What’s next for Zanzibar after flawed polls and repression?

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As I write, Zanzibaris have gone to the polls, ballots have been counted, and implausible results have been announced from Wednesday’s election. The outcome was already predetermined.

Cha Chama Mapinduzi (CCM)’s Dr. Hussein Mwinyi is the son of Tanzania’s second President, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the only Tanzanian President to have come from Zanzibar. Dr. Mwinyi was not nominated with the prospect of losing the election. CCM has governed since the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 (first as the Afro Shirazi Party before merging with the mainland TANU to form CCM in 1977), and has possibly lost every election since the first multiparty election in 1995, but retains the Presidency through corrupting election results. 

Before the election, nine protesters were killed in the opposition stronghold of Pemba. ACT Wazalendo and perennial Presidential candidate Maalim Seif Hamad was arrested (later released) trying to vote, then rearrested after the election (again released). Three days before the election, ACT Wazalendo’s Zanzibar Campaign Manager, Nassor Mazrui, was detained and threatened by unidentified security actors – not to be confused with ACT Wazalendo mainland Campaign Manager, Emmanuel Mvula, who was arrested and released in Dar es Salaam in late September.

With limited external observation and constrained internal observation this year, the U.S. Ambassador and human rights groups are rightly concerned about state-instigated violence in Zanzibar.

A history of election rigging

For Zanzibar, the more important story may be what comes next. As the contested election in 2000 and the effective retraction of the Constitutional Review Act of 2011 have demonstrated, acts of violence may persist for years to come. Though not a panacea, returning to the Government of National Unity (GNU), as prescribed by the constitution,  may be the most promising of the problematic ways forward. 

In 2000, the ZEC returned implausible results in an election that was deemed to be neither free nor fair by independent observers. In spite of Tanzania’s reputation as a peaceful nation, a government crackdown on political opposition led to the deaths of at least 35 Zanzibaris at the hands of police and the flight of as many as 2,000 Zanzibaris from the northern island of Pemba to Kenya. In the years after, political offices and religious buildings were attacked, as were political and religious leaders. Following the October elections, rudimentary devices either exploded or were found at political targets in November, December, January, and the following August.

In 2004, Catholic Churches were attacked multiple times, as was a Lutheran Church, the home of a Muslim cleric, and the home of the Minister of Communication. Thanks to the maridhiano, or “handshake,” agreement between Maalim Seif and then President Amani Abeid Karume (son of Zanzibar’s first President, Abeid Karume), a Government of National Unity (GNU) was proposed and approved by popular referendum before the 2010 election, leading to a contested election that was likely manipulated, but was nevertheless peaceful because of the limited (and flawed) power sharing agreement. 

Then came the Constitutional Review Act, and the potential for Zanzibaris to have a say on the structure of its relationship with the mainland through the union government – the Republic of Tangyanika and the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar formed the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964. Starting in 2012 and continuing through 2014, religious leaders were again attacked. A prominent Imam and a Catholic priest were attacked with acid in separate incidents. Two Catholic priests were attacked with firearms, with one killed. Some analysts misinterpreted these events as rising Islamist militancy rather than political upheaval.

When the Civic United Front (CUF, whose leadership and membership reconvened under ACT Wazalendo in advance of this year’s election) defeated the incumbent Cha Chama Mapinduzi in the 2015 election (confirmed to me by an election observer), the Chair of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission unilaterally annulled the vote. State violence continued, including “zombie” attacks in which plainclothes security actors abducted individuals associated with the opposition, some of whom did not return. The U.S. and other Western actors asked Maalim Seif and CUF to boycott the re-run of the 2015 election in order to avoid an escalation of violence. This led to the exclusion of CUF from not only the executive, but also parliament. Because of the boycott, CUF was fully excluded from the government. CCM promptly used their total control to weaken the GNU. The purported Western allies who asked CUF to boycott in the name of violence prevention idly stood by, leading to the present moment of utter exasperation.

What comes next?

Both the U.S. and the U.K. have called for investigations of “irregularities” in elections for both Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland. These are unlikely to happen, and neither country has significant leverage in a country that has long championed non-alignment and were Tanzania’s John Magufuli has pressed an isolationism not only from the West but also within the African continent.

As with the disputed election in 2000, Zanzibar could be entering an interregnum marked by cycles of state and reactionary violence. Religious and political leaders will again be vulnerable to attack. So, too, will tourists. Over the past two decades, Zanzibar has increasingly relied upon tourism as a key source of economic growth. But the waves of violence described above include an acid attack on two British volunteers in 2013 and homemade explosive attacks on bars popular with tourists.

Zanzibar needs tourism to return when the pandemic has subsided. Global tourism is expected to take years to recover, and a politically destabilized Zanzibar with even episodic violence will be less attractive than it could be.

Dr. Mwinyi has expressed a willingness to work with Maalim Seif who, according to the constitutional amendments that created the GNU, is the First Vice President (coming in second place with more than 10% of the vote). In the short term, this may be the most stabilizing outcome, though it may be difficult to stomach table scraps tossed from the table you were chosen to head. CCM inflicted considerable damage on the GNU through its manipulation of the 2015 election, and a return to limited power-sharing may not appeal or be effective due to the breaches of trust around elections and the GNU itself.

To minimize violence and energize economic growth, Dr. Mwinyi should make every effort at consolation with Maalim Seif and his ACT Wazalendo supporters, who number well beyond the 19 percent accredited in the election. Dr. Mwinyi must know the results were fixed, and he would do well to rediscover the government of national unity as it was designed, sharing leadership with Maalim Seif and ACT Wazalendo. The alternative unrest should be unappealing to all Zanzibaris, no matter their political disposition.

Dr. Steven Leach lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa from 2011 to 2016, working with community organizations in South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. He recently completed his PhD in International Relations, examining U.S.-funded programs to counter violent extremism in Zanzibar. He is a Security Fellow of Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.

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