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Zanzibar and the Mainland: The Shaky State of the Union

Amidst high unemployment and inequality, grievances on the island of Zanzibar are growing, often targeted at mainland Tanzania.
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A women in Zanzibar looks out across the sea. Photograph by Giandomenico Pozzi.

Zanzibar, Tanzania:

With the 50th anniversary of the union between mainland Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar on the horizon in 2014, a bewildering number of political problems and sensitivities remain unresolved.

The current 'state of the union' debate sees three ideas being posited, all of which involve a degree of autonomy for Zanzibar but with oversight administered by mainland Tanzania. However, despite one recent attempt to discuss the issue openly and amicably in the ‘public sphere’ (an expensive hotel in Dar Es Salaam), worrying patterns of resentment and tension are emerging.

Mainlanders on the island

Anecdotally, many allege that there is a hostile climate developing against those from the mainland on the island.

Emil*, a senior security manager and member of the Masaii people from mainland Tanzania, has lived and worked in a resort on the island since 2001.

“It’s getting extremely tense”, he tells Think Africa Press. “I can say they hate us. We don’t get served in cafes. If Masaii try and set up stalls to sell tourist curios in Nungwi they get chased out and the landowners who rent us the shop get fined.” He continues: “It is very difficult at the moment. Zanzibaris are sick of all outsiders – such as Tanzanians from the mainland and Kenyans who get good jobs in the hotels”.

Locals complain that there is an unequal distribution of wealth. They are still not enjoying the benefits of new, lucrative hotels and they suffer through insufficient sewage systems, water and work, whilst tourists and hoteliers reap the benefits of Zanzibar’s natural beauty. For locals, civil society remains weak and unemployment is 85% amongst the youth, according to George Mkwaya, leader of the Zanzibar Federation of Youths (ZIFYA) and Dadi Kombo Maalim, chairperson of Zanzibar's youth forum. Drug problems such as heroin addiction has been rising slowly since the 1980s and is now a visible problem. 

Understanding Uamsho

Divisions between islanders and mainlanders, however, have recently been overshadowed by religiously-motivated violence. The Catholic church of St Georges in the centre of Stone Town was attacked last year and a number of bars were burnt to the ground. Six months ago, two church buildings belonging to the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church were burnt down; this June, police clashed with members of the religious movement Uamsho (Swahili for ‘Awakening’) and a police officer was allegedly hacked to death; in August, seven Imams including Uamsho leader Farid Hadi Ahmed were arrested; and in early November an Imam had acid thrown in his face.

Uamsho, a religious movement which has existed in Zanzibar for over 50 years, is being blamed for much of the violence.

But while it may be tempting to see this small, Islamic group as being in the mould of al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda, its operations mark it out as more of a pro-Zanzibari political and social movement, and its nationalistic stance and opposition to the mainland has earned it popular support.

"Uamsho says that in the name of the union many corrupt things have been brought from the mainland," says Zanzibar resident Maalim, who like many others, agrees that corruption, prostitution, drugs theft and alcohol have been brought by outsiders. “It has left many Zanzibaris feeling that Uamsho speaks for them.”

Uamsho’s popular legitimacy has gained a boost recently, following the establishment of the Government of National Unity in October 2011, a coalition between the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and Civic United Front (CUF) parties. Since the traditionally more pro-sharia CUF joined the ruling CCM, Uamsho appears to have filled a political vacuum. 

Aly Saleh, a Zanzibari former journalist and now member of the constitutional commission on the Union says: “Uamsho are not al-Shabaab and they are not armed at all. They are nationalist...perhaps we can say ultra-nationalist.”

Economy before religion

At the centre of this debate lies the issue of capital and resources. Rashida*, a 25-year-old teacher, explains: “this is not an Islamic-Catholic fight. These are not fundamentalist sharia Muslims. Uamsho is trying to address the problems of the island and I support them. We want a return to more Zanzibari ways, and to make jobs for our people. We have spices, cloves, tourism – so why are we so poor?”

Echoing similar ideas, a senior manager for a Zanzibar-based international NGO, who preferred anonymity, comments: “Zanzibaris want their own bank. They want to be able to spend the revenues they earn from hotels and tourism without being told what to do by the Tanzanian mainland…It’s also more complicated because the police can be very heavy-handed here, and there’s no real tradition of peaceful protest and demonstration.”

Like other Islamic revivalists, it therefore makes sense for Uamsho, in the words of academic Simon Turner, “to coin their critique of the state in terms of human rights and good governance and provide an alternative modernity that at once challenges and articulates with secular, liberal forms of modernity”.

Maintaining unity

Zanzibar faces numerous internal divisions and arguably a crisis of identity. There are difficult silences around Zanzibar’s bloody past and involvement in slavery, neither of which are taught in schools or discussed, leaving these issues unaddressed in the national psyche. There is also little debate around continuing inequality with the mainland and the island’s diverse ethnic mix which includes Omanis, Indians, Persians, Africans and expat European settlers. As Oomi, a university undergraduate and a Madrassa teacher, comments, “We are not encouraged to question our past, to question Islam, or ask too many questions”.

“But that is correct, that is how it should be”, Oomi adds, a sentiment echoed by Professor Sharif, an eminent Zanzibar historian who says, “It doesn’t help to reopen these wounds and these enmities. These are our families – we have to live together side by side, we succeed on the whole. It would be bloodshed to revisit these issues, and serve no good purpose at all.”

Whether this is the right strategy or not, secessionist movements tend to share similarities: rousing battle cries over national identity and a proliferation of resentment over issues from access to resources, unemployment and capital flight to political control to health and education facilities.

The recent hostility in Zanzibar has been brewing for a long time and mistrust of the mainland needs to be tackled if the violence is to be stemmed. As Damien Bell, a Tanzanian consultant working in sustainable tourism, says, “It is now important to cast aside personalities, and really look at how to alleviate the population out of poverty, make the tourist business and hoteliers more accountable to Zanzibar communities, spread the spoils, and consider the environment and politics holistically”.

*Names have been changed upon interviewees’ requests

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