Would Zanzibar have fared better (politically) as an independent state?
Considering the potential legacies of '64
I: A successful case of a political union?
Exactly 59 years ago today a revolution in Zanzibar swept away the Omani sultanate that had dominated the archipelago for the better part of two centuries.
The stylized account of the political history of Zanzibar that I was taught paints it as a triumph of Pan-Africanism: A revolution of Black Africans ousted a Middle Eastern oligarchy that had dominated the islands and the East African coast for centuries. Thereafter Nyerere, a leading High Priest of Pan-Africanism, worked with the founding leader of Zanzibar, Abeid Karume, to unite Tanganyika and Zanzibar guided by an ideological commitment to African Socialism. Sectarian, ethnic, and nascent nationalist differences were eliminated, thereby laying the foundation for a united Tanzanian nation.
Obviously, this account does not tell the whole story. The real political history of Zanzibar is far more
messier complicated. Indeed, there are strong arguments out there that union with Tanganyika has not delivered for Zanzibaris. Mainlanders often grumble about the union, too. President Jakaya Kikwete once referred to Zanzibar as “the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of an otherwise peaceful country of 40 million people.”
Historical counterfactuals are hard to nail down, but what if the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar had not happened? Would Zanzibar be better off today as most advocates of independence claim?
It is hard to answer these questions, but there is reason to believe that Zanzibar is better off today because of the union with Tanganyika.
Life expectancy in Zanzibar is 68 years (compared to 66 on the mainland) and is expected to hit 73.2 years by 2035 (roughly the current global average). GDP per capita is 90.3% that of Tanzania’s ($950 vs $1052), while there is no daylight between Zanzibari and mainland growth rates (see figure). Pre-COVID, the Zanzibari poverty rate was 25.7% (2019) compared to the mainland’s 26.4% (2018).
While below I focus on the political advantages of the union, it is fair to say that there is no obvious divergence in life outcomes between the mainland and the archipelago since 1964 (although one could make a reasonable argument to the effect that Zanzibar’s history of stateness should have allowed it to grow much faster than Tanganyika after independence).
II: The political advantages of the union
Political stability under the tutelage of Nyerere and backed by the mainland’s coercive capacities. Lacking outright sovereignty likely attenuated the effects of intense elite political conflict in Zanzibar and helped avoid political collapse. It took a lot of coercion/repression for ASP to establish its dominance after the revolution. It is very likely that without support from Dar es Salaam, Karume would have been deposed not long after 1964. Here, a good comparison would be Comoros, which in important ways approximates Zanzibar’s history and has had significant elite political instability over the years. Indeed, it is remarkable that the assassination of Abeid Karume in 1972 (the result of party infighting) did not lead to generalized political instability. His deputy succeeded him. The (violent) purges that followed did not degenerate into civil war, as might have happened in other postcolonial states. Since the merger of ASP and TANU in 1977, CCM has dominated the Zanzibari presidency.
Avoiding Cold War meddling and destabilization. The revolution had important Cold War implications. Western powers feared that the archipelago would become the “Cuba of Africa” and serve as a conduit for communism into Eastern and Southern Africa. According to Wilson (2013, p. 4):
Such was the fear generated in the US State Department by the revolution in these small islands that within weeks the Americans had flown in one of their most experienced CIA operatives to Zanzibar. Frank Carlucci, who was later defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, arrived straight from the Congo where the CIA had been deeply involved in the overthrow of Lumumba. In Carlucci’s words, the United States had to neutralize socialist elements in Zanzibar, because ‘had there not been the Union, Zanzibar would have been an African Cuba from which sedition would spread to the continent’ (quoted in Wilson, 1987). In a forerunner to today’s AFRICOM policy, the United States began to plan a so-called ‘belt of control’ strategy, under which Central and East Africa (including Zanzibar) would be brought under its control, to prevent socialist influences from North Africa reaching the countries of Southern Africa and endangering their western investments.
It is not hard to imagine how on its own Zanzibar would have been buffeted by Cold War competition between the West and China/Soviet Republic/Cuba. A likely split would have been between Karume (ASP) and Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu (Umma). The latter (pictured above with Che) was a Marxist wary of Western neocolonialism, and briefly served as Tanzania’s Foreign Minister. Therefore, Karume wasn’t just acquiescing to Nyerere or the West in joining the union. He was also buying himself political insurance at home both within the ASP and vis-a-vis Babu’s Umma Party (which unfortunately only worked for him until the assassination). Instead of Sudan, post-revolutionary Zanzibar might very well have become the coup capital of Eastern Africa.
Sidestepping a likely brutal counter-revolution. Revolutions beget counter-revolutions, especially in a context where the new elites lack entrenched material basis for complete socio-political hegemony. The socio-economic outlook for post-revolutionary Zanzibar did not exactly signal future stability. Karume was a former seaman with little formal education. Only a small share of eligible children were enrolled in school (see below) — a reflection of the history of deliberate human capital under-development by the sultanate and their British overseers. The revolution resulted in the deaths or expulsion of most of the sultanate’s elites. Economic fortunes were limited by the revolutionary government’s nationalization of land and a lot of the old elites’ wealth. In short, the government was founded weak and lacked the means to effectively impose its will on the people. Once the revolutionary fervor had settled, it is conceivable that without the union the old Arab elite (possibly using Pemba as a base and aided by Cold War proxy competitors) would have reconstituted, created divisions among the general population, and executed a violent counter-revolution which might have resulted in civil war.
Staying united. Unguja and Pemba, the two main islands in the archipelago, historically had different demographic, economic, and political profiles that persist to this day (see below). It is possible that without being part of the larger Tanzania, the salience of their differences would have forced a separation even in the post-revolutionary environment (possibly with the help of neighboring countries or the Cold War protagonists).
It is telling that following the return of Tanzanian multiparty politics in the early 1990s, Pemba emerged as a hot bed of opposition sympathies (under CUF) and agitation for greater Zanzibari autonomy. Commenting on the 1995 election, Babu summarized matters thus:
One cannot help noticing the ominous historic parallels with the 1960s, unlike in the mainland, in Zanzibar the balance of political forces has not changed at all .... If in the mainland almost all members of opposition parties left the CCM for ideological or other reasons, in Zanzibar it was different. Here the old party divisions and loyalties ... remained virtually solid as in 1964 .... If CUF is the offspring of ZNP-ZPPP, CCM Zanzibar is ASP in a new garb headed by an amalgam of progressive and reactionary leadership .... Even political agitations are expressed in the same old language of hostility and rage (Wilson, 2013, p. 100).
III: The revolution is still ongoing
In many ways the enduring union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika is a triumph of Pan-Africanism (its many challenges notwithstanding). From the Mali Federation to the Ghana/Guinea/Mali Union (Union of African States) to the never-realized East African Federation, a number of post-independence African leaders tried but failed to form political unions.
The above discussion is not intended to sweep under the carpet many ongoing challenges in the union. Disputes over natural resource management, mainland meddling in Zanzibari politics (i.e., CCM hegemony), a real sense of social and economic marginalization, and lingering nationalisms continue to test the bonds that Nyerere and Karume built.
Which is to say that the revolution of 1964 is still ongoing — this time not led by a random Ugandan former bricklayer in his late twenties, but by Zanzibaris eager for a more meaningful self-determination (with or without the union).
If Tanzania ever gets to rewriting its constitution, the question of the terms of the union will be front and center.
Oh, and Tanzania’s current president is Zanzibari and was barely four years old during the revolution.
Happy Revolution Day!