Zanzibar Independent in 2015? Constitutional Review, Politicized Islam, and Separatist Claims.

Mwanakwerekwe suburb, Zanzibar city, March 2012 @Fouéré

Marie-Aude FOUÉRÉ, “Zanzibar Independent in 2015? Constitution Review, Politicized Islam, and Separatist Claims.” Mambo! Vol. X (2), 2012.

Abstract: In the archipelago of Zanzibar, in the United Republic of Tanzania, claims for separatism which have long been expressed in veiled terms now appear in full light. Made vocal −being declaimed into the mike− and visible −as they are displayed on walls−, these claims are no longer muzzled by a government that now tolerates public gatherings which bring out such positioning into the open. They are increasingly supported by the population in the hope that national sovereignty, understood as control of the inhabitants of the Isles over their destiny, would translate into social and economic development. It is striking to see that Muslim organizations which advocate for imaginaries of the Zanzibari nation that associate culture, religion, and sovereignty are the most active actors in the pro-motion of independence. Until now, the two major political parties since the reintroduction of multipartyism in 1992, CCM and CUF, have surprisingly remained silent.


Kibanda Maiti is a vast open space in the area of Mwembe Chai situated a few miles only from Stone Town, Zanzibar’s city centre, where the political rallies of the two main political parties of the Isles are bing regularly held, the CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or the Party of the Revolution), in power, and the CUF (Civic United Front) opposition party. Thus, in 2010, during the last electoral campaign for the fourth general election, the CCM closing meeting took place there, gathering a compact and excited crowd of supporters a few days only before Election Day. Other groups of activists that are not registered as political parties can be authorized to held gatherings there, as is the case of Jumuiya ya Uamsho na Mihadhara ya Kiislam (the association for the awakening and propagation of Islam) (1) on the 3rd, 4th and 5th March 2012. The objective of these meetings was clearly stated: to mobilize the Zanzibari population for the independence of Zanzibar: “If we are united, we will win. The path is very long to claim for the independence of our country. We need patience and cooperation so as to ensure that our islands will be free. The decision is  ours, Muslims. It is not the others who should tell us what we must do” (personal recording, 4th March 2012, my translation).

From the revision to the rupture of the Tanzanian Constitution 

The meeting of the 4th March in Kibanda Maiti given as an example here is one case among a series of gatherings organized by Uamsho (as the association is usually called by Zanzibaris) which were held for one week in the city and its periphery, and are going to be replicated in the rural areas of the islands in the coming weeks. These gatherings take place within the framework of a set of initiatives launched in 2011 by various Zanzibari civil and religious organisations with a view to taking part in the process of revision of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, which started with the new five-year mandate of 2011-2015. Stating that they “voice the opinion of ordinary citizens”, these initiatives aim at going against the appropriation of the process of constitutional revision by technocratic expertise. They are therefore held by groups which present themselves as intermediaries between the people and the political elite, whose members are Zanzibaris educated in the Muslim and/or in the European critical tradition.

In this regard, a programme of discussions and debates was jointly organised in 2011 by an institute of research led by historian Abdul Sheriff (Zanzibari Indian Ocean Research Institute, ZIORI), legal organisations (like Zanzibar Law Services Centre, ZLSC; and Zanzibar Law Society, ZLS) and Muslims associations (Uamsho, already mentioned; and the Association of Imams of Zanzibar, JUMAZA). Highly publicized locally and opened with lectures of academic personalities or renowned law experts (like Issa G. Shivji (2)) invited to discuss the procedures and modalities of revision of the Constitution on the basis of historical and legal aspects, these gatherings gave the audience the opportunity to express their opinion. A significant part of the meetings was indeed devoted to comments and questions from the public, followed by the speakers’ answers. Although it explicitly targeted all Zanzibaris and expected to attract less-educated people, these meetings de facto gathered an audience composed of the educated from the upper class, that is to say, urban, literate, and in certain cases but not systemically, relatively well-off Zanzibaris (3).

Such constitutional debates are far from new in Zanzibar. Since the creation of the Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar on 26th April 1964, which gave birth to the United Republic of Tanzania (4), and above all since the 1970s when hopes for economic and social development gave way to growing disillusion in Zanzibar, discontent has been on the high side in spite of the fact that public claims for greater political autonomy −sometimes even independence− were controlled by the authoritarian government (5). 

The 1990s decade, marked by the re-establishment of multipartyism and the democratisation of political life, made it increasingly possible to express such discontent publicly, all the more so as this discontent was reinforced by the growing encroachment of the Union on the political prerogatives of the Isles (§). Since its creation in 1992, the CUF opposition party has been entrusted by a large number of citizens with the task of getting the islands back on their feet thanks to the revision of the Union treaty. The party has defended the principle of a three-government system comprising the government of Zanzibar, the government of Mainland Tanzania (ex-Tanganyika), and a government of the Union dealing with revised and redefined Union matters that would respect the sovereignty of each of the two party members. 

What is new since the last general election is the coming in the open of reformist Muslim organizations (7) into the political game. It is well known that, contrary to the Tanzanian dictum that religion and politics remain separated (“Don’t mix religion and politics!” urged Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, at Independence, before the separation of religion and the state was adopted) (8), Islam has never been disconnected from politics. Not only have Muslim organisations supported CUF, but some CUF members were linked to these organisations, following the trend of Zanzibari “civilisational nationalism” (9) rooted in, among others, shared references to the practice of Islam in the Isles. CCM too was similarly influential in the religious sphere. Therefore, mosques were not neutral spaces but places of political mobilisation. But since 2011, the associations of reformist Islam have distanced themselves from the support of political opposition, or from their involvement into joint initiatives for civic education and debates concerned with the revision of the Constitution: they are organizing alone their meetings on the Constitution; they are not simply asking for the revision of the Constitution, but for its rupture, openly advocating for the independence of Zanzibar; they are helding these meetings in the form of mihadhara, that is to say, public lectures or sermons/preaching which associate politics, faith, and morality. 

One can think that the vocal assertion by the leader of the Association of Imams of Zanzibar, during a meeting held in 9th April 2011 to gather citizens’ opinion on the revision of the Constitution, symbolically marked openly the entrance of Muslim organisations into political involvement: declaring that the “dictatorship of Nyerere” (10) was over, the imam Farid Hadi Ahmed tore up the draft of the Constitution project in front of TV cameras. The audience, excited, was chanting together: “We don’t want the Union!”. 

An outspoken politicized Islam

Uamsho is a public association gathering various Sunni groups linked to an imam and a mosque. These groups have in common that they define themselves as ansar al-sunna (“auxiliaries of the Sunna”), that is to say Salafist (or Wahabbit) radical activists inspired by the Sunni reformist tradition of the Arabian Peninsula who put to the fore the Koran and the Sunna (Tradition). Heirs to a reformist trend introduced to East Africa in the 19th century, these groups oppose Islam as it has been practiced for centuries by a majority of people on the Swahili coast and its islands, that is, Sufi Islam represented by the three main Qadiriyya, Shadiliyya, and Alawiyya brotherhoods (or tarika, the “paths”) (11). 

Office of the JUMAZA Imams association, March 2012 @Fouéré

This Salafist current is increasingly influent at the religious level for the reason that a great number of imams have been trained in countries where reformist Islam prevails, such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or in the schools of the Isles where teachings of reformist Islam are being delivered. It is also influent at the social and cultural level, as the rigorist principles of the Islamic law as it is seen by the reformists increasingly guide everyday ways of thinking and ways of being: men diligently attend prayers at the mosque daily; women wear black hijab; people mobilize against bars and nightclubs, some of them having been burnt down in 2010. However, this current is not unanimously adopted by the Swahili population highly proud of festive celebrations typical of coastal Islam, and prone to re-appropriate customs and habits coming from abroad in a context where age-old cosmopolitanism and transnationalism have been pervasive until today. Thus, reformist scholars and their followers are sometimes ironically being referred to as watu wa bidaa (moralists, rigorists; literally, “the people of improper religious innovations” (12). 

Reactivating a type of patriotism impregnated with religiosity (here, Islam) which nationalist groups in the Isles have developed since the period of the fight for independence (13), that is, “civilizational nationalism” above-mentioned, Uamsho vocally advocates for the independence of Zanzibar. Doing so, the association posits itself on the political stage while at the same time acting for the propagation of reformist Islam whereby the Koran is considered the only recognized Constitution and the principles of Islamic law stand for the norms of life in society and of morality in politics. Today’s mihadhara exemplify this commitment: prayers open and close the preachers’ lectures; morality in politics is presented as the result of the implementation of the Islamic principles as they are stated in the Koran; the argumentation used to advocate for the independence of Zanzibar is grounded on the reading and interpretation of selected excerpts of the Koran; in sign of approbation, people in the audience must raise their arm instead of applauding; men and women are maintained separated – the former standing in front of the podium while the latter sit on rugs far behind the stage. During a muhadhara held on March 11th in the suburbs of the city, in Mwanakwerekwe area, speakers closed the meeting with preaching revolving around the issue of the improper consumption of alcohol and the nuisance of bars in Muslim society. Uamsho obviously belongs to the category of politicized Islam. Its members, well aware that they could be objected that they mix politics and religion, spend time countering potential detractors during their public lectures, asserting that religion and politics are one and the same thing. 

"Nous ne voulons aucune sorte d'Union", Jaws Corner, Stone Town, mars 2012 @ Fouéré

Jaws Corner’s blackboard, Stone Town,
March 2012 @ Fouéré

Room for the defense of Zanzibari sovereignty has surprisingly been left vacant by political parties: they are indeed bounded by a legislation that forbids any political party registered at the national level to claim for the rupture of the Union between Zanzibar and the Mainland. While the CCM, in power since Independence, has always celebrated the Union – notably because the political elite owes its maintaining in power to the Union (14) –, it is said that many politicians and influential members of the government from this party are in favour of Independence. Similarly, while CUF has always officially stood for the formation of a three-government political structure, the idea of separatism seems widespread today, if not among the elite, at least among grassroots members. Thus, in Jaws Corner square, the stronghold of CUF radicals situated in the heart of Stone Town, the blackboard where messages are written in chalk and erased on a daily basis bore the following words for over two weeks: “We don’t want any Union” (see photograph). A petition was also circulated, gathering the signatures of independence upholders in order to request the organisation of a referendum on the question of the independence of the Isles. Though less visible, party and civic mobilisation is not absent in a political climate full of expectations at the beginning of 2012. 


In a context characterized by increasing claims from Muslim associations, the mobilization of citizens by civil organisations, and the tacit and discreet support of political parties, Zanzibar increasingly appears to prepare itself for independence, stimulated by hopes for economic and social development which sovereignty seems to announce. Reformist Muslim activists find their way in the political spectrum, promoting a political model where sharia, the Islamic law, should rule. The reaction of the Union in the face of these multiple initiatives is not yet to be seen, while Zanzibaris, who have enjoyed a renewed unity since the establishment of the government of national unity after the last general election, elude the question of who would concretely lead the Isles if the latter would finally get independent. 


(1)  See Uamsho website: Literally, the term muhadhara (pl. mihadhara) designates public lectures (sermons, preaching) by imams and Muslim scholars held in mosques and in Koranic schools.

(2) Issa G. Shivji, professor in law coming from the Marxist school of the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970, when renown intellectuals within the Africanist sphere (Terence Ranger, Walter Rodney,…) used to teach there, is one of the most famous figures of the Tanzanian intellectual scene and is well-recognized abroad. He published numerous academic books.  

(3) Personal observation, March 2011.

(4) Zanzibar has a semi-autonomous status within the United Republic of Tanzania. The Union Treaty between former Tanganyika and Zanzibar put in place a bi-government structure. The Isles have government and a legislative power (the House of Representative); they rule internal affairs such as education, culture, health. The Union (through the Union government and the national Parliament) deals with national affairs such as defence, home affairs, foreign affairs, customs, etc.  

(5) A. Crozon, «Zanzibar en Tanzanie : une histoire politique mouvementée», in C. Le Cour Grandmaison & A. Crozon, Zanzibar aujourd’hui, Karthala-IFRA, 1998, p.113-139  

(6) H. Othman, & P. M. Chris, Zanzibar and the Union Question, Zanzibar, Zanzibar Legal Services Centre, 2006  

(7) The term «reformism» designates a conservative current advocating for the return to the Koran only; it is characterized by the condemnation of religious innovations (called bidaa in Swahili, see note 13) seen as violating Koranic principles and the Sunna (the tradition of the Prophet).  

(8) The involvement of Islam in political activities was a common feature during the period of the fight for independence, then in the times of the single party regime, between 1964 and 1992. Muslim leaders used their authority and position to mobilise support to the single party. 

(9) Jonathon Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones. Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2011.  

(10) The Union Treaty was a passed between the President of Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere, and President of Zanzibar, Abeid Amani Karume. It is common to hear, in Zanzibar, that Nyerere would have forced this Union in order to hinder the social and economic development of Zanzibar, and control the expansion of Islam in Mainland Tanzania – hence the expression used in nationalist circles, now widespread among the population, of ‘Nyerere’s dictatorship’. See for instance the influential memoirs of the leader of the first nationalist party on the Isles, Ali Muhsin al-Barwani, who compares Nyerere with Hitler: «Nyerere has destroyed everything that he has ever handled. Hitler built then destroyed everything by his mania. But this man [Nyerere] is worse. (…) He has destroyed Zanzibar and all its fine orchards and plantation of clove trees and coconut palms (…)», Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar (Memoirs), Dubai, 1997, p.162.  

(11) For an overview, see A.H. Nimtz, Islam and Politics in East Africa. The Sufi Order in Tanzania, , Minneapolis University Press, 1980; F. Constantin (eds), Les voies de l’islam en Afrique orientale, Paris, Karthala, 1987.  

(12) These bidaa relate to ways of dressing and ways of behaving (including music and dance) which are considered as transgressing Koranic principles of rigor, discipline, morality, and gender division; they target practices which are typical of the Eastern Africa Sufi Islamic tradition such as maulidi celebrations (‘sung’ prayers outside of the mosque, with drums and body movements), zikr (celebrations of God through the repetition of the word Allah, in a singing manner, which facilitates trance, and sometimes include the use drums) and ziara (processions and prayers to the graves of famous religious figures, imams, scholars, saints).

(13) See the Memoirs of the notorious nationalist leader of the fight for independence, Ali Muhsin al-Barwani (Ibid.), which gives testimony of the link between nationalism and Islamic faith (for instance, «The people of Zanzibar should imbibe a religiously motivated patriotism», p.271; «The revolution was the nationalist revolution which inspired unity, and moral rectitude. It was a revolution based on the teachings of God as expounded by our parents, our teachers in schools and mosques (…)», p.272.  

(14) See the analysis of the political scientist Ben Rawlence, who asks: «Until when the government of the Union will help the administration of Zanzibar to remain in power?» (B. Rawlence, «Briefing: The Zanzibar Election», African Affairs, vol. 104, n° 416, 2005, p. 522). See also M.-A. Fouéré, «Chronique des élections de 2010 à Zanzibar», Politique africaine, n°121, 2011, pp. 127-145.  

Citer ce billet
Marie-Aude Fouéré (2012, 13 février). Zanzibar Independent in 2015? Constitutional Review, Politicized Islam, and Separatist Claims. Mambo ! Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search