Zanzibar Trouble in paradise

Not as nice as it looks

 

Tanzania´s two component parts are not getting on well

THE young woman’s voice is flat, as she describes a group of masked men breaking down the door while she slept in March this year. She says she was then forced into a car, beaten and gang-raped. Afterwards a passer-by found her abandoned on the roadside, unable to walk unsupported. “It was so painful,” she says, staring into the middle distance. “When I remember it, it’s a trial.” The woman is one of dozens of people on the archipelago of Zanzibar who claim to have been attacked by plain-clothes militiamen, known as “zombies”, since March 2015. Their crime: supporting the main opposition party.

In the West, Zanzibar conjures up images of sugary white sands, warm breezes and turquoise waters. But Tanzania’s islands have a darker side. From the 18th century an Arab elite grew rich there trading ivory, spices and slaves. The mainly Muslim archipelago gained independence from Britain in December 1963, though only very briefly: the sultan was overthrown a month later and the island was merged with Tanganyika on the mainland in April 1964.

The country has been ruled since 1977 by the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the Party of Revolution, now the longest-surviving ruling party in Africa. But allegations of vote-rigging and demands for a change in Zanzibar’s relationship with the dominant mainland have followed every election since the advent of multi-party voting in 1995.

The most recent contest, in October 2015, was particularly outrageous. During the campaign, the CCM claimed the sultan might return from exile in the British town of Portsmouth if the opposition was victorious. The head of Tanzania’s electoral commission annulled the Zanzibari presidential vote, claiming irregularities, when it became clear the candidate of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) was likely to win. The CUF then boycotted the election re-run in March, handing victory to the incumbent, Ali Mohamed Shein.

Tanzania has been lauded for its stability since independence. But this is partly because the CCM’s hold on the mainland has been relatively unchallenged, at least until now. Its response to the political challenge on Zanzibar, however, is typical of ruling parties in the region: tilt the playing field and allow extra-legal violence during election campaigns; then rig the vote and keep a lid on the ensuing discontent.

After the re-run election in March the “zombie” attacks died down. But in the past couple of weeks the militia has again been harassing people and burning down houses in Zanzibar town, says Ismail Jussa Ladhu, a CUF politician. Meanwhile in the past few months dozens of opposition party officials and supporters in the northern island of Pemba have been arrested.

The CUF claims to want only to return to the government of national unity that allowed it to rule Zanzibar with the CCM between 2010 and 2015. That would be sensible given the islands’ political divide: the CUF’s claimed victory in last October’s annulled election, with 52% of the vote, was a narrow one. But it has not mounted any real protest, despite having initially said it would lead a campaign of civil disobedience. America did suspend $472m of aid to Tanzania over the election re-run, deeming it “neither inclusive nor representative”. But the government shrugged off the rebuke, and the opposition’s plea for more international help went unanswered. “Zanzibar doesn’t feature highly on the agenda of the international community, particularly because there hasn’t been widespread violence,” says Adjoa Anyimadu of Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.

Zanzibar has most of the ingredients for unrest: a population of mostly young, often unemployed Muslims that “view the mainland as a colonial master”, as a local journalist puts it, and could be tempted by Islamist extremism. Elsewhere that has been a recipe for disaster. But with the instruments of state power at its command, the CCM, like so many other ruling parties on the continent, is for now successfully tightening its grip over a divided society.