From political revolution to socio-economic revolution, Zanzibar is steadily realising the goals of the 1964th Revolution, which overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab government.
As the Indian Ocean Islands marks 59th Revolution Anniversary, Zanzibaris have every reason to celebrate remarkable achievements that have been recorded in various key sectors.
From trading in human beings, Zanzibar is considered a renowned tourist destination, with a diversified economy and remarkably transformed social sectors.
It is an interesting march for the semi-autonomous Indian Ocean archipelagos, which have registered substantial improvements in living conditions and a drop in poverty since the historic 1964th Zanzibar Revolution.
A World Bank Group report, Towards a More Inclusive Zanzibar Economy: Zanzibar Poverty Assessment 2022, shows while Zanzibar’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita grew at 2.9 percent per year during 2009 to 2019, consumption per adult equivalent grew by only 1.7 percent per year over the same period.
The World Bank’s Poverty Assessment launched in November last year shows fast improvement in various non-monetary poverty indicators (living conditions). Between 2009 and 2019, gross enrollment in secondary education (forms 5 and 6), for example, increased from 51 to 66 per cent. The proportion of households with access to the electricity grid network grew from 38 to 57 per cent, with another six percent having access to solar power.
“This shows that the significant increase in investments in basic social services in all districts in Zanzibar as part of the implementation of its Development Vision 2050 has led to important gains in human capital,” said Preeti Arora, Acting World Bank Country Director.
The economy of Zanzibar has, thus, continued to perform satisfactorily on account of resumption of economic activities, especially those related to tourism. The Isles economy grew by 6.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2022 compared with 6.5 per cent in the corresponding quarter in 2021
It was never meant to be an easy march for the islanders. An ethnically diverse state consisting of several islands off the east coast of Tanganyika, Zanzibar had been granted independence by Britain in 1963.
However, a series of parliamentary elections resulted in the Arab minority retaining the hold on power it had inherited from Zanzibar’s former existence as an overseas territory of Oman.
Frustrated by under-representation in Parliament despite winning 54 percent of the vote in the July 1963 election, the mainly African Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) allied itself with the left-wing Umma Party, and early on the morning of 12 January 1964, ASP member John Okello mobilised around 600-800 revolutionaries on the main island of Unguja.
Having overrun the country’s police force and appropriated their weaponry, the insurgents proceeded to Zanzibar Town where they overthrew the Sultan and his government.
Reprisals against Arab and South Asian civilians on the island followed; the resulting death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from several hundred to 20,000. The moderate ASP leader Abeid Karume became the country’s new president and head of state and positions of power were granted to Umma party members. The new government’s apparent communist ties concerned the West and as Zanzibar lay within the British sphere of influence, the British government drew up several intervention plans.
The revolution ended 200 years of Arab dominance in Zanzibar and is commemorated on the island each year with anniversary celebrations and a public holiday. The Zanzibar Archipelago, now part of the East African republic of Tanzania, is a group of islands lying in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanganyika. It comprises the main southern island of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar), the smaller northern island of Pemba, and numerous surrounding islets. With a long history of Arab rule dating back to 1698, Zanzibar was an overseas territory of Oman until it achieved independence in 1858 under its Sultan.
By 1964, the country was a constitutional monarchy ruled by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah. Zanzibar had a population of around 230,000 Africans – some of whom claimed Persian ancestry and were known locally as Shirazi’s – and also contained significant minorities in the 50,000 Arabs and 20,000 South Asians who were prominent in business and trade. The various ethnic groups were becoming mixed and the distinctions between them had blurred; according to one historian, an important reason for the general support for Sultan Jamshid was his family’s ethnic diversity.
However, the island’s Arabic inhabitants, as the island’s major landowners, were generally wealthier than the Africans. The major political parties were organized largely along ethnic lines, with Arabs dominating the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and Africans the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP). In January 1961, as part of the process of decolonization, the island’s British authorities drew up constituencies and held democratic elections. Both the ASP and the ZNP won 11 of the available 22 seats in Zanzibar’s Parliament, so further elections were held in June with the number of seats increased to 23.
The ZNP entered into a coalition with the Zanzibar and Pemba People’s Party (ZPPP) and this time took 13 seats, while the ASP, despite receiving the most votes, won just 10. Due to the layout of the constituencies the ASP, led by Abeid Amani Karume, won 54 percent of the popular vote but only 13 seats, while the ZNP/ZPPP won the rest and set about strengthening its hold on power.
The Umma Party, formed that year by disaffected radical Arab socialist supporters of the ZNP, was banned and all policemen of African mainland origin were dismissed. This removed a large portion of the only security force on the island and created an angry group of paramilitary-trained men with knowledge of police buildings, equipment, and procedures.
Complete independence from British rule was granted on 10 December 1963, with the ZNP/ZPPP coalition as the governing body. The government requested a defense agreement from the United Kingdom, asking for a battalion of British troops to be stationed on the island for internal security duties, but this was rejected as it was deemed inappropriate for British troops to be involved in the maintenance of law and order so soon after independence.
British intelligence reports predicted that a civil disturbance, accompanied by increasing communist activity, was likely shortly and that the arrival of British troops might cause the situation to deteriorate further. However, many foreign nationals remained on the island, including 130 Britons who were direct employees of the Zanzibar government. Around 3:00 am on 12 January 1964, 600-800 poorly armed, mainly African insurgents, aided by some of the recently dismissed ex-policemen, attacked Unguja’s police stations, both of its police armories and the radio station.
The Arab police replacements had received almost no training and despite responding with a mobile force, were soon overcome. Arming themselves with hundreds of captured automatic rifles, submachine guns and bren guns, the insurgents took control of strategic buildings in the capital, Zanzibar Town. Within six hours of the outbreak of hostilities, the town’s telegraph office and main government buildings were under revolutionary control and the island’s only airstrip was captured at 2:18 pm.
The Sultan, together with Prime Minister Muhammad Shamte Hamadi and members of the cabinet, fled the island on the royal yacht Seyyid Khalifa and Sultan’s palace and other property were seized by the revolutionary government. At least 80 people were killed and 200 injured, the majority of whom were Arabs, during the 12 hours of street fighting that followed.
The revolution was planned and headed by the ASP leader Abeid Amani Karume. However, at the time Karume was on Mainland as was the leader of the banned Umma Party, Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu. The ASP branch secretary for Pemba, Ugandan-born ex-policeman John Okello, had sent Karume to the Mainland to ensure his safety. Okello had arrived in Zanzibar from Kenya in 1959, claiming to have been a field marshal for the Kenyan rebels during the Mau Mau Uprising, although he had no military experience.
He maintained that he heard a voice commanding him, as a Christian, to free the Zanzibari people from the Arabs and it was Okello who led the revolutionaries – mainly unemployed members of the Afro-Shirazi Youth League – on 12 January. One commentator has further speculated that it was probably Okello, with the Youth League, who planned the revolution. The bodies of Arabs killed in the post-revolution violence as captured by the Africa Addio film crew Revolutionary Council was established by the ASP and Umma parties to act as an interim government, with Karume heading the council as President and Babu serving as the Minister of External Affairs.
The country was renamed the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba, and the new government’s first acts were to permanently banish the Sultan and to ban the ZNP and ZPPP.