Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The population of Zanzibar, totalling just over 1.3 million, mostly consists of Africans and people of mixed African-Persian ancestry — the Shirazi and Arabs. At independence, Arabs constituted less than 20 per cent of Zanzibar’s population but were economically and politically dominant. Much of the Arab population left in 1964. Nearly all Zanzibaris are Muslim.
Islam in Zanzibar is nearly universal, whereas on the mainland only around a third of the population is Muslim. In recent years, the ruling party has moved to establish controls over Islamic institutions.
The islands of Zanzibar, Unguja and Pemba, were initially inhabited by African peoples from the mainland, joined later by Arabs and Persians, many of the latter from Shiraz, who engaged in the trade of slaves, ivory and spices. Portuguese explorers arrived at the end of the 15th century, and Portugal maintained control for nearly 200 years. In 1698 the islands fell to the Sultanate of Oman, whose reach extended along the mainland coast of East Africa. During 130 years of Omani control and subsequent rule by one line of the Sultanate, Zanzibar’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the Arab community. While there was little mixing among Arabs and Africans, inter-marriage between Africans and Persians was more common. People of African and mixed ethnicity became known as Shirazis.
Despite formal slaving restrictions agreed in 1822, by the middle of the 19th century, Zanzibar remained at the centre of the active slave trade in East Africa, and the spice trade was booming. Africans were not only sent into slavery through Zanzibar’s ports but used as slave labour on spice plantations. Under threat of British military intervention, the Sultan of Zanzibar signed a decree in 1878 that finally closed Zanzibar’s slave markets, although the practice continued surreptitiously for decades. By agreement with Britain, Germany took control of Tanganyika in 1886, leaving Zanzibar temporarily independent. A British protectorate on the islands was augmented at the end of World War I by colonial rule over Tanganyika. In Zanzibar, Britain tolerated broad autonomous rule by the Sultan but finally ended the slave trade. African labourers on Zanzibar’s spice plantations noticed little change, as they continued to toil for meagre pay.
Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963 as a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan, but the largest party, the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) with broad support among the majority Shirazi community, was locked out of government in favour of two smaller parties aligned with the Arab elite and British interests. Just one month after independence, the ASP led a popular revolt that ousted the Sultan and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Arabs and the departure of many more. New ASP Prime Minister Abeid Karume quickly agreed with Tanganyika’s President Julius Nyerere on a unification of the two countries, to form Tanzania.
With its unique history, Zanzibar has often chafed at the Tanzanian union. Although ethnic and political divides have not always been congruous, Arabs have been usually more fervent in their secessionist desire than have been Shirazi, who tend to favour enhanced autonomy. As federated entities, the Zanzibar islands have enjoyed some measure of self-rule, but under Tanzanian law, it is illegal for political parties to oppose the national union. The main Tanzanian opposition party, the Civic United Front (CUF), has its political base in Zanzibar among Arabs and advocates of greater self-rule.
Following a deeply flawed election in 1995, CUF supporters were harassed, arrested, and tortured by authorities. When 2000 elections boycotted by the CUF, were again deeply flawed, the party’s supporters took to the streets. The Tanzanian military and police launched a vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters in January 2001, which resulted in the killing of at least 35 people and the wounding of a further 600.
Zanzibar has a long history of contentious elections, with ethnic divisions continually playing a significant role. In October 2005, the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party won elections in Zanzibar amid complaints from some observers about mainlanders being included in Zanzibari voter lists, multiple voting, and various other democratic shortcomings. The two islands showed deep political division, with Unguja giving all but one of its parliamentary seats to the CCM, while Pemba delivered all of its parliamentary seats and every local council seat to the opposition CUF. Despite widespread fears of violence and a CCM victory in national mainland elections two months later, there was no repeat of the unrest in 2001, perhaps in part due to the heavy police presence deployed from the mainland during the elections. CUF leaders refused to recognize the new Zanzibar president but called on their followers to remain calm. Zanzibar’s CCM government has kept in place a ban on private media on the islands. Upon taking office in 2005, then President Jakaya Kikwete announced that he was deeply concerned about the divisions between the two islands. He promised to engage in a dialogue to bridge political differences.
However, while Zanzibar’s divisions have not only been between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania but also between the islands of Unguja and Pemba, dominated respectively by the CCM and the CUF, a 2010 referendum in Zanzibar saw the majority of Zanzibaris vote for the establishment of a Government of National Unity after the elections that year. Despite this promising sign of progress, the 2015 elections were again extremely fraught. An apparent CUF victory was annulled three days after the vote, with the CCM-aligned electoral commission claiming massive voter fraud and intimidation, despite the fact that there was no evidence to support such claims. The annulment led to violence across the islands. The election was rerun in early 2016, despite a boycott by the opposition CUF, and the ruling CCM party was declared the winner with 91 per cent of the vote.
Zanzibar continues to be politically estranged from mainland Tanzania, particularly following the blocking by the country’s Constitutional Assembly of a proposed fully federal system that would have seen the creation of three separate federal governments for mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar and the United Republic of Tanzania as a whole. These tensions have been deepened by the discovery of possible oil and gas reserves offshore, with divisions already emerging over how any potential revenue would be distributed.
Furthermore, Zanzibar has seen a rise in Islamic extremism in the past two decades, driven in part by the disenchantment of many Zanzibari youth and their feelings of resentment towards a central government they believe discriminates against them. Reports of attacks against non-Muslim residents, including acid attacks on tourists and shootings of Catholic priests in 2012 and 2013, have been linked to the growing presence of militants in Zanzibar.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in