As the brief, tropical twilight fades over a palm-fringed beach, a skiff slips into Zanzibar’s ancient harbor, its sail billowing in the trade winds that once helped make this island master of all that was then known of East Africa.
The arriving sailors may catch the scent of cloves wafting from the harbor’s warehouses, a fragrance familiar to thousands of forgotten seamen who made the Spice Island known around the world as a center of trade in ivory, gold and slaves.
But while the island’s sights, scents and dreamily slow patterns of life have changed little over the centuries, Zanzibar no longer rules over trade on Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. It no longer even fully rules itself.
It is a condition that rankles Zanzibaris.
A quarter of a century after Zanzibar united with mainland Tanganyika to form the Republic of Tanzania, many islanders still chafe over their loss of independence, still resent what they see as their second-class status in a political marriage born of strife.
‘The Disgruntled Few’
“Some say they are the disgruntled few,” says Wolf Dorado, Zanzibar’s attorney general from 1964 to 1977. “I say they are the majority.”
Zanzibar and its northern sister island, Pempa, united with Tanganyika in April, 1964, three months after the islands’ black majority overthrew the traditional Arab rulers. An estimated 5,000 Arabs died in the revolt.
A socialist government under President Julius Nyerere, a mainlander, was formed to rule the union. Nyerere retired as president in 1985 but remains the head of the Revolutionary Party.
Under the union, Zanzibar, with a population of about 640,000, retained a good deal of autonomy with its own president, constitution, cabinet, parliament and judiciary.
But the mainland has been known to dictate policies and force changes in the islands’ top leadership, moves that have buttressed feelings by some that a good deal of autonomy is not good enough.
“The constitution says defense, home and foreign affairs are union matters; all other matters are supposed to be under the authority of Zanzibar,” says Mohamed Dedes, head of Zanzibar’s Economic Planning Commission.
‘Very Unfair Relationship’
“Some of us are asking ourselves what are these other matters? There are no other matters. It’s been a very unfair relationship.”
Zanzibar jealously maintains its own foreign exchange account from exports and consequently some economic independence. But the islanders believe that they get an inadequate share of the foreign aid and tax revenue that flows into Tanzania.
The discontent of Dedes, Dorado and others has not yet translated into an effort to cut all ties with the mainland. What they mostly want, they say, is simply a fairer share of joint resources.
“I have never advised the break up of the union,” says Dorado. “I want a meaningful union where the sovereignty of the two states is respected.”
The union government apparently is aware of an undercurrent of discontent. In January the union government sent troops to the islands--6,000 of them by one account--to stem feared violence during the 25th anniversary of Zanzibar’s revolution.
The anniversary celebrations passed peacefully, however.
Fear Over Reforms
The islanders’ distrust extends to suspicion that unyielding socialists in Tanzania’s governing political party will somehow find the means to throttle economic reforms first begun in Zanzibar in 1984 and adopted on the mainland two years later.
“Our fear is that closeness to the union would abort this,” says Dorado.
The market-minded reforms were prescribed as an antidote for an economy devastated by 20 years of Nyerere’s socialist policies, the costs of a 1977 war against Uganda, rising world oil prices and falling prices for cloves and other exports.
They were initiated by Ali Hassan Mwinyi, first as president of Zanzibar and then as leader of the entire union a year after assuming the presidency of Tanzania for a five-year term in 1985. Although there was opposition from within his ruling party, Mwinyi was firmly supported by the International Monetary Fund and other lenders.
On the mainland as well as the islands, basic foods such as sugar and maize had become scarce; long neglected farm-to-market roads had become nearly impassable; the lack of money for spare parts brought industries grinding to a halt; schools foundered, with the government unable to buy books or pay salaries; basic medicines disappeared from the nation’s hospitals.
‘Something Had Gone Wrong’
“The whole thing had collapsed,” says Ian C. Porter, representative in Dar es Salaam of the World Bank, another lender. “Something had gone wrong and something needed to be changed.”
In recent years the mainland and Zanzibar have increasingly adopted free-market measures that appear contrary to the socialist orthodoxy preached by Nyerere and his Revolutionary Party.
Private investors have been invited to participate in the economy while government involvement has been decreased, restrictions on imports have been lifted, agriculture producer prices have been increased, and the Tanzanian shilling has been devalued 70%.
Party stalwarts, however, deny that there has been any fundamental shift of ideology.
The nation “remains a socialist-oriented society with self-reliance as an important objective,” says Omar Ali Juma, the chief minister of Zanzibar.
‘We Need Development’
“You can use capitalism to achieve whatever goal,” he adds. “What we need is development. We can use whatever strategy to improve the performance of the economy.”
Whether driven by socialism or capitalism, the nation’s economy has begun to revive.
Last year, Tanzania’s gross domestic produce grew 4%, compared to a 1.5% growth rate in the early 1980s. From having too little food, it now has enough to export. Imported goods ranging from cosmetics and clothes to brass tacks and hoes are again available in the shops.
Zanzibar has particularly sought to develop its tourism and fishing industries and has bypassed the mainland government in seeking foreign aid directly from Western and Arab donors to rehabilitate its roads, ports and airport.
Several local investors have taken advantage of the changes, including businessman Ali Sultan, who is building a $3.5-million tourist complex, 10 miles north of the town of Zanzibar.
Referring to those long ago days when the island was a warehouse for a continent, Sultan says with some pride: “Today Zanzibar is coming back to its original position of being the entrepot (warehouse) for Africa.”