This island is too small. It must even be smaller than Dar-es-Salaam. Those were my sentiments when I first visited Zanzibar in the early 1990s.

These sentiments were overheard by a Zanzibari at the dock. As they say, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. My sentiments were thus countered by his sentiments: “You can’t compare Zanzibar with Dar-es-Salaam! This is a country!” I felt scared. But that was all.

As a little boy little did I know then about the politics of identity. Yes, I had been taught about the history of Zanzibar at school. But it was the conventional history of Tanzania. Even when we read the plight of ‘Kuli’ in literature classes we read it with the lenses of Tanzanian nationalism.

What the Zanzibari said over a decade ago is starting to make sense. Not least because of Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda’s recent controversial remarks. By declaring that Zanzibar is not a sovereign country, Pinda has ignited a fiery debate that no one knows when and how it will end.

Thus the old quarrels over ‘the Zanzibar question’ have come to the fore again. The ‘Pemba question’ is also still floating around. As usual these questions are tied to the ‘Union question.’

In fact these questions are inextricably tied to many issues. Our constitutional lawyers and political analysts tend to classify these issues as union matters and non-union matters. But in reality they all have to do with the union between the ‘then’ Tanganyika and the ‘now’ Zanzibar.

Take for example, the issue of shares in the Bank of Tanzania (BoT). On 23 July 2008 the Zanzibar Revolutionary Government issued a press statement to counter the statement made by a deputy minister of the United Republic of Tanzania in the parliament. The latter was quoted as saying that the former does not have shares in BOT.

Both statements used the history of the formation of BoT to back their arguments. But which version of this history is correct? Or is it just a question of different interpretations of history?

What does the argument that Zanzibar contributed to BoT “for its status as part of the Tanzania Government but not as an individual government” (The Citizen 17/07/08) really mean? What about the assertion that since Zanzibar was a member of the then dissolved East African Currency Board (EACB) all “the dividends and accrued monetary payments which were to be paid to Zanzibar were remitted to the Treasury of the Union government (The Guardian 23/07/08)?

At the heart of these arguments is the question of national identity. The former argument is questioning the identity of Zanzibar as sovereign. No wonder the response to this argument is an assertion of the identity of Zanzibar as sovereign. To be or not to be national, that’s the question.

One of the leading constitutional lawyers, Prof. Issa G. Shivji, has boldly attempted to unpack this question of Zanzibar’s identity in relation to financial matters. In his recent book entitled ‘Pan-Africanism or Pragmatism?’ and subtitled ‘Lessons of the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union’, he shows how a hasty constitutional amendment robbed Zanzibar of its financial autonomy.

Shivji traces how a member EACB, “on loan from the Bank of England as a technical advisor”, was instrumental in sidelining Zanzibar in the Board. All this was done to counter the so-called separatist elements on the island. It should be noted that Zanzibar was still a member of the Board even after the Union. Why? Because the then Interim Constitution of Tanzania did not enlist matters related to currency as a union matter. Zanzibar had its own ‘sovereignty’ on that.

Ironically, the amendment that made currency, foreign exchange and exchange control a union matter was assented by then President of Zanzibar, Mzee Abeid Amani Karume, in the absence of Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere. He did so as the then Vice-President. But why was Nyerere, the then President, absent? It was probably to give the amendment more credibility to the Zanzibaris.

Curiously, this amendment was drafted by Nyerere’s legal craftsmen led by the expatriate legal officer who co-drafted the Articles of Union in great secrecy. More curiously, it came to force on the very same day it was gullibly assented. ‘Zanzibar nationalism’ suffered a financial blow.

This amendment marked the beginning of a quasi constitutional tradition of adding key autonomous issues into the list of union matters irrespective of that International Agreement between Tanganyika and Zanzibar known as the Articles of Union. The tradition constricts, if not undermines, the latter’s autonomy. At the end of the day what will be left of and for Zanzibar?

As Shivji notes, by the time Karume died in 1972 “the list of union matters had expanded from the original 11 to 16, including significantly, the sixteenth item which was, ‘mineral and oil resources including petroleum, its relative hydrocarbons and natural gas.’” In 1977 they became 17. Today they are 22 according to my copy of the latest version of the Constitution.

It is this tradition that elicits the ‘Zanzibar question’. Yes, it is this tradition that sparked Zanzibar’s Minister responsible Natural Resources and Energy to declare in the House of Representative that “any oil extracted in Zanzibar would not be shared with the mainland”(The Citizen 18/07/08). It is a tradition that, I suspect, irks even Zanzibaris in the union government.

No wonder our former Vice-President, the late Dr. Omari Ali Juma, penned the words quoted in the column’s title. He thus wrote in his foreword to Omar R. Mapuri’s book on ‘The 1964 Revolution: Achievements and Prospects’: “Zanzibar is more than just a country: it is a phenomenon which has puzzled big and powerful nations for centuries”.

In the final analysis we will only resolve this puzzle if we honestly rethink our identity as Africans, Tanzanians, Tanganyikans and Zanzibaris. This necessarily entails revisiting what Aboud Jumbe calls the ‘birth certificate’ of the union. Whither Tanzania’s birth certificate?

© Chambi Chachage

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