Report: Zanzibar 2020

At present, the 2020 election in Zanzibar appears to be heading down a similar path to previous elections in the semi-autonomous state; that is, a fierce contest marred by violence. Preventing this cycle of violence coinciding with an impending election is key to ensuring not only the safety and security of the Zanzibari population, but also the observation of free and fair elections. 2020 looks set to be especially problematic, as the various parties involved are currently refusing to put forth constructive dialogue. This is largely due to the annulment of the 2015 election results by the state-chosen Electoral Commission, which the opposition party CUF (Civic United Front) claimed to have won.

Since the 2015 election, Tanzania’s ruling party CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi), under president John Magufuli, has pushed through various legal reforms which will likely affect the fairness of the upcoming election. Besides the reforms curtailing many civil liberties, Magufuli has also forced the closure of many independent newspapers and any public organisations critical of his government. Such attacks on civil and political rights have been reinforced by a crackdown on opposition members both within Zanzibar and on the Tanzanian mainland, with many government critics and opposition members being subjected to unexplained and often vicious attacks, including the detonation of explosives at a law firm associated with a leading government critic, Fatma Karume. Zanzibar’s main opposition party, the CUF, has claimed that the CCM has rigged every election since the fair multiparty electoral process was introduced in 1995. Since coming to power, Magufuli has become more brazen in his dismissal of opponents, banning opposition rallies in 2016 and prohibiting state television from broadcasting live parliamentary proceedings. The CCM in Zanzibar has taken further measures to consolidate its own power, by giving the Zanzibar Electoral Commission Chairman – appointed by the CCM – greater powers to manage elections without consulting other commissioners. The opposition has also been stripped of the power to nominate two of the seven electoral commissioners. Such actions undermine the power sharing agreements made as part of the 2010 reconciliation agreement, aimed at preventing further violence. Magufuli’s dangerous statement in July 2018 that CCM “will rule forever, for eternity” highlights how his government’s encroachment upon civil liberties has reached a critical point.

So far, very little has been done in response to the problem. A recent report from the International Crisis Group [] has put forth a number of possible solutions, including proposing that members of civil society – particularly religious leaders – should play a role in encouraging members of both parties to engage and agree to changes which would ensure a fairer election. The international community and regional bodies should be supporting such efforts, with a warning that any incitement of violence would result in sanctions. Such a course of action would, potentially, be practical in the long term, however the proximity of the election necessitates more direct action. While religious leaders in the community have some political sway, the CCM’s repressive actions have so far excluded them. Any overreaction on their part could lead to further crackdowns, sparking potential religious conflict due to the diverse religious groups present on the Zanzibar islands. The current fear is that when the 2020 election results are declared, the electoral commission’s potential announcement of the opposition’s defeat may lead to protests – protests which could very quickly turn violent. Dissatisfaction with the Tanzanian control of Zanzibari politics has also led to a rise in the number of people joining secessionist movements, campaigning for Zanzibar to split from the mainland. Others have turned toward radical Islamic groups, under the perception that the Christian-dominated CCM are already discriminating against Zanzibar and other Muslim areas. The response at present should therefore be to prevent any rise in violence while trying, through diplomatic means, to scale back the repressive measures passed by Magufuli’s government.

The key avenue for this is utilising other senior party officials within the CCM, who still retain some influence, to persuade Magufuli to moderate his policies. Any action taken by them is likely to have a much wider and more immediate impact than any taken by religious leaders, as they command widespread respect within the party. Pressure must be applied by both the opposition and regional bodies, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC), to persuade senior staff to change their course and engage diplomatically with the opposition both in Zanzibar and on the mainland. It must be impressed upon the government that repressive measures, in particular those meted out by the security forces to prevent opposition groups from gathering publicly, will be responded to with strong sanctions – not merely the threat of them, as the Crisis Group report suggests. Another key organisation to aid in the diffusion of tensions is the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, which has garnered much respect in the region for having brought Zanzibar’s political parties to the discussion table on previous occasions. The opposition parties must have an equal chance, at least in conditional terms, of winning the election. While changing the structural factors which currently prevent free elections from occurring are effectively impossible within the short time frame, engaging the ruling and opposition parties in dialogue is a useful and important first step. At present, there is still hope that the 2020 elections could be held freely, fairly and without violence.

Henry Whitelaw