Zanzibar’s Past, Tanzania’s Future: From the 1964 Revolution to the 2015 Elections

A CUF supporter holds up a placard: 'A new constitution is necessary'.
A Civic United Front supporter (Zanzibar) holds up a placard: ‘A new constitution is necessary’.

George Roberts
University of Warwick

On Sunday, October 25th, Tanzania goes to the polls. This year’s parliamentary and presidential elections appear to be the most closely contested since multiparty democracy returned to the country in 1992. President Jakaya Kikwete will stand down after finishing the second of two five year terms in office. Kikwete’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi – ‘Party of the Revolution’, or CCM – now faces unprecedented competition from an increasingly self-confident opposition coalition. Much of the campaign has consisted of wars-of-words and the making of extravagant promises which any winner would find difficult keeping. Scrape beneath the mudslinging, however, and some central issues emerge. Among them is the question of Zanzibar – a problem rooted in the years of decolonisation in East Africa.

On 12 January 1964, the government of Zanzibar was overthrown in a violent revolution. The island archipelago, which lay a short distance off the coast of mainland Tanganyika, had become independent from Britain just a month beforehand. The ruling Sultan was forced into exile and a new regime under the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) took power. Zanzibar’s position at the centre of Indian Ocean trading networks had created a concentrated cosmopolitanism on the islands – a melting pot of competing identities and interests, which spilled over into bloodshed. In the aftermath of the revolution, thousands of Zanzibaris were killed in a wave of violence grounded in long-standing ethnoracial tensions on the islands.

Seen from beyond Zanzibar’s shores, however, the prevailing winds in 1964 were not the monsoon breeze of the spice trade, but the icier fronts of the Cold War. As Jonathon Glassman has shown, during the final years of colonial rule, known locally the zama za siasa (‘time of politics’), Zanzibari politics became superheated with the language of superpower rivalry, the American neoimperialist threat, and the revolutionary dictums of Marxism.[1] Though the revolution was not a communist seizure of power, it was given this veneer by the presence in the new regime of far-left politicians with connections to Beijing and Moscow. Afflicted by Cold War paranoia, Britain, the United States, and other Western states delayed recognising the new ASP government headed by Abeid Karume, fearing the emergence of a ‘Cuba in Africa’. This vacuum was exploited by China, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, which showered Zanzibar with aid and entrenched their influence on the islands.

These events were followed closely by Julius Nyerere, the president of mainland Tanganyika, which had gained its independence three years earlier. His confidence had been shaken by a near-simultaneous army mutiny in Dar es Salaam, which briefly forced him into hiding. Concerned about the drift of a neighbouring state into communist orbit, which posed a threat to his own strident non-aligned stance, Nyerere secretly brokered an Act of Union in April 1964 with Karume, who was himself worried by the danger posed by the Marxists within his government. Zanzibar became tethered to the more moderate mainland government while maintaining much of its autonomy, to create the United Republic of Tanzania.

Presidents Nyerere and Karume sign the Act of Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, April 1964, courtesy of Zanzinet.
Presidents Nyerere and Karume sign the Act of Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, April 1964, courtesy of Zanzinet.

The ‘union question’ has dogged Tanzanian politics ever since. Some acclaim it as the sole lasting success of a phosphorescent pan-Africanist moment that blazed over the continent in the early years of postcolonial government. Other Zanzibaris believe Nyerere sold off the islands’ newly-won independence, replacing British rule with domination by mainlanders. Another theory – often invoked to bolster the previous point – is that the union was engineered by the United States and the CIA to smother the revolution before it had a chance to spread to the African continent.[2] Archival research indicates that while Washington welcomed the union, it played no active role.[3] These arguments are bound up with equally contested memories of the revolution, which continues to represent a lodestar in Zanzibari politics today.[4]

At the centre of this debate are the union’s constitutional arrangements – which some claim were passed in dubious legal circumstances in Zanzibar. The so-called ‘two-tier’ constitution, or katiba, was intended to be a temporary measure, but it remains in place today. The arrangement is similar to the position of Scotland or Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom: Zanzibar has its own government with independent powers, but also sends elected members to parliament in Dodoma, which legislates for both the mainland and, where it has due powers, the union as a whole. Last year’s Scottish referendum was closely followed in Tanzania.

Since the return of multiparty politics to Zanzibar in 1995, elections have been characterised by violence. The bloodiest incident occurred in 2000, when 31 people were allegedly shot dead by police in Pemba while attending an opposition demonstration. The formation of a Zanzibari government of national unity between CCM (which was formed by the merger of the ASP and the mainland Tanganyika Africa National Union in 1977) and the main opposition party on the islands, the Civic United Front (CUF) ensured a peaceful ballot in 2010.

Nonetheless, there is an increasingly vocal movement demanding independence. Many Zanzibaris feel short-changed by mainlanders, who make up 97 percent of the country’s population. A religious animus runs through many separatist arguments: Zanzibar is a strict Muslim society. In 2012, the secessionist group Uamsho (‘Awakening’) was accused of inciting riots in the historic Stone Town district of Zanzibar City. In a separate incident, Islamic terrorism was blamed for a series of small-scale bombings of churches in 2014.

Tensions are already running high this year. The current government of national unity ended in acrimonious circumstances when CUF boycotted its final proceedings. In April, the police cancelled a CUF rally after youths burned a CCM flag. There are serious concerns about electoral misconduct by CCM, including allegations about secret shipping of mainlanders to the islands in an act of ‘voter stuffing’ and blocking the registration of young, pro-CUF voters.

Memories of the revolution have rarely been far from the surface during the campaigns. CCM’s candidate for the Zanzibari presidency, Ali Mohammed Shein, launched his party’s manifesto at a mass rally by proclaiming that ‘Revolution is our shield, it was the Revolution that brought us to where we are now.’ The CUF candidate, Seif Sharif Hamad, has been forced to deny wild rumours that if elected, he would reinstate the Sultan. He dismissed the gossip as ‘psychological warfare’ and instead promised to transform Zanzibar into the ‘Singapore of Africa’ – a far cry from the fears of a new Cuba of 1964.

The unravelling of the katiba debate has had a significant knock-on effect on broader politics in Tanzania. After years of debate, a Constituent Assembly met in Dodoma in 2014 to thrash out the terms of a reformed constitution for Tanzania. Although the Constitutional Review Commission had recommended a ‘three-tier’ arrangement for the new katiba, in which both the mainland and Zanzibar would have their own governments, both underneath an umbrella union administration. However, CCM held to the status quo in the Constituent Assembly, claiming it threatened national unity – and knowing that it would weaken the party’s hold on power in Zanzibar. Opposition delegates then walked out of the process. (The constitutional referendum has yet to take place, after being postponed from April due to a lack of electronic voter registration equipment.)

In response, the previously fragmented opposition parties, including CUF, came together to form the Coalition of Defenders of the People’s Constitution, or Ukawa, by its Swahili acronym. They not only united to ‘defend’ the proposed three-tier katiba, but also pledged to fight a collective campaign in the 2015 elections and field one candidate between them in every constituency ballot, plus the presidential vote. After struggling to find a consensus, Ukawa eventually offered an olive branch to Edward Lowassa, who defected from CCM after failing to secure his party’s nomination. Lowassa has a huge support base and is backed by powerful business interests. Nonetheless, this was a remarkable u-turn. Opposition leaders had been branding Lowassa the most corrupt man in Tanzania ever since he was forced to resign as Kikwete’s Prime Minister in 2008, after being allegedly involved in a huge fraud scandal. In a volte face of his own, Lowassa now speaks in favour of the ‘three-tier’ katiba – having opposed it while still a CCM member.

Lowassa’s wealth and popularity have galvanised Ukawa’s campaign and has shaken CCM, which is used to winning elections at a gallop. Its nervousness is captured in a bizarre blog post written by the party’s secretary-general, which appeared on the American politics website, The Hill. In an article entitled ‘Tanznaia cannot be allowed to be the new front for terrorists’, Abdulrahman Kinana accuses Lowassa of sympathising with Islamic extremists in Zanzibar. He also draws unproven connections between incident involving acid attacks on two British students in 2013 and Uamsho’s religious politics. Just as the zama za siasa was replete with Cold War language in the run-up to independence and the 1964 revolution, now the opponents of greater self-government for Zanzibar play to American fears about Islamic terror, particularly given the activities of the Somali group Al Shaabab in eastern Africa.

CCM’s nerves will have been calmed by a recent independent opinion poll, which showed its presidential candidate, John Magufuli, holding a 40 percentage point lead over Lowassa. But regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s election, the new katiba – especially the union question – will be the most contentious item on the new government’s agenda.

For more background on the 2015 elections in Tanzania, see Nick Branson’s briefing for the Africa Research Institute, ‘What’s in it for me? Personalities, enticements and party loyalties in Tanzania’s 2015 elections’


[1] Jonathon Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[2] Amrit Wilson, The Threat of Liberation: Imperialism and Revolution in Zanzibar (London: Pluto Press, 2013).

[3] Ethan R. Sanders, ‘Conceiving the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union in the Midst of the Cold War: Internal and International Factors’, African Review 41/1 (2014), 35–70.

[4] Marie-Aude Fouéré, ‘Recasting Julius Nyerere in Zanzibar: The Revolution, the Union and the Enemy of the Nation’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 8/4 (2014), 478-496.