Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tanzania: Zanzibar Vote Spells More Trouble

As the opposition disputes the election result, there are fears Islamic radicals could step in to channel widespread discontent.
By Fawzia Sheikh

Widespread allegations of ballot rigging have tarnished the victory of Tanzania’s ruling party, after it won a controversial parliamentary election on the troubled Indian Ocean islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.


The Tanzanian government, run by the Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM, or Revolutionary State Party, could, analysts believe, pay a heavy price for its decision to uphold the victory of Amani Karume, the incumbent president of the semi-autonomous islands.


Zanzibar’s election commission said Karume, running for the CCM, won 53.2 per cent of the 461,000 votes cast on October 30, while Seif Sharif Hamad of the opposition Civic United Front, CUF, got 46.1 per cent.


The CUF has since boycotted the first session of the parliament that represents the politically fractious islands – fabled for their cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg and once notorious as the centre of the East African slave trade.


“We do not recognise Karume as having been legitimately re-elected and we do not recognise the government he has formed,” said the CUF in a statement.


The party said at least 47,000 people had been prevented from voting by CCM activists and security forces, while only 32,000 votes separated the two candidates in the officially-declared results. It is estimated that the central government in Dar es Salaam dispatched between 20,000 and 35,000 police and security forces to Zanzibar for the election.


For Tanzania, tension on the islands carries a significance out of all proportion importance to their small population, which accounts for about one million of the 35 million who live in the country.


Zanzibar and Pemba, former British colonies, were forcibly merged with mainland Tanganyika, which had also been ruled by the British, in 1964 when Amani Karume’s father, Abeid Karume, a despotic leader, staged a revolution in which there were widespread executions, torture and imprisonment without trial. Property and estates were seized at will.


The once prosperous Asian community was subject to particularly intense victimisation. An estimated 5,000 were killed, those accused of minor offences were publicly flogged, and girls were forced into marriage with Karume’s African loyalists. Karume senior also banned contraceptives and authorised forced labour while incorporating his Revolutionary Council into the then Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s one-party state.


Although Nyerere reluctantly accepted a multi-party system, the CCM won elections on Zanzibar in 1995 and 2000 that international observers said were rigged. In 2000, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said 35 opposition protesters were shot dead and some 600 wounded by the police.


Zanzibar elects its own president, who is in charge of affairs on the main island and in Pemba to the north. Zanzibar also has its own House of Representatives that drafts laws specific to the islands. The islanders also participate in nationwide Tanzanian polls.


In the latest election, the authoritative London-based newsletter Africa Confidential reported that western diplomats “witnessed the rigging on the ground and briefed journalists accordingly”.


With some 99 per cent of the population of Zanzibar and Pemba professing Islam, conservative religious groups such as the Islamic Propagation Organisation and the Imams’Association of Zanzibar are seeking to exploit popular discontent against high unemployment, schools with no desks, public hospitals without medicines, and foreign tourists who flout Muslim mores. Both groups are prohibited under Tanzanian law from establishing their own political parties.


Radicalised by years of perceived marginalisation by Dar es Salaam, some younger Muslims have returned from studying in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan convinced that religion is the only force that can rescue the islands from what they see as moral decay.


“People are losing faith in bringing about change through democratic means,” said the CUF’s Seif Sharif Hamad. “CUF is a moderate party. But moderate leaders are losing control. Already I’m finding it very difficult to control these people. If this election-rigging happens again, I’m afraid I’ll lose control.


“We have now had three rogue elections on the island in which Zanzibaris attempted to get change through the ballot box, and thrice they have been denied. Many radicals feel democracy cannot work in Zanzibar, and my fear is that if the island's poor, marginalised youths feel they have once again failed to get change, they could easily be influenced by the radical elements.”


Juma Othman Juma, another senior CUF official, said the Islamists are watching from the sidelines, confident that the current turmoil will help their cause. “When you have lost hope and your future, you can do anything,” said Juma. “We have to be prepared to face the challenge of al-Qaeda.”


There is real fear that violence could erupt before the islands take part in Tanzania’s presidential election, now scheduled for December 18, a contest which CCM candidate Jakaya Kikwete is expected to win easily.


“I expect violence in the short term, much worse than last time,” said Bubelwa Kaiza, executive director of Concern for Development Initiatives in Africa, a Dar es Salaam think-tank. “Those who were involved in the 2000 violence - they’ve grown stronger. They no longer fear the system. And they’re saying, ‘We know the police have guns. But if one of us is killed by a police bullet, we shall be doing the same to the rest of the police.’”


This year’s election resulted in one death, a teenage boy shot dead by security forces, with more than 20 injuries and some 75 arrests. Police and military routinely deployed teargas, water-cannons and both live and rubber bullets on CUF demonstrators. Reporters saw police assaulting opposition protesters with rifle butts, staves and boots as they were dragged into security vehicles.


Immediately after the vote, more than 100 CUF supporters fled to Kenya aboard dhows, saying they were being harassed by security forces in the wake of the election.


“The situation back at home is not good,” said 28-year-old Ramla Saidi Mwasudi in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, where she fled from Pemba with her baby son. “There is tension, and people are being beaten up senselessly.”


In the short term, Amani Karume’s disputed win may not cause significant ripples within the international community, whose aid funds provide about 40 per cent of the revenues for Tanzania’s annual budget.


Western countries have so far sent out mixed messages about their view of the vote. While many diplomats spoke of blatant rigging, published reports from election monitors were more ambiguous.


The British Commonwealth observer group, for example, reported that its members were denied access to polling stations and other sites and that “large groups of male persons were going around voting everywhere”. Yet the conclusion was that “overall, this was a good election”.


This view was dismissed by Lord David Steel, the former leader of the British Liberal Party and a veteran observer of African elections. The Zanzibar vote, he said, was “the least transparent I have seen in 30 years of observing elections in Africa”.


According to Kaiza, the CUF is certain not to take its defeat lying down, and may now focus on accusing the election commission of bias towards the ruling party.


But the CUF faces an uphill battle, since some of its adversaries remain reluctant to accept even the principle of political pluralism. Lingering attitudes from the days of one-party rule were well illustrated by the remarks made by one CCM leader, who pointed to his party’s slogan of “mapunduzi daima” - “the revolution is permanent” in Swahili.


“That slogan will determine all the future elections in Zanzibar by hook or by crook,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you give the revolution to somebody else, you have betrayed the revolution.”


Fawzia Sheikh is a regular IWPR contributor.