Zanzibar in trouble?

I took the family for a holiday on the paradise island Zanzibar. White sand, turquoise water and colorful marine life. Easy living. The last two days we left our resort and toured the island. It was a week after the Tanzanian and Zanzibari elections. Mindful that elections can be rough, and with previous research experiences of elections in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, I kept an ear to the ground, talked to Zanzibaris and consulted some experts on Zanzibari politics. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) had on Wednesday annulled results of the presidential election for semi-independent Zanzibar, but affirmed the result for the larger Tanzanian election. The ZEC proposed a re-election within 90 days on Zanzibar due to voting irregularities in some districts, particularly on Pemba. It was suggested that the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) had stuffed ballot boxes particularly in regions they controlled. From a CUF perspective the election commission was not considered an independent body but part of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) machinery and the announcement of annulling the election was simple seen as CCM thieving their victory. Most Zanzibaris I talked to believed so too. Surprisingly few had good things to say about CCM – but then again I was on holiday and did not talk to that many.

CCM party office in rural Zanzibar

CCM party office in rural Zanzibar

On Friday we drove around the north of the island and, except for posters and flags in smaller towns, politics appeared rather apart and we could not detect any tension. Yet I seem to have this predisposition for commotion. Things blow up when I get close. As we in the late afternoon entered Stona Town and drove through Darajani market the surroundings were surprisingly eerie. Stalls and shops were closed and at the far end a crowd blocked the road. We tried unsuccessfully to navigate around the crowd through a side alley, but had to turn around. Then a bomb detonated nearby sending people helter-skelter, but they did in no way panic and some where even smiling. Later at the hotel we learned that it was a controlled detonation carried out by the police. It was suggested that the police had detected a bomb (or something bomb-like) and blew it up as a precaution, yet some experts I have talked to proposed that it could as well have been a decoy to be able to round up people in the opposition party as ‘suspects’. On Saturday two more bombs exploded but this time less central, and again observing people around us we could, somewhat surprised, see how they barely took notice of the distant blasts.

CUF posters in Stone Town

CUF posters in Stone Town

Zanzibar experienced really hard elections in 2000 and 2005 with violent clashes, rough arrests of opposition, leaving thousands of people dead. It is interesting that Zanzibar on the surface appear so calm. Young people are not rooming the streets dressed in party t-shirts as the West African elections I experienced. Poor city-dwellers are not looking for opportunities to loot stores and target the affluent. Crowds are this far not tense, but they may soon be. On Friday CUF issued a three day ultimatum demanding that vote counting must be continued. If this is not adhered to by today it may well be the starting point for new demonstrations and ultimately clashes. Most likely this threat is CUF leader Seif Sharrif Hamad’s way of bargaining a better political position, but such threats can easily backfire. One should furthermore remember that Hamad and CUF have been part of the Government of National Unity formed after the last election in 2010 under current President Ali Mohamed Shein of CCM. As most prominent CUF politicians Hamad also has a background in CCM – having held ministerial positions in the past. The fact that he is part of the same political elite may eventually have a soothing effect on the current conflict, but on the other hand, supporters in both camps may view it differently. As a Stone town resident said: the politicians are from the same generation, have all ruled almost since independence, but they are no longer connected to the masses. The youth of Zanzibar have completely different life experiences and needs. In the end they will see the change.

I am in no way an expert of Zanzibari politics. However I will watch the events unfolding with great interest and keep fingers crossed that things will not get out of hand. Zanzibari politics are indeed fragile as history has shown. In the mean time I recommend you reading two quite contrasting articles which both have a historic take on the current crisis:

In Zanzibar, democracy, peace and unity are at stake after annulled elections (Washington Post)

The problem of Zanzibar cannot be addressed without understanding the Revolution (The East African)

and another interesting background text:

Electoral shenanigans in Zanzibar: a sign of CCM desperation? (ARI)


  1. One should furthermore remember that Hamad and CUF have been part of the Government of National Unity formed after the last election in 2010 under President John Magufuli of CCM?????

  2. Grete Benjaminsen

    November 6, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Nice to see other people interested in Zanzibar politics! I am tempted to come with a few comments and recommendations.
    Of the three articles you link to, the one by Keith Weghorst is by far the most insightful. I also recommend having a look at Fatma Karume’s response to Ali Mufuruki’s article – where she presents her view on why Mufuruki’s article represents little but nonsense:

    F. Karume is a bit tougher with the Omani Arabs than what I think the average Zanzibari would be. This however is not surprising with her background as granddaughter of the first president after the revolution, Abeid Karume (and daughter of the CCM president 2000-2010, Amani Karume – interestingly she is not afraid to criticize her father’s party though).
    There is also a small – though quite substantial – mistake in your article: Although the numbers of people who died during the elections of 2000 and 2005 were considerable, the right numbers were estimated to 34 in 2000 (or rather in 2001 in relation to post-election demonstrations) and 1 in 2005. All casualties happened on Pemba, I understand you visited Unguja. Have a look at HRW’s report for details:

    I am in Zanzibar for the moment, and am happy to report that the situation still is calm. Despite few developments in the ‘negotiations’ between CUF and CCM, the fact that there is contact at all (and that UN, embassies also are involved) is somehow seen as promising. You ask a pertinent question in your article: Why do people remain calm? Hamad’s statement to the public on Monday might give an indication of why, I think. He said: «We want to show the world that what we are demanding for is for the benefit of the people and that democracy can be sought without shedding blood, but through peaceful means.» So far people seem to listen, which again – I believe – tells us something about Hamad’ standing among his supporters (another topic you touch upon in your article).

    Let’s hope with Hamad for a peaceful and just solution to this crisis!

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