My home, the East African country of Tanzania, is defined by borders created during the Scramble for Africa without the consent of a single latter-day “Tanzanian.” However, despite containing over 130 ethnic groups, none of which make up more than an eighth of the population, mainland Tanzania, formerly known as Tanganyika, has never experienced mass ethnic violence in its post-colonial period.
The archipelago of Zanzibar, however, is an entirely different story. Formerly an Omani sultanate and major port in the Indian Ocean trade network, Zanzibar has historically been occupied by ruling Arabs and majority Shirazis, a self-described African-Persian ethnicity.
Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar came in 1964, four months after Zanzibar’s independence and three years after Tanganyika’s. It arose from two very disparate interests: the pan-African sentiments of Tanganyikan President “Mwalimu” Julius Nyerere and Zanzibari President Karume’s distrust of an ambitious Marxist politician, which convinced him a union with Tanganyika was the safest route to power consolidation.
However, it was likely too big a bite for Karume, as he underestimated the extent of the unification that Mwalimu was seeking: only a third of Zanzibari ministries enjoy a high level of autonomy. Thus, ever since the union, ethnic and anti-mainland tensions have become linked in ever more complicated ways, and sporadic protests and riots have become a hallmark of the election season and instability.
Most recently, anti-government protests have been led by an Islamist group named Uamsho, seeking full autonomy for Zanzibar with slogans such as “if the coat doesn’t fit, take it off.” While their 2001 constitution only explicitly mentions Islamic revival, an increasingly vocal leadership has used a glossed-over interpretation of Islamic Zanzibari history to move their organization into the political realm, despite having been essentially banned in April.
“We want our government to have supremacy. We want a supreme Zanzibar,” Uamsho officer Sheikh Ali Mselem said. The recent three-day disappearance of Uamsho’s leader Shekh Farid Hadi, likely, by security agents, brought threats against the Christian community and contributed to rioting on Oct. 24, which killed at least one policeman.
Unfavorable comparisons have been made to Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group in Nigeria that seeks further implementation of Islamic law and has been responsible for a string of attacks over the past year, claiming over a thousand lives. However, Uamsho seems to be less militant and more opportunistic, exploiting anti-mainland sentiment to further their political presence and Facebook likes.
For the most part, the most recent conflicts in Zanzibar can be viewed as an opportunistic civil society group exploiting unresolved resentment toward a graceless proxy Zanzibari government. The Minister of Home Affairs, mainlander Dr. Emmanuel Nchimbi, recently stated that, “the government will not tolerate some few individuals threatening other people or using religion to disrupt the peace and harmony which the country has enjoyed over the past 50 years.”
The “peace and harmony” Nchimbi talks about is not one brought about by dialogue and reconciliation, but the deluded view of politicians by the mainland government refusing to address the legitimate grievances of Zanzibaris forced into a political union. Violent responses by security forces have been the norm for years: in 2001, the post-election clampdown was compounded by an intimidation campaign, including the only official news channel on the island playing clips from previous massacres of opposition activists on repeat.
It is unlikely Uamsho would enjoy the success it does if not for the erratic and violent responses of security forces to opposition candidates. The first-ever murder of a Tanzanian journalist by policemen last month hints at increasing paranoia by the ruling party on the mainland as well. So while I would not advocate the mythologized versions of Zanzibar history such as those promoted by Uamsho, that does not mean there cannot be progress towards a nationalist narrative promoting a diverse Zanzibari identity and a mainland government with an open mind.