By Henry Srebrnik
For western travellers, the Zanzibar archipelago has long conjured up images of enchantment: palm-fringed beaches, ancient palaces and forts, and narrow streets overlooked by elaborately carved doors in the capital, Stone Town.
Books and films have long portrayed the Indian Ocean islands off the coast of Africa as an exotic paradise. Typical of the genre was “Road to Zanzibar,” a 1941 film starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.
The real Zanzibar was always quite different. Slavery was a large part of Zanzibar’s commercial power, and from 1700 to 1850 the sultans of Zanzibar, who were Omani Arabs, effectively controlled the slave trade in East and Central Africa.
The British gained control in 1890 and ended the slave trade. However, the sultanate was allowed to remain in place and the Arab elite remained dominant over a Black African majority.
Independence from Britain in 1963, as an Islamic monarchy, was followed by a bloody revolution in which thousands of Arabs were killed or expelled. The Black majority gained control and the following year Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika, as a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania.
Many Zanzibaris were unhappy about the union. Ever since, the islands have always been on the edge of political turmoil, with a sense of grievance against mainland political control and economic exploitation. This is exacerbated by tensions between the broadly Christian mainland and the predominantly Muslim islands.
Zanzibar has been wracked by political violence in recent decades. Contested elections in 2000 led to a massacre when the army and police shot into crowds of protestors, killing at least 35 people. Violence again erupted in 2005 when there were accusations of fraud by the losing party.
The push for independence, or at least greater autonomy from the mainland, gained new impetus after politicians and jurists began work last year on a new constitution for Tanzania. At first, the status of the union was off the table, enraging Zanzibari nationalists. (Zanzibar’s own constitution, amended in 2010, refers to the archipelago as a sovereign state, with no mention of the union with Tanganyika.)
There are many who would prefer a Zanzibar with its own currency and a seat at the United Nations. They maintain that an independent Zanzibar could develop into another Singapore or Hong Kong, an island entrepot for international trade (as was the case historically). But mainland politicians, they argue, don’t want Zanzibar to be free.
Some Zanzibaris have begun to blend their nationalism with religion. In recent years, a group called Uamsho, or “Awakening,” has called for an independent Zanzibar governed under Muslim shariah law.
Two churches were set ablaze in May 2012 in the midst of rioting after the police arrested leaders of the separatist group. On Christmas Day last year, a priest was shot in the jaw but survived. Another priest was shot and killed on Feb. 17.
The acid attack in August on a pair of British teenagers engaged in charity work on Zanzibar is likely to have a deleterious effect on the tourist industry. Tourism officially accounts for a little more than a quarter of the island’s economic activity, but 70 per cent of its foreign-exchange earnings. Fifteen thousand people work directly in tourism, and 50,000 are employed indirectly.
The minister of tourism, Said Ali Mbarouk, said that the episode had “shocked and shamed” his country. Security was increased in tourist areas, and measures were taken to curb the distribution and production of acid. However, Uamsho wants to enforce strict dress codes on foreign visitors and ban alcohol outside private hotels.
Forget the dated images of Zanzibar as portrayed in films and novels. It has become a fairly insecure place.
Editor's Note: Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.