The impasse in Zanzibar

After a tough election in Tanzania, won by the ruling party, a constitutional crisis looms in Zanzibar.

Posters supporting Maalim Seiff in Stone Town, Dar es Salaam. By Imke.sta. Via Flickr CC.

In April 1964, following a racially charged revolution in Zanzibar, its new leaders negotiated a union between the Zanzibari islands, with their 300,000 people, and the country of Tanganyika on the mainland with its 10 million people. The bond was bound to be unbalanced, Zanzibar would remain with its own government, president and vice president, and revolutionary council, while simultaneously being subsumed under the government of a new “united republic,” with its own president and parliament, to be known as Tanzania. Tanganyika no longer had its own government. The Zanzibari president became the First Vice President of Tanzania, while the Tanzanian president’s running mate became its Second Vice President.

The union’s lopsided ambiguity makes it hard to shake, but is also the source of its frustration. Zanzibaris never quite came to a consensus about what their constitutional relationship to the mainland should be, and the opposition makes the appealing case that it should have more autonomy. Many on the mainland agree: why not have a “three-government” system, with both Zanzibar and the mainland operating autonomous governmental structures under an umbrella government overseeing both?

This question was the central ideological issue at stake in the recent Tanzanian presidential elections. The opposition to the ruling CCM party was a coalition of parties allied by their fight against CCM attempts to railroad a constitutional reform process towards their interests.

The elections of October 25, 2015 were the most hotly contested in Tanzania’s independent history. Although the main opposition candidate disputes the results, officially the CCM candidate won by nearly 3 million votes. Despite ongoing litigation in various constituencies, it was a very well run election with indisputably strong showings for both candidates. The CCM candidate was sworn in with great ceremony, and ceremonies mean a lot in this country. The national president is here to stay.

In Zanzibar, however, things got complicated. The candidate for CUF, a member of the opposition coalition, was Seif Sharif Hamad. “Maalim” Seif, as he is known, has run for Zanzibari president in every election since 1995. He has lost every time in elections widely panned as rigged in CCM’s favor. Many Zanzibaris have become intensely frustration with CCM domination and its racially charged propaganda. Throughout this period, Maalim Seif has struggled patiently against hope that one day there would be a clean and uncontroversial election in Zanzibar. He has repeatedly sought legal and electoral recourse, and has never advocated violence or rebellion… at least until last week.

Two weeks ago Monday, the day after the election, Seif called a press conference to announce that according to reported polling results, the trend looked as if he would be the winner by a thin margin. Further reported polling results over the next few days showed a strong, if dubious, CCM showing. The Zanzibari Electoral Commission (ZEC) was to announce a winner at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. No announcement came until that afternoon when the chair of the ZEC nullified the entire Zanzibar election. Dozens of legal and procedural questions arose, creating a constitutional crisis.

The ZEC chair cited irregularities and conflict within the ZEC, and claimed that more people voted in CUF strongholds than had been registered. Conceivably, he acted to prevent a CCM victory that would have been almost universally seen as fraudulent. But most Tanzanians assumed that he had acted to obscure the fact that CCM was trying to steal the election. Maalim Seif, opposition leaders, and major embassies all denounced the nullification, while two members of the ZEC said they had not been consulted and they disagreed with the decision. With the current Zanzibari president’s term officially ending, there was the possibility that the islands would be without a legally constituted government as of Monday, November 1.

Frustrated with the silence from the mainland government, who were busy celebrating their victory, Maalim Seif called another press conference the following Friday evening. Pleading for CCM to sit down and talk, but unwilling to sit by passively while the electoral process was so blatantly ignored, Seif said that if positive steps towards a solution were not taken on Monday, then he would no longer restrain his followers from going to the streets to “pursue their rights.” It was an ultimatum.

It seems to have worked, because the current CCM government sent its top military commander to meet with the Zanzibari contestants, and then the outgoing CCM president sat down for a conversation with Maalim Seif. These were positive steps, and between Seif’s calls for restraint and a large military police presence, Zanzibar has remained calm throughout the crisis.

While CCM still retains a lot of goodwill among rural and older voters in the mainland, many Tanzanians thirst for an opposition victory that would be a rebuke against corrupt governance and a sign that Tanzania’s democracy has truly come of age. With the new CCM president firmly in place, an opposition presidency in Zanzibar would not be a threat to its political dominance. CCM is unlikely to find a better negotiating partner in Zanzibar than Maalim Seif. He is a moderate who has consistently chosen compromise over confrontation. Whoever rises to the top of Zanzibari politics in his wake is unlikely to wield the same influence or the same willingness to forgo conflict for the wellbeing of theZanzibari people.

CCM ostensibly opposes his candidacy because they fear that he would try to break up the union, even though CUF has never advocated Zanzibari independence. Seif would certainly bring pressure to revise the current structure, but that pressure is now coming from every direction and needs to be addressed regardless. More deeply, some in CCM might worry that without the united front of CCM government, extremist groups might take root in Zanzibar. But on this score, it is clear that CCM’s intransigence is only seeding the atmosphere with resentment that is already fueling more radical rhetoric: this week, Zanzibar’s first IEDs exploded (without injuries) in its historic Stone Town. Maalim Seif is probably the best placed politician in the country to lead the most frustrated elements of Zanzibari politics back towards the compromise and power-sharing necessary for democratic governance. If Maalim Seif legitimately won the election, CCM would be wise to let him represent the will of his electoral majority and begin to talk about how best to restructure the union to face future challenges.

The current Zanzibari president’s term has been temporarily extended, Maalim Seif is putting together a cabinet, and it remains to be seen whether this week’s discussions will resolve the impasse.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.