Democracy versus Stability: Political Reconciliation and the Government of National Unity in Zanzibar

Democracy versus Stability: Political Reconciliation and the Government of National Unity in Zanzibar

April 26, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the political Union formed in 1964 by Julius Nyerere (the then president of Tanganyika), and Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume (the then president of Zanzibar), to create the United Republic of Tanzania. The current Government of National Unity (GNU) in Zanzibar, which is made up of two political parties—the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and the Civic United Front (CUF)—is a product of long and protracted peace efforts that have taken place in the isles since the advent of multiparty politics in Tanzania.

Zanzibar is a semiautonomous region of Tanzania, and its political crisis dates back to the colonial days. The crisis escalated after the introduction of multiparty democracy in Tanzania in 1992 in the wake of liberal democracy, which swept the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, bringing calls for an end to repressive governments in Africa and beyond. Race, political economy, social classes, the struggle for democracy, the question of unity, and proximate factors such as leadership have all been cited by scholars as causes of political instability in Zanzibar.

To understand political reconciliation in the region, however, one needs to approach the problem from the perspective of actors, interests, and strategies for peace.1 Ever since the introduction of multiparty politics, Zanzibar elections have been tightly contested, and those held in 1995, 2000, and 2005 were all marred by post-election chaos. On all three occasions the opposition (CUF) believed the ruling party (CCM) had rigged the vote.

In 1995, for example, CUF—led by Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad—contested CCM’s victory, claiming the election commission had declared the winner along partisan lines. Indeed, the margin of victory during that particular event was extremely small. CCM’s presidential candidate, Salmin Amour, got 50.2 percent of the vote, while CUF’s Hamad received 49.8 percent. The votes in the House of Representatives were also close, with CCM receiving twenty-six and CUF twenty-four of the total fifty seats. When the opposition questioned the outcome, members were harassed. On a number of occasions, some were refused permits for public meetings; others were arrested for either organizing or participating in them.

In 1997, CUF activists were again arrested and charged with sedition in the run-up to a by-election. Then in 1999, in an effort to pacify the two parties in the run-up to the 2000 general elections, the commonwealth brokered the first attempt at reconciliation between CCM and CUF, commonly referred to as Muafaka I.2 It failed, however, due to lack of political will from both sides. The outcomes of the elections were again contested by CUF, which had claimed there to be massive irregularities in the voting process and called for demonstrations. Following this denouncement, the government responded with excessive force and killed a number of party members. Others were arrested, harassed, and intimidated, or fled to neighboring Kenya.

Direct talks between the two parties resumed in what came to be known as Muafaka II. Premised mainly on institutional reforms within the government to create an enabling environment for judicial and electoral accountability, this accord was largely implemented in the run-up to the third elections in 2005. CCM won the tight elections, and CUF once again refused to recognize the victory. Further talks were constituted with the help of the Union president Jakaya Kikwete, who had just won office and promised to end the political impasse in Zanzibar. Yet a proposal to have a government of national unity collapsed before reaching a final agreement.3

Then on November 5, 2009, an unprecedented and exceptional act took place: president Amani Karume of Zanzibar called CUF leader Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad to the state house, where they struck a deal to end the impasse and set up modalities for GNU, now known as Maridhiano.4 This was seen as a drastic move resulting from the uncertainty and apprehension produced by the failure of earlier reconciliation attempts, and heralded a new beginning in Zanzibar. A private member’s motion was put before the House of Representatives, suggesting the House should agree to a referendum for the establishment of a GNU in Zanzibar. The House favored the referendum and both the Constitution of Zanzibar and the Zanzibar Election Act were amended as proposed in the motion. In July 2010, Zanzibari citizens voted on the referendum and approved the GNU. The outcome was a large victory for the pro-GNU side, by a margin of 68.7 percent to 31.3 percent. On August 10, 2010, the Zanzibar constitution was amended to accommodate this new dispensation, and the GNU was formed after the 2010 election, with the winning party CCM producing the president and the runner-up candidate as the first vice president.

In the four years since the GNU was instituted, Zanzibar has remained relatively calm and the people are living peacefully. Nevertheless, questions on the future of the GNU are rife. Tanzania is writing a new constitution, and political intrigues over the structure of the Union within the constitutional framework have raised questions regarding its future. Salmin Awadh, a CCM member of the House of Representatives in Zanzibar, wants to put a private motion before the House calling for a new referendum to ask the people if they are still in favor of the GNU.5 Despite the relative stability, Awadh believes the GNU has cracks within it that need mending.

Unlike the recent coalition governments in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the GNU in Zanzibar was a negotiated pre-election pact cemented in a constitutional amendment. In retrospect, the GNU will continue to exist and be disbanded through a constitutional referendum. Yet despite having brought relative peace and stability, in hindsight the current system has somehow weakened the opposition. As well, the GNU framework has no clear mechanism for implementing government policy. The government is run on the policies and manifesto of the party that produces the president, ignoring the fact that it is a coalition. Furthermore, the mode of operation is hindered by the divergent policy stances of CCM and CUF. An example is the two parties’ respective positions on the structure of the Union: whereas CCM prefers a two-government format, CUF is in favor of a three-government structure comprised of the government of mainland Tanzania, the government of Zanzibar, and a Union government. However, CUF is believed to want more autonomy, and its stance on the three-government structure amounts to a road map for Zanzibar’s secession.6

Some have raised questions over the future of democracy in a power-sharing deal such as the one struck in Zanzibar. As observed by Arend Lijphart, who has written extensively on the subject, power sharing, “has obvious problems; power-sharing agreements are difficult to arrive at; [they are] even more difficult to implement and even when implemented, [they] rarely stand the test of time.”7 Competitive, fair, and credible electoral processes are essential for achieving true democracy. However, in situations where the outcome is tightly contested and the result is a dividing affair, it may be reached through an arrangement such as that implemented in Zanzibar. It can take different forms, producing, for instance, a grand-coalition government, where cabinet or civil service positions are shared. While the sharing can be achieved by instituting ethnic or religious quotas or even regional balancing, they do not necessarily have to be rigid.

This then raises the question: must the GNU strive for democracy over stability, or vice versa? In the case of Zanzibar, which has experienced turbulent political history and antagonism between political parties, a coalition government can heal primordial political wounds and bring stability. It remains to be seen, however, whether the GNU can bring the region to gradually accept values of democracy, accountability, and good governance through competitive political processes.

  1. M. A. Bakari, “Understanding Obstacles to Political Reconciliation in Zanzibar: Actors, Interests and Strategies,” in Understanding Obstacles to Peace: Actors, Interests and Strategies to Africa's Great Lakes Region, ed. M. Baregu (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2011), 222–270.
  2. Muafaka is Swahili for settlement or pact and, in this particular context, refers to a reconciliation pact.
  3. M. A. Bakari and A. Makulilo, “Beyond Polarity in Zanzibar? The ‘Silent’ Referendum and the Government of National Unity,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 30, no. 2 (2012): 195–218.
  4. Maridhiano is Swahili for reconciliation and, in this particular context, refers to a gentleman’s agreement between Amani Karume and Seif Shariff Hamad.
  5. Athman Mtulya, “Analysis: Rift in Katiba Writing Spreads to Zanzibar’s GNU,” The Citizen, May 7, 2014, http://www.thecitizen.co.tz/magazine/political-reforms/ANALYSIS--Rift-in-Katiba-writing-spreads--to-Zanzibar-s-GNU/-/1843776/2306644/-/fws5fkz/-/index.html, accessed July 14, 2014.
  6. See M. J. Maalim, “The Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar and the Right of Secession under International Law,” in Zanzibar and the Union Question, ed. C. M. Peter and H. Othman (Zanzibar: Zanzibar Legal Services Centres, 2006), 109–156.
  7. See A. Lijphart, “Constitutional Design for Divided Societies,” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 2 (2004): 96–109.
About the Author

Nicodemus Minde is a researcher at the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) African regional office in Arusha, Tanzania. Prior to this he was a research associate at the School of Humanity and Social Sciences at the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi, Kenya. He previously worked at the African Union Advocacy Program under the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA) in Nairobi. He holds an MA and BA in International Relations from United States International University. His areas of interest include international law (with a special focus on international human rights and criminal law), foreign policy analysis, development, and peace and conflict studies. Minde, a Tanzanian national, has written a number of analyses on issues of the constitution process in Tanzania, international criminal law jurisprudence, foreign policy, and peacebuilding and statebuilding in South Sudan. He is also a freelance writer for a local sports newspaper. He blogs at decolanga.blogspot.com.

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