s east coast are now targets for oil exploration – a recipe for persistent arguments over the distribution of any future profits.

Duni Haji blames both the ruling CCM government and the operation of the union agreement for the state of the Zanzibar economy which he says is a “shambles”. The widespread poverty and unemployment may be invisible to tourists who visit only Stone Town and the palm tree-lined beaches of Zanzibar, but Duni Haji also alleges systematic political discrimination, with members of CCM being favoured for jobs. He thinks the Tanzanian customs laws are against Zanzibari interests, and talks of the problems of water shortages, lack of health care, and poor transport infrastructure. But others worry at the potentially serious economic effects of any abrogation of the union agreement and an end to subsidies from the mainland.

The hypocrisy of world power

Duni Haji makes his comments on the international situation on a personal basis, rather than representing any CUF positions. He calls the war in Iraq “an international hypocrisy” and believes that the US “had no right to invade Iraq however bad the leader. They could have used the UN to force Saddam away”. He sees oil as the main motivation for the war; “weapons of mass destruction were used as an excuse and were not there.” Britain and the US, he says, were warned of the likely outcome and the situation in Iraq now is “pathetic”.

He is critical of President Bush’s use of the word ‘crusade’ – a bad mistake, since it let people think that “he was not only frightening Saddam to get the oil but also fighting Islam.” But he is puzzled that Britain, led by Tony Blair, have followed the US so closely: “we say Britain is the 52nd state, and (an) affiliated country of the US. The way Blair has been following Bush is ridiculous.”

The fallout of the war on terror, says Duni Haji, has allowed many African governments to pass anti-terrorism laws – even without clearly defining what terrorism is. The 1998 US embassy bombing is not forgotten, but unlike in Kenya to its north, there have been no subsequent terrorist attacks since.

Duna Haji hears the Palestinians and Israelis calling each other terrorists, and says that the Palestinians are fighting for their rights, for self-determination. “Israel and Bush have to understand that if they want to live, the Palestinians also want to live. It’s mutual survival. An eye for an eye can make the world blind. The only solution for the Middle East is to sit down and talk. Freedom is only freedom if all are free.”

The interview draws to a close. Zanzibari politics may look more hopeful than two years ago but there is a challenging road ahead – to ensure free and fair elections in 2005, tackle the difficult developmental problems that Zanzibar faces, while protecting it from being swept up into wider international tensions. Duni Haji ends on a positive note: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

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