A racial vision of an African leadership

08Apr 2019
The Guardian
A racial vision of an African leadership

Pan-Africanism took root among Zanzibar Anglicans because of their church and school networks with other African countries. Visiting Zanzibar in 1924 on a roundtrip funded by the Phelps-Stokes Commission to assess education in East Africa, James Kwegyir Aggrey“made a very famous speech to inspire-

the formation of the African Association in Zanzibar in 1934.Born in Ghana 1875, Aggrey died in New York in1927. He was a Methodist theological scholar and pioneer African nationalist, besides being a mentor for Kwame Nkrumah. 

He coined the conceptual image of “keys” to explain his philosophy of interdependence; that just as black and white keys were necessary for a piano, in the same way black and white should consider themselves interdependent. 

On the mainland, the Tanganyika African Association (TAA) was founded in 1929, becoming TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) in 1954. 

Arab political engagement found a new expression when, in 1955, the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) was formed with the assistance of the Zanzibar Arab Association; while the Afro-Shiraz Party (ASP) was founded in 1957 when the Unguja Shiraz Association and the African Association merged.

The merger happened on President Julius Nyerere’s initiative, as he urged the two to unite to form a Pan-Africanist political party to stand against the Arab-dominated ZNP.

However, as shown by Abdul Sheriff, the labels with which Zanzibar is self-identified could change fast: Whereas the number of people who called themselves Swahili shrank considerably from 1924 to 1931.

 Because it became associated with slave origins, the number who identified as Shirazes hot up in response, illustrating how “ethnicity is not a biological category but a sociological dimension.”

The period from 1957 to 1964 saw political campaigns and elections, and has retrospectively been referred to as ‘zama za siasa’. This political liberalization allowed the expression and politicizing of underlying racial and religious tensions that had hitherto been controlled under colonial rule. 

The period was characterized by polarization, insecurity, and violence, resulting in a change where “Zanzibar went from being a melting pot of cultures to a hotbed of politics,” becoming an example that “diversities become divisions when they are politicized.” 

The January 1961 election campaign presented the idea of “Zanzibar as a culturally autonomous Islamic state,” where “multi-racial religious solidarity” under the rule of the Sultan would unite Zanzibar is against continental Africa and be the basis for independence.

Whereas ZNP used religion as the main underlying motivating factor, its main political rival, ASP, used race. The ASP mouthpiece or media ‘Afrika Kwetu’ asked why the various races had arrived in Zanzibar, whether it was to trade, enslaves, or liberate.

Karume interpreted his view that Africans should rule in Africa. ZNP and ASP defined colonialism differently; whereas ZNP saw national Zanzibar independence as the alternative to British colonialism. 

The prominent female Muslim Pan-Africanist politician Bibi Titi Muhammed from the mainland and framed the struggle for independence as one of African nationalism against Arab colonialism, asking the Zanzibaris:-“You Zanzibaris, when you want independence, uhuru, independence from whom? ... If you want independence, it is independence from the Arabs!” 

That question was never asked before. And to be asked by a woman, it went deep ... That speech aroused consciousness to a limit never [seen] before. 

The British tried to mediate, but failed. A conference was held “on the future constitution of the Sultanate” in London in March and April 1962, but ASP refused to work in a coalition with the national government.

Adding to the complexity, in 1963, Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu left ZNP and formed the Communist Umma Party. Babu was born in Zanzibar in 1924 and died in 1996. 

The Umma party was banned by the ZNP government just before the revolution. After the revolution, Babu served as a Minister in Tanzania’s government, (Ministries of Commerce and Industries then was shifted to the Ministry of Planning). 

But then was sentenced to death in 1973 together with 35 others, deemed guilty of having played a role in the assassination of President Karume.  

In 1978, however, he was given amnesty with the rest of the group. “General Notice No 40, Decree No 20 of 1963, Zanzibar Gazette, Vol LXXIII, No. 4333, 11 January 1964, p13, Rhodes House.”

 Moreover, in mid-1963, the ZNP suffered the defection of a number of its most talented organizers, including its former Secretary General, Muhammed Abdulrahman Babu. 

Babu’s departure from the party—as it was about to inherit power—can only be seen as motivated by principle, not interest. He and those who founded the Umma Party (meaning, in Kiswahili, “the masses”) were relatively well educated, from the left of the political spectrum, and of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

Some had taken advantage of offers since the late 1950s of free travel and scholarships to the Eastern Bloc. They had spent weeks and months touring and sampling life in the socialist fraternity of nations. 

Or, as in the case of Babu, they went by their leftist politics while working and studying in London in the 1950s. And while for years they supported the ZNP because of its resolute anti-colonial stand. 

As well as its apparent avoidance of racial politics, they found themselves at odds with more conservative party leaders like Ali Muhsin who under British pressure were increasingly suspicious of “communists” in the party ranks.However, the ASP supporters “took little part [in the independence celebrations], declaring that ‘Our freedom will come later!’”

The British preferred a system of consultation in which their subjects, usually acquiescent, expressed their interests on a communal basis. 

Members of Zanzibar’s various racial, ethnic, and sectarian communities formed their own separate associations, such as the Arab Association, founded in 1911, or the African Association, founded in 1933. 

The British tended to favour Arabs in terms of local government. Through World War II, their general attitude was that they deserved to be treated as junior ruling partners because of the Arab nature of the Sultanate they had conquered but were technically still in the process of “protecting.”

It was therefore ironic that in the 1950s the British faced repeated demands for constitutional reform emanating primarily from the Arab Association, whose members were instrumental, in 1955, in forming the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP). 

In response, the Shirazi and African Associations allied together to form the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP). The names of these two associations are suggestive: the ZNP presented itself as a party for all islanders, regardless of race, yet its initial core of support came from Arabs who comprised less than 20 percent of the population. 

Anxious over the prospect of Arab political domination, the ASP claimed in turn to represent the interests of the “African” and/or “indigenous” majority.

The ASP won the 1956 elections by a landslide, winning five of six contested constituencies; afterward, the party seemed poised to inherit power from the British. 

The ZNP also took advantage of a serious dispute within the ASP between Shirazi and African politicians, based respectively on Pemba and Unguja islands. 

This dispute concerned the ASP chairman, Abeid Karume. A former professional seaman with little formal education, Karume had traveled widely, and wielded considerable oratorical powers. 

More educated ASP politicians resented his seemingly autocratic leadership style; at its root, however, the issue was one of ethnicity. Shirazis resident in Unguja exhibited a greater tendency than those in Pemba to see Africans as their natural allies in a struggle against the allegedly “Arab” ZNP. 

In largely rural Pemba, by contrast, some Shirazis possessed extensive landholdings, and not infrequently intermarried with local Arabs. 

They tended, therefore, to be more susceptible to ZNP rhetorical claims that all Muslim Zanzibaris should form a united front to preserve the islands’ distinctive Islamic heritage from the supposed threat posed by “uncivilized” migrants from the African mainland.

Karume and other ASP politicians argued that, given the islands’ long history of slavery and racial inequality, there was no realistic scenario in which the salience of racial categories could ever be eclipsed. 

They described the past as one in which Arabs, as the slave-owning class, routinely humiliated and abused Africans. Furthermore, they claimed that such mistreatment continued long after abolition and would grow worse if Arabs ever regained political power. 

The ZNP countered that slavery in Zanzibar was a relatively benign institution and that islanders should not allow themselves to be ensnared in the politics of race. 

They argued that the ASP was trying to divide Zanzibaris just as the British had before them; people like Karume were preventing any kind of mature political settlement in which all islanders, and not just “Africans,” could have a voice.

In 1963, the ASP rolled up huge margins in rural Unguja, won 54 percent of the total popular vote, and yet failed to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council.

The ZNP’s brand of Muslim and Arab-centric nationalism was out of sync, to say the least, with theworldviews of the late Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere, the heads of state, respectively, of Kenya and Tanganyika. 

Neither was likely to rush to the defense of a government in Zanzibar headed by a Sultan descended from Oman slave merchants. 

Making matters worse was the local unpopularity of Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah; the thirty-three-year-old who inherited his office as recently as July 1963 and was regarded by many ASP supporters as immature, partisan, and Arab-centric. 

Though real executive power was invested in the office of the Prime Minister, the young Sultan was a deeply polarizing figure in both national and regional politics.

The events of the night of January 11–12, 1964, have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy. Undertaking research into the crucial question of who planned and executed the revolution is hampered by a set of archival documents that provide clues but not answers. 

Meanwhile, oral histories assembled decades later are often highly contradictory and sometimes less reflective of historical realities than the omnipresence of rumor in Zanzibar society. 

Making research more difficult is the popular belief that if one can prove who is responsible for orchestrating the revolution, then one has a scapegoat for everything terrible that has ever happened in Zanzibar since 1964—or, instead, for everything glorious. 

For years, the dominant ASP narrative—endlessly repeated in speeches and in print—was that Abeid Karume, President of Zanzibar from 1964 to 1972, was responsible for the revolution. 

Instead, knowing of the plan to seize power, Karume alerted government intelligence to the fact that a serious disturbance was about to take place on the night of January11–12, and then he fled to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanganyika. 

Thus, Karume, the alleged “father of the nation,” betrayed his own supporters, the very ones who, upon the success of the operation, asked him to assume the reins of power.