The referendum for Zanzibar

Scotland's independence fight as inspiration to Africans like Zanzibaris, who want to break from Tanzania.

Image by Mark Robinson, via Flickr CC.

The question Scots will be asked when they go to the polls on September 18th, are: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The outcome of the vote will have a significant impact on the future of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. More interestingly, this referendum is being closely watched in a seemingly unlikely corner of the world: the Zanzibar archipelagos in East Africa.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. The islands are famous as a tourist destination, boasting beautiful white sandy beaches and narrow streets of Stone Town. Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, began and ended many of his journeys in Zanzibar. For hundreds of years, the islands have served as the center of Kiswahili culture and remain proud of their past glory as the epicenter of trade and wealth in East and Central Africa, with links to the Middle East and Asia that go as far back as 7th century.

More recently, the islands have been a hotbed of political tension with roots emerging from 1950s rivalries between nationalist movements, mainly Africans and Arabs, during the struggle for independence from Britain. The rivalry led to a violent revolution in January 1964 carried out by Africans against Arabs, killing many and forcing others to flee the islands. Few months later in April 1964, the islands formed a union with the then Republic of Tanganyika to form one sovereign United Republic of Tanzania. Under the arrangement, Zanzibar was allowed to retain a small degree of autonomy under its own island government dealing with local affairs, while major issues such as foreign affairs, defense, immigration and currency were placed under the Union government. This “two tier” union structure was conceived in order to ensure that Zanzibar won’t get “swallowed” by its much larger partner, and so Tanganyika (nowadays referred to as Mainland Tanzania) won’t bare the substantial burden of running both the Tanganyika government and the Union government.

Historical specificities aside, the structure of the Union of Tanzania is quite similar to that of the United Kingdom. England’s government ceased to exist in 1707 when it merged with Scotland to form the UK; much the same way Tanganyika ceased to exist after the Union with Zanzibar to form Tanzania. England does not have its own government, with her affairs being managed within the UK’s central government; much the same way Mainland Tanzania’s local affairs are managed within the Union government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved powers from the central government the same way Zanzibar does. Whether or not Julius Nyerere, co-founder of the Union of Tanzania (who incidentally studied British History and Constitutional Law at University of Edinburgh), was inspired by the structure of union he saw in Scotland and decided to adopt it back home, is debatable.

While the UK was born out of conquests and suppression of Scottish language, religion and culture for many years, Tanzania was born out of Pan-African ideas and the African independence movement. The calculated need for self-preservation within the unstable new regime in Zanzibar after the revolution also played a role in bringing about, and later on, preserving the Union. Global geopolitical concerns which were heightened by the Cold War simultaneously accelerated the formation of the Union. There is also strong suggestions of the CIA nudging the formation of the Union to prevent Zanzibar from becoming a communist heaven.

Despite tensions and discontents from both sides, the Union has survived for 50 years, with the Mainland providing much needed stability to the islands. Constant demands for larger autonomy for Zanzibar, and periodic calls for full secession from the Union, have come up throughout the life of the union. Today, many political observers admit to a resurgent and united “Zanzibari Nationalism” that has united elements of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi  (CCM) in Zanzibar with the opposition Civic Union Front party.

In the same way there is an undercurrent of resentment by the Scottish towards the English and vice versa, there is similar degree of resentment, although not deep seated, between Zanzibaris and Mainlanders. For the most part, people from both sides of Tanzania do intermarry, do resettle and trade among each other as they have done for generations without any problems.

Zanzibari nationalists lament the gradual increase by the union government of the so-called “Union Matters” from the initial 11 to the current 22 issues, which further erodes the little sovereignty they had. They want the Union government to remove the “Tanganyika jacket” by creating a separate entity to run Mainland affairs. On the other hand, there have been persistent demands by some mainlanders for the restoration of Tanganyika government because they feel they have been carrying most of the weight in servicing the Union compared to Zanzibaris.

The referendum in Scotland is a significant event for states that want to secede.  There is a sense that an independent Scotland could indeed set a precedent or provide inspiration for entities like Zanzibar. According to a Tanzanian diplomat in London, “both sides of the divide in Zanzibar are following the debate in Scotland and are awaiting the outcome of the referendum with apprehension.” Each side will be able to use the arguments and outcome to advance or vindicate their position. While there are no known formal links between the two “separatist” movements, Rachel Hamada, a non-partisan journalist who has spent the last decade between Scotland and Zanzibar, says she is aware of many Zanzibaris who support secession “who have been observing events in Scotland with great interest. If Scotland does go its own way, undoubtedly pro-separation campaigners from Zanzibar will want to investigate the path to such a vote.”

Tanzania’s ruling CCM have resisted calls for a special referendum on the structure of the union. There’s also the question of who deserves to be asked to vote in such a referendum: Zanzibaris only (population of 1.3 million), mainlanders only (population of 43 million) or both? 3 years ago they agreed to rewrite the entire Union Constitution that will be followed by a referendum to adopt it. The commission that drafted the new constitution presented a “three-tier” structure, which CCM as a majority block in the Constituent Assembly objected to. This led to a walkout this past April by the opposition. Last week, the constitutional process officially stalled, and efforts are currently underway to find ways to resume it after next year’s general elections. The plan was hinted earlier in July by Mr. January Makamba, a pro-Union and reformist politician from CCM, when he said, “If there is a need to postpone the current constitutional process, let us do it so that we get a better constitution which has the consensus from all sides. Since the structure of the union is a highly contentious issue, it should be sent back to the people to decide via a referendum before the constitutional process resumes after the 2015 general election.”

Supporters of three-tier government structure in Tanzania argue the ruling party CCM is using fear-mongering to claim that the three-tier structure as proposed in the draft constitution will lead to the break-up of the Union. CCM believes the proposed structure would leave the Union government weak and dependent because it will be stripped-off its economic power base. They are in favor of more devolution of powers within the current two-tier structure, but they are yet to present specific proposals. Similar accusations of fear-mongering has been leveled towards the “No” campaign in Scotland (known as “Better Together”), with observation that their public messaging on behalf of the UK has been poor, lacking best content creativity and social media savviness needed to convince the public. The same can be said with pro-union Tanzanians, who for many years have been slow to react to the arguments presented by Zanzibaris, to the extent the latter have been able to create a dominant narrative.

Generally, pro-union factions in both Scotland and Zanzibar have been portrayed by their local opponents as “stubborn conservatives” who are unwilling to change and insist on unworkable structures that won’t preserve the unions for long-term. There is a strong feeling in Zanzibar that pro-union supporters are mostly political elites in the current Union government and ruling party CCM. According to Evarist Chahali, a Tanzanian journalist and columnist living in Glasgow, a similar perception has frequently been heard among the pro-Scotland independence supporters that, “the whole ‘Better Together’ thing is about preserving the status quo for some Scottish politicians at Westminster.” The feeling in both “separatist” movements is that despite a good degree of political devolution and autonomy, they are each subjected to a union ruling class which doesn’t understand or care about their local issues. This partly explains why the rest of UK is run by parties that have been rejected in Scotland. Conversely, the opposition CUF is stronger in Zanzibar compared to mainland Tanzania where its support declined in the last elections.

Interestingly, Scotland is said to be home to a substantial number of Zanzibaris who went there to seek asylum after the 2001 post-election violence at home. These foreign born asylum seekers and refugees from Commonwealth countries like Tanzania are eligible to vote in the referendum, and will form one of the strongest polling block for the “Yes Scotland” independence camp. These exiled Zanzibaris are known to be opposition supporters and generally are against the Union. However, it remains to be seen whether their role in helping Scotland secure its independence could translate into encouraging the same to happen in their homeland.

Despite the recent drop in numbers of undecided voters, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of the Scottish referendum. For a while, most polls suggested that the “Better Together” camp would prevail, but recent the polls have been tightening, meaning the outcome could go either way. If the results are for “Yes Scotland”, there will be a long period of negotiation on the terms of separation, involving issues such as the division of the national debt, the division of oil revenue, Scotland’s membership of the EU, her retention of the Queen as head of state and continual usage of the Pound Sterling, as well as terms of any future bailouts from UK. All will be hard fought, as journalist Rachel Hamada adds: “Even with devolution in the late nineties, which had widespread political support, the negotiations were fierce, so we can expect they would be ferocious this time round”. The divorce will be long and bitter, and Tanzanians should expect the same should a similar situation happen to them. Analysts agree that if “No” vote wins, it will be because the “Yes” vote for independence did not make a compelling and reassuring case to provide a knockout punch to convince the Scottish that they will be better off independent. Either way, most observers agree that the result will be close and thus there will be consequence. UK will have to consider measures to give Scotland greater powers. The Union could prevail due to the simple fact that it is the devil the Scottish people know.

The whole of UK is an island with Scotland as part of it, while Zanzibar is an island disconnected from her partner in the mainland. Yet, an important common denominator between Scotland and Zanzibar is oil resources. Although Scotland has a finite supply of oil in the North Sea, the “Yes Scotland” campaign has based much of their argument on the ability of this resource to sustain and propel an independent Scotland. Zanzibar is yet to discover oil near its Indian Ocean waters, but has campaigned hard to remove oil and gas from Union Matters so that they can manage the resource locally. The Union government quietly agreed, and last year Zanzibar signed an agreement with Shell to do exploration in their waters. “There is a perception that potential for oil in the islands boosted the desire for the Zanzibaris to go solo,” observes Chahali. Many opposition supporters in Zanzibar believe that oil will transform the islands to their past glory, and they add this argument alongside the restoration of national pride and the need for greater links with the Islamic world as key arguments for full autonomy.

Perhaps the main lesson to Tanzania has been how ‘civilized’ the Scottish referendum process has been so far. While emotions on both sides have been running high, there have been very few incidences of violence or threats to derail the process. Once UK government approved the referendum, it made it clear that they would honor whatever outcome from the vote. Party politics have been kept at bay, with “Better Together” campaign being led by Alistair Darling, a Labour politician who is campaigning on behalf of the UK government led by the Conservative Party. On the other hand, the “Yes Scotland” camp led by First Minister Alex Salmond has tried to make the issue of independence that of the Scottish people rather than his Scottish Nationalist Party.

Many agree that the way forward for Tanzania is for more devolution or greater identity and autonomy for Zanzibar, with Union retaining big issues such as defense and economy. The Union President Jakaya Kikwete admits to long-running political “fault lines” in Zanzibar which necessitated a power sharing agreement in 2010 between the two major parties in the isles. But Kikwete recently played down any notion of a strong “separatist movement” in Zanzibar, saying it wasn’t a big issue that needed to be blown out of proportion. He believes it can be contained: “We will always be able to manage them and I don’t think they will be able to wreck the country,” he assured. However, many observers believe it was partly due to such fears of secession that compelled the President to see the wisdom of initiating a rewrite of the Union Constitution in order to preempt violent demands for more autonomy in Zanzibar and to guarantee survival of the Union “for the next 50 years”. Tanzania and the Cameroon, remain the two longest surviving and most successful unions in modern day Africa after the collapse of Ghana-Guinea Union, the Senegambia and United Arab Republic (UAR). No other examples remain of independent Africa countries that decided on own volition to unite.

Further Reading