Zanzibar: Tourist paradise island in political crisis

Famous for sea sports, dolphin watching, and unbeatable pristine sand beaches, Zanzibar island is in a serious political dilemma on whether to remain a part of Tanzania or separate to become a new country in Africa.

A tense political debate is going on in Tanzania’s political capital of Dodoma to decide whether Zanzibar island would be an autonomous state and separate from the 50-year-old union with the mainland Tanzania.

This Saturday, April 26, Tanzania will celebrate a half-century anniversary of the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, an event which created the name Tanzania to signify the merger of two countries to create one sovereign state.

But the beautiful tourist island of Zanzibar is celebrating the day of union with mainland Tanzania, while posing a threat to sink into deep political crisis which could greatly damage this famous paradise in East Africa.

Political pundits and other cronies from the ruling CCM Party (Revolution Party) are seated at the Constituent Assembly in the dusty Dodoma municipality to decide the fate of the union of Tanzania and the future of Zanzibar.

The Hollywood and Ukrainian parliament style Constitutional Assembly had so far frustrated many Tanzanians, mostly Zanzibar residents who want a fair deal in the union.

Zanzibar Minister and a member of the Assembly, Khamis Bakary, said the Union was dominated with shortfalls which had denied Zanzibar its fundamental rights as a country, among them, an international integration and fair resource sharing.

Despite the ongoing political stalemate, tourists are still flocking to Zanzibar’s warm tropical beaches to enjoy the African sun or watching dolphins at Kizimkazi deep waters, while taking time in scuba diving, attractions which had attracted renowned world personalities, including Bill Gates.

Zanzibar tourism, however, is made up mostly of pristine sand beaches, deep water diving, unique and rich multi-racial cultures, and historical sites, all of which attracted leading singers and artists to compose songs in praise of this beautiful island, among them, the famous South African singer, Sipho Mabhuse, who sang in his song, “Oh Zanzibar!”

Despite its tourism riches, Zanzibar is poorer when compared to mainland tourist towns of Arusha and Moshi in the northern circuit.

There have been cases of child abuse in the island’s beaches with human rights activists raising an alarm over child exploitation by a section of tourist companies, mostly foreign investors.

Activists blame the Zanzibar government for its failure to invest in education for the island’s children, causing many children to fail to attend schools in favor of sexual business in beaches and illicit drug deals.

They raised an alarm over escalating child labor in the island’s tourism, mostly those taking tourists to dolphin safaris. Members of the island’s parliament have blasted their government over moral decay among the youths, as the tourism industry thrives, while the level of poverty increases.

Tourism is currently the leading source of revenue to Zanzibar’s economy, injecting 27 percent to the isle’s gross domestic product (GDP), while generating 72 percent of the isle’s foreign currency, but most Zanzibaris have yet to benefit from it, the average income is less than US$1 per day.

Critics of the Union see no reason why Zanzibar is much poorer than the rest of Indian Ocean islands, despite its rich ocean resources, taking into account that most island states in the world are richer than hinterland states.

As of this, Zanzibar wants to stand alone and compete with Seychelles, Mauritius, La Reunion, and Maldives – the other island state destinations.

There are circulating reports that Zanzibar people want to see their island become an autonomous republic and run alone as a free port similar to Dubai in United Arab Emirates (UAE), Singapore, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, hence take an opportunity to dominate business links in Eastern, Southern, and Central Africa as a free port.

On April 26, 1964, former Tanzanian President, Dr. Julius Nyerere, and the first Zanzibar’s President, Sheikh Abeid Karume, united Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form the present United Republic of Tanzania.

Critics of the 1964 union between the mainland (Tanganyika) are looking at the entire affair as the Biblical story of David and Goliath. They claim that the mainland, which is richer simply by virtue of its size, also has more natural resources than the island.

Zanzibar has a population approaching one million while mainland Tanzania has 45 million people.

Separatist factions and a section of media outlets in Tanzania refer to the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar as a “shotgun wedding,” while advocating a separate “Republic of Zanzibar” outside the United Republic of Tanzania.

Muslim clerics were recently quoted protesting the powers of the President of Tanzania over the people of Zanzibar, unfair distribution of wealth between the two sides of the Union, poverty among Zanzibar people, and rights over oil control and foreign policy.

Zanzibar had launched an aggressive tourism market blitz, targeting high-class tourists, competing with other Indian Ocean island destinations of Seychelles, Mauritius, La Reunion, and Maldives.

Anti-union critics see no reason to have the island be marketed in Europe, America, and other global tourist markets as part of Tanzania instead of going alone. The slogan “Visit Tanzania: The Land of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and the Serengeti” had not benefited the island’s tourism so far, they say.

Tanzanian Prime Minister, Mr. Mizengo Pinda, was once quoted voicing on the union matter, saying, the “union shall not break” and that leaders of this country were not ready to see the union breaking.

The ongoing debate of a new constitution had witnessed some groups of people, especially in Zanzibar, demanding that Zanzibar remain an independent state out of the union structure.

Campaigns on the matter have been spearheaded by the Islamic awakening activists. The ruling communist manifestoed CCM party wants Zanzibar to remain part of Tanzania, while the liberal opposition CUF party stands for greater autonomy, looking for an independent state of Zanzibar.

Zanzibar island is influenced by African, Arabic, European, and Indian cultures. The question remains whether this tourist paradise is going to survive from the ongoing tense political tension.