By Costantine Sebastian
A number of experts in Mainland Tanzania have come out strongly in support of the lobby in the isles agitating for Zanzibar’s economic autonomy.
They say the move would greatly help to strengthen the union between the two parts of the United Republilc of Tanzania.
However, the ambition for economic independence has been criticised in some quarters, opponents saying those behind the project are shortsighted.
According to them, Zanzibar is by and large a mono-economy depending mainly on tourism which cannot do without the Union and Mainland Tanzania.
The critics also cite the size and population of the Spice islands as yet another of the many shortcomings for its economic independence in the near future.
But Uwazi at Twaweza East Africa research analyst Rose Aiko looks at it differently, saying Zanzibar is not the only small island (or potentially small island state) in the world.
There are many small islands that have probably smaller areas and populations, and face similar conditions as Zanzibar, which exist as sovereign states politically and are economically independent, she noted.
“I think the idea is not as farfetched as it might seem. But there is a certain fear of the unknown attached to it which, I think, is the problem,” she told The Citizen on Sunday in a recent interview, explaining:
“The only problem that I see about Zanzibar being independent economically is that there is a strong feeling when one hears statements like that promising them on one thing–Zanzibar’s inclination to break away from the Union.”
Zanzibar has a total of 1500 square kilometres, which include many surrounding islands. It is 85km long and 30km wide and has around 1.23 million people.
The executive director of the Center for Economic Prosperity, Mr Thomas Maqway, argues that many small island states seem to do pretty well. He explains that with its abudant tourist attractions, other natural resources and a strategic geographical position, there is no reason why Zanzibar should not be able to equally do well.
To him, the voice of an economically independent Zanzibar is an indication and a wake-up call that Zanzibaris have now started to get their heads out of the clouds.
Furthermore, noted another proponent of the move who spoke on condition of anonymity, the isles currently benefit very little officially from the Union coffers.
“They have realized that they too can make it, with or without Tanzania Mainland,” Mr Maqway noted in an exclusive interview.
The more prosperous Mauritius, which is also a small island in the Indian Ocean, is about three quarters of Zanzibar. Mr Maqway said it is 45km wide and 65km long but performs better in many economic and commercial varaibles than the whole of Tanzania.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index in the Middle East and Africa region, Mauritius ranks fourth while Tanzania ranks 19th. Likewise, in the global index, Mauritius ranks 40th while Tanzania ranks 98th.
Even without unique attractions like Mount Kilimanjaro, national parks, and historical sites like Oldvuai Gorge, Mauritius attracts 22 per cent more tourists than Tanzania (including Zanzibar). Latest avaialble figures of the Wortld Tourism Organisation show that Tanzania hosts 700,000 tourists to 900,000 arrivals a year for Mauritius.
The 2010 Doing Business report also tells a similar story. For ease of doing business, Mauritius ranks 17th globally while Tanzania is 131st.
“I am yet to know who argues for Zanzibar’s possibility to ‘stand on its own economically’ outside the Union. However, it depends on what one means by that. Whatever it means, the following have to taken into account: Zanzibar is a small island economy,” notes Dr Honest Ngowi of Mzumbe University Dar es Salaam Business School.
“Among other things, it is heavily dependent on the Mainland for its economic survival. It has substantial economic ties with the Mainland in terms of goods and services that are ‘imported’ by the island from the mainland.”
According to him, these include, but are not limited to, essential food items, electricity, manpower and many other essentail goods as well as basic services.
Before Zanzibar became part of the Union it had existed briefly as an independent state from the time it was granted independence by Britain in 1963. And history has it that for a long time, nearly 200 years, it had been an offshore territory of Oman.
After the political marriage with Tanganyika in 1964, some economic issues were treated as Union matters to be shared equally by the two sides. As time went on, however, sentiments of economic discontent have took root with an ncreasing number of Zanzibaris feeling that they are not adequately benefitting from the Union’s economic setup.
Recent voices of economic discontent have included people who want oil, gas and offshore fishery matters excluded from Union affairs. The clamour for economic autonomy has got a new push with the coming of a new administration that is based on the Government of National Unity.
According to the administrative manager of the Zanzibar Revenue Board, Mr Ahmed Haji Saadat, the only financing that the isles’ economy gets directly from the Union is the 4.5 per cent of the General Budget Support.
He said most of the current complaints about the Union related to economic issues because many Zanzibaris feel they are not benefitting enough from them.
“My answer to the question whether Zanzibar can go it alone economically is Yes! That is very possible provided their leaders shape a viable vision, communicate it to wananchi, and then invests heavily in human resources (education, health services and other social amenities),” noted financial analyst Fortius Rutabingwa.
Ms Aiko said neighboring Seychelles is another close example Zanzibar could be getting inspirations from for economic autonomy as well as Tonga further in the South.