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Zanzibar...a fragile paradise

30th April 2012
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The market in Stone Town where transactions can be made in local currency. But since Tanzania`s financial regulations criminalise trading in dollars, why do so many businesses on the Isles openly refuse the shilling? (file photo)

Greetings for the coming week, and did Thursdays public holiday in the last one, give you cause for thought, celebration, irritation, or pleasure if you had a day off work.

Muungano, or Union Day is to remind us when the exotic little Spice Isles, joined forces with the mighty mainland of Tanzania...”and they all lived happily ever after” as children’s story books say, except of course they didn’t…not completely, but they’re getting there.

Mwalimu Nyerere, was intractable on two of the ‘projects’ he helped to broker. One was the decision to make Dodoma the nation’s capital, and the other the union with Zanzibar. And both have an ambiguous status.

Dodoma - the capital city, but not quite. Basically, it becomes the capital, and the seat of government, only when policy makers bottoms reside on those parliamentary seats during the Bunge sessions! After that, it reverts to being a minor township, or it did, till the university brought added kudos and change.

Zanzibar - an independent group of islands with its own government, but with numerous anomalies that make it neither one nor the other, automonous, yet dependent at the same time. And how confusing for tourists, having passed through mainland immigration control, to do so again here, confounding the ‘one nation’ myth.

To test this, a foreign resident from Dar es Salaam went there without a passport, and was refused entry. In 2006, I was allowed in after loosing mine, but on leaving, an angry immigration man, said “you’re not on the mainland now, but a separate country with its own president, I could arrest you”. There lies the dichotomy. One country or not…and can reconciliation of the nearly five decade union be sustainably maintained?

Another inequitable aspect of the Isles, are the inflated boat prices for foreigners, as all visitors have to pay in dollars, not equivalent to the local rate, but double or even triple it. I hope the East African Community harmonisation process, might end this unfair practice. Imagine the outcry if Unguja citizens visiting European countries experienced similar blatant discrimination.

Ministers I’ve lobbied over the years to help change this, seemed uncertain where their limits of authority lay, but the response was usually the same, “it’s decided by the boat owners, and Zanzibar government”. As though the exploited tourists, weren’t mainland visitors also. Such capitulation on an issue that ought to come under the union government, but appears not to, is pandering to the sensitivity the union still represents.

Over the years, many Tanesco managers learnt this to their cost….and the nations. A media report in January this year, put the unpaid power bill for the Isles at a staggering 6.4bn/- and apparently classified as an ‘uncollectable debt’!

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On first going to Zanzibar decades ago, I thought it was the definitive tropical paradise, with the cultural integrity of its courteous friendly people, untouched by the negative aspects of westernisation and tourism. Not any longer.

In its infancy, the tourist sector was described as potentially dynamic, but potentially catastrophic might be just as accurate today. In little over a decade and a half, the social and environmental ravages have yet to be fully quantified, though they’re increasingly apparent, as the character of this unique place is altered. A tourist officer once told me “we must market our island in a way that brings in the most money”, and they’re certainly doing that...but not in their own currency!

Their thinking is in dollar digits, with the negative indicators of it ignored, as long as the money rolls in…… but how much rolls out without benefit to the wider economy?

A few years ago two foreign doctors at the Mnazi Mmoja hospital, told me they asked the same question, when buying their own thermometers. And they also noticed, that in areas outside of the ever increasing holiday enclaves, the long term neglect, and absence of urban or social regeneration was shamefully obvious.

Visitors are often shocked at the squalor and decay in the Stone Town, which requires big funding and commitment. But why can’t basic street cleaning be done efficiently? What has always been needed here, is a vibrant new mind set, and not just a fat municipal wallet.

We know about the scramble for Africa, but the scramble for Unguja is just as hectic. Much of it has been treated like a private fiefdom, as local power brokers have colluded with the new colonisers in hiving off beaches, islands and public buildings. I wonder where the famous turtles are, and if they can still be freely viewed, without a dollar transaction?!

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Recent media reports that the Aga Khan Development Network, has suspended its projects in Zanzibar, is a blow for all who valued the wonderful work they’ve always done, with their high standards setting the reference point for excellence.

And whilst not there in a ‘watchdog’ capacity, their presence was nevertheless reassuring.

The building abuses in the Stone Town are striking, as if the authorities have given up, and adopted the ‘chai’ and turn a blind eye approach. And with much of it constantly watched by prospectors close to those guarding ‘the goose that lays the golden egg’, Unesco, having granted World Heritage status, now also appears to be having a little shut eye!

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Prime defaulters in the guardianship of their heritage, it’s unlikely the Isles government will ever want to define limits, or slow down the tourist sector, a cash cow that can be milked for the mighty dollar!

Requesting prices in shillings at shops and hotels, can be met with bewilderment, or outright refusal. The dollarisation of Stone Town’s economy and other tourist areas, has reached such levels, that tourists could depart, almost unaware of the local currency.

Since they get special concessions, perhaps the Isles have an opt out clause from fiscal mainland laws!... Well, no they don’t, because citing the Foreign Exchange act of l992, which prohibits the use of foreign currency as a medium of exchange for local transactions, the P.S. in the Ministry of Finance, Ramadhan Kijah, in July, 2010, asked the public to expose people flouting this act.(as his government does!)

Anyway I’m off to Zanzibar today without any dollars, so I expect to be doing a lot of fighting on behalf of the shillingi,...if I’m not on the page next Monday, you’ll know I’m in an Unguja lock-up…wish me well!

SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
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