Thank you for the welcome and kind words. It is a pleasure to be back among old friends.
The links between Zanzibar and the United States go back a long way – to 1837 when the US opened its first diplomatic mission in sub-Saharan Africa in Zanzibar.
In our most recent struggle for democratic rights, we have appreciated the US diplomatic support for Zanzibar and displeasure with the annulment of the election in October last year.
But we have a long way to go, and I want to implore the Washington policy community to stay the course and for those who have not paid attention to the subject to get serious about our struggle for democracy.
We are a small country, but what happens to us has a wider impact on the African continent and more globally – whether in the positive sense of being a catalyst for economic development in the region or in the negative sense that disenfranchisement is turning our island into a target for religious radicals.
These are the facts:
On October 25th last year Zanzibar, along with the rest of Tanzania, voted in good faith in elections that were hailed as free and fair by all the international observer missions that were present – SADC, the Commonwealth, the AU, the EAC, the EU, the British and the Americans.
Results from the polling units indicated a decisive victory for our party, the Civic United Front, but as we awaited the election to be called in our favor, a contingent of security forces surrounded the hotel where the verification of the results was underway and the Chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission, Jecha Salim Jecha, an appointee of the ruling party, annulled the entire exercise.
That it was an arbitrary and illegal act was confirmed two weeks ago by the European Union Commission Observer mission which concluded that the ZEC did not have the legal power to annul the elections and had never supplied any evidence of the alleged irregularities that were used to justify such an extraordinary and unprecedented step.
Though our people, especially the youth, were angry and frustrated, we cautioned them to remain calm even in the face of provocation by the security forces because the facts were on our side, and we were confident that justice would prevail.
While we were still engaged in dialogue with the ruling party, the ZEC announced a rerun of the election would be held on March 20th.
It was clear that the purpose of a new election would be to ensure a different outcome – i.e. that this time the ruling party would win. Unwilling to lend our name to such a fraud we decided to boycott the election and called on our followers to follow suit.
The election went ahead and the ruling party claimed a 91 % victory. International observers refused to participate in the charade, but local and international journalists who were present said the polling areas were virtually empty and we calculate that less than 15 % of the electorate turned up to vote.
The EU and the US declared that that the elections were neither inclusive nor credible. The board of directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government program, suspended its partnership with Tanzania and put $472-m worth of aid for electricity projects on hold.
Why would Tanzania put its democratic credentials into disrepute over the surrender of such a tiny sliver of power?
We negotiated a pact with the CCM in 2010 to ensure that whichever party came out on top in Zanzibar, there would be a coalition government. This was to forestall the violence of previous elections and to ensure that no section of the community would feel shut out of government.
Some have speculated that it was simply a case of RPS – Ruling Party Syndrome – and attributed it to the authoritarian streak in the CCM, which we are seeing on the mainland as well. Last week for instance a young man was sentenced to three years or a fine for criticizing President Magufuli on Facebook and the government banned all political rallies and gatherings by the opposition Chadema.
Chadema’s leaders have been pulled in for questioning and I myself was subjected to three hours of interrogation by 11 police officers two weeks ago. We are witnessing an unprecedented political crackdown in Tanzania and my fear is that it will only get worse in the months ahead.
But when it comes to Zanzibar there is another, deeper dimension. The ruling party in Dar Es Salaam has expressed fear that a truly democratic Zanzibar would opt for self-determination outside of Tanzania.
Secession is not our policy, as we have repeatedly made clear. What we do seek is a redefinition of our relationship with the mainland, not to end the union, but to give us the freedom to rise to our potential as an island economy.
For too long Zanzibar has been economically and politically stifled by the hastily arranged marriage with Tanganyika which was promoted by the Americans and the British in 1964 out of fear that Zanzibar was becoming an African Cuba.
Even though Julius Nyerere was a socalist, Tanzania was a staunch friend of the West during the Cold War despite its ties to the Soviet Union and China, and up until today is one of the major beneficiaries of development assistance from Washington.
Zanzibar has fared less well. In the 52 years since union our famed cosmopolitanism, our record of educational excellence, and our status as a trading hub has diminished. For decades our economy has stagnated and our development indicators have declined.
What we offered our people in last October’s elections was the vision of an unshackled future. Through our location alongside the great highway of the Indian Ocean and our deep connections with the Middle East and South Asia we could become the Singapore of Africa.
From our beautiful tropical beaches you can almost see the coast of East Africa. History and geography ties us to that economically rising region and to the inland markets and export trades of the Great Lakes region.
A new and imaginative set of assumptions based on economic development could create a new partnership between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, benefit the Indian Ocean trading zone and bring prosperity to East and Central Africa.
Furthermore, Zanzibar is a cultural bridge between Africa and the Gulf, and with the inclusive and tolerant Islam that is practiced by Zanzibaris, a successful and flourishing democracy in the islands could serve as a model to the rest of the Muslim world in the Indian Ocean of the peaceful co-existence of democracy and Islam.
Democracy is not just an abstract concept to Zanzibar. We are fighting for more than just the right to vote every five years.
So what is our solution to the crisis?
We are open, in the short term, to a care-taker government of national unity in Zanzibar that should be set up as a matter of urgency and we are prepared to go to new elections under the auspices of a neutral international body.
Until that time, we have initiated a campaign of peaceful non-violent resistance to mobilize our people and to make the statement that Zanzibar can not return to business as usual.
Our fear is that as long as democratic avenues remain closed, religious radicals will find an opening. Zanzibar has long-standing connections to other centers of Islamist militant activity such as Somalia, parts of the east coast of Kenya and of course centers in the Middle East.
Zanzibar is almost a textbook example of the conditions that lead societies to fall prey to violent extremism: poor economic governance; poverty and unemployment, especially among the youth; an abiding sense of desperation and injustice; and all of this with no channels for political expression.
That is why we refuse to extinguish hope and that is why our struggle for democracy is about much more than Zanzibar.
NB: Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad was addressing the CISC on 13 June 2016 in Washington D.C.