There is an old Swahili proverb that a small fire can destroy a great forest.
Zanzibar is a small nation, an archipelago of islands and a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania. Yet what happens here will have a wider impact on the African continent and globally, in that it can either become a catalyst for economic development in the region or a target receptive to the ideas of religious radicals.
On October 25 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 – from the Southern African Development Community, the Commonwealth, the African Union, the East African Community, the European Union and Britain and the United States.
Results from the polling units indicated a decisive victory for our party, the Civic United Front (CUF), in Zanzibar. But as we waited for the election to be called in our favour, a contingent of security forces surrounded the hotel where the verification of the results was underway, and the chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC), Jecha Salim Jecha, an appointee of Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), annulled the entire exercise.
That this was an arbitrary and illegal act was confirmed last week by the European Union Commission Observer mission, which concluded that the ZEC did not have the legal power to annul the elections and had supplied no evidence of the alleged irregularities that were used to justify such an extraordinary and unprecedented step.
Though our supporters, 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.
The ZEC announced that a re-run of the election would be held on March 20. It was clear that the purpose of a new election would be to ensure a different outcome – that 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 percent 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 percent of the electorate turned up to vote.
The EU and the U.S. declared that that the elections were neither inclusive nor credible. The board of directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government program, suspended its partnership with Tanzania and put on hold $472 million worth of aid for electricity projects.
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 seen around 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 has effectively been in power since 1961.
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 U.S. and Britain in 1964 out of fear that Zanzibar was becoming an African Cuba.
Tanzania was a staunch friend of the West during the Cold War despite its ties to the Soviet Union and China, and 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 tie 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 of the peaceful co-existence of democracy and Islam to the rest of the Muslim world in the Indian Ocean.
Democracy is not just an abstract concept to Zanzibar. We are fighting for more than just the right to vote every five years. We are open, in the short term, to a caretaker government of national unity for Zanzibar, which 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 cannot 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 centres of Islamist militant activity such as Somalia, parts of the east coast of Kenya and of course the Middle East.
Zanzibar provides 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 why we implore the international community, especially the United States, to get serious about our struggle for democracy. This is about much more than Zanzibar.
Seif Sharif Hamad