For over 20 years, Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has attempted to maintain control of the islands of Zanzibar by linking local oppositional activity to the idea of “Islamic fundamentalism” and even ‘terrorism”.

While maintaining a strong authority over the mainland, CCM has faced a more tumultuous relationship with Zanzibar, especially amidst opposition parties’ intensifying demands for greater autonomy. And now, with the 31 October national elections fast approaching – polls which look set to be the closest in the country’s history – CCM is pushing a fear-mongering line even harder as it attempts to dismiss legitimate opposition to the status quo as “Islamist”.

For instance, in a 10 September editorial in The Hill boldly entitled ‘Tanzania Cannot Be Allowed to Be the New Front For Terrorists’, CCM Secretary-General Abdulrahman Kinana makes the sensationalist claim that unless his party retains power in the upcoming elections, Zanzibar will fall to terrorists, with the mainland following suit.  “If [opposition candidate] Lowassa and his opposition supporters win,” he writes, “then the country stands to become a new front for terrorists”.

“A political stunt”

Since the 2010 implementation in Zanzibar of the Government of National Unity, support for CCM has been dwindling, not only on the islands but around Tanzania. For the first time since the inception of multi-partyism, Tanzania may be on the eve of transformative change on a national scale.

On both the islands and mainland, a united coalition of opposition parties presents an increasingly viable alternative to the old system. Leaders of the opposition alliance Ukawa are taking steps to mend relations between Christians and Muslims, and long-faithful CCM members are increasingly abandoning the party. CCM is responding by using the threat of a supposed “Islamic terrorist” contagion originating in Zanzibar to counter demands for democracy on the mainland as well.

In 2013, a grenade attack at an opposition CHADEMA party rally in Arusha killed three people and wounded 70. This assault raised fears that outside groups may intend to disrupt Tanzania’s political process, but multi-party politics on the mainland have typically been peaceful. On Zanzibar meanwhile, where the transition to democracy has been troubled, it is the government that has perpetrated the most egregious violence. Zanzibar has seen the systematic harassment, beating and illegal detention of opposition members and leaders, as well as outright vote-rigging followed by the declaration of martial law.

In his editorial, CCM’s Kinana baselessly claims that the 2013 acid attack on two British teachers in Zanzibar was carried out by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic Uamsho party. However, Uamsho immediately condemned the attacks and demanded that the culprit(s) be found. Zanzibaris overall were horrified by the attack and even organised neighbourhood patrols to ensure foreign visitors’ safety. In fact, even Kristie Trupp, one of the victims, personally responded to Kinana’s claims, describing the persecution of suspects with ties to Uamsho as “just a political stunt”. Whoever is responsible for the attack, exploiting the terrible physical experiences of these women and using them in an anti-Islamic campaign is in poor taste.

The Uamsho awakening

Government surveillance and arrests of Uamsho members are typical fare for a ruling party whose oft-declared fear of “Islamic terrorists” may in fact be a fear of democracy, cloaked in Islamophobic rhetoric. Kinana’s further unsubstantiated claim that Uamsho is affiliated with Boko Haram seems designed to further prevent Tanzanian Muslims from fully participating as equals in national political life.

Observers wondering why Uamsho has gained popularity in Zanzibar should recognise that the party’s rise was made possible precisely by the CCM government’s relentless suppression of the Civic United Front (CUF), an inclusive, multi-religious party founded by human rights activists and intellectuals from both the islands and the mainland.

Zanzibaris who have worked without clear success in the hopes of achieving democracy for over two decades are now understandably exhausted. If CCM and the Tanzanian government are finally garnering the disapproval of Muslims ‘as Muslims’ on both the mainland and Zanzibar, it is the direct outcome of policies and public speech aimed at separating Muslims from ‘Tanzanians’ in general – despite the fact that Islam has been practiced on the East African coast and its hinterland for centuries.

Certainly Uamsho is an Islamic party that, like all religious organisations, works both locally and globally. But religious activity should not be seen as suspect. Uamsho’s political platform is both pro-democracy and pro-human-rights. That Uamsho is habitually accused of terrorism is evidence of deep anti-Muslim sentiment within Tanzania’s ruling party.

Given that over 90% of Zanzibar’s population is Muslim, ‘Islamic activity’ should be nothing to remark on, and was not very much remarked upon until the inception of multi-partyism in 1992. In fact, “anti-Muslim” rhetoric in Tanzania is used by the ruling party whenever democracy appears to be gaining ground. Perhaps what really troubles CCM is that Zanzibaris have, since 1992, been very clear about their attachment to this new form of governance: they have been enormously well-organised, actively educating themselves and others; and they have not given up despite significant obstacles placed before them by ruling party stalwarts and the security organs they control.

Zanzibar may be a problem for CCM not because it supposedly fosters Islamist ambitions but because its people have modelled for the rest of the country what commitment to democracy looks like and what it can achieve.

Uniting or dividing?

Whatever his other qualities, Ukawa presidential candidate Edward Lowassa, one of the target’s Kinana’s editorial, has repeatedly demanded due process for imprisoned Uamsho members and expressed dismay at the treatment of CUF leaders in the past. Himself a prominent Lutheran Christian, Lowassa has publically insisted on recognising the contributions of Muslims to national political life. Among other things then, Ukawa is providing Tanzanians with a vision of a potential future in which citizens from all denominations can support democracy together. This new inclusive vision poses a significant threat to CCM’s established habit of dividing Tanzanians along religious lines.

As to the possibility of violence erupting in the upcoming elections, if there is extremism to fear in Tanzania it may be that of a ruling party bent on suppressing the political will of its citizens. Ordinary Tanzanians, and Zanzibaris in particular, have much to fear from political violence. News of Rwanda and Burundi – with old footage of massacres luridly televised by CCM in Zanzibar at every election cycle to frighten the population – is of serious concern to Zanzibaris, who continually express fear that such violence will reach them too. Yet those they imagine perpetrating such massacres are not Uamsho or anyone acting ‘as a Muslim’, but the Tanzanian government and CCM.

Since January 2001, when (at the government’s own admission) state forces were ordered to shoot pro-democracy demonstrators with the intent to kill – resulting in 40 deaths and hundreds wounded – Zanzibaris are sadly correct to fear that election-related violence may be more likely to come at the order of the government itself.

In his piece, CCM’s Kinana also reminds us of the vital importance of tourism to Zanzibar’s economy. The country is rightly renowned for its beauty, and tourism has in recent decades brought great benefits. But Kinana should note that tourism in Tanzania increased markedly with multi-partyism, and at each stolen election and instance of state-led violence, tourism has declined. Anti-democratic measures taken by the government pose a far greater threat to tourism than Uamsho.

One might also add that Zanzibar’s dependence on tourism as it is currently structured is arguably a result of economic policies that continue to disadvantage the islands’ poor. The government’s tired reliance on large-scale, elite-driven tourism may be preventing a real discussion about economic transformation, investment in education and infrastructure that could benefit Zanzibaris as a whole. While tourism is obviously important, it should be remembered that, regardless of whether tourists come, most Zanzibaris lack clean water, healthcare, education, and jobs. Yet all of Tanzania has enormous human and natural resources, including gas reserves in the coastal waters. Zanzibaris are correct to suspect that there might be other ways forward.

Kinana is right to believe that “the choice facing Tanzania at this coming election has ramifications both at home [and] far beyond”, and that extremism poses a threat. Yet extremism – religious and otherwise – may be more likely to come not from the population (either on the islands or the mainland) but from a ruling party that insists on separating the country’s citizens and inciting fear and distrust among them.

  • This article was first published by on 2nd October 2015. It was written by Nathalie Arnold Koenings, an anthropologist, writer and Swahili translator. She has worked for Human Rights Watch and published work on Zanzibari history and culture.  


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