Tanzania’s fundamentally flawed elections in late October, and the additional repression unleashed in their immediate aftermath, have provoked international alarm and criticism. From pre-election conditions that stifled free speech and criminalized civic action to election-day irregularities including communications blackouts and ballot box tampering, the entire exercise lacked credibility, making the anodyne statements of the Southern African Development Community nothing short of embarrassing. When opposition leaders are arrested in the aftermath of an election and shortly afterward must flee the country fearing for their lives, there are no congratulations in order for anyone.
But sometimes lost in the sheer quantity of alarming news stories about Tanzania’s slide into authoritarianism is the fact that the people of Zanzibar, the semiautonomous region off the coast of mainland Tanzania, have been repeatedly denied their civil and political rights, even in the era when the rest of the country appeared to be on a democratic trajectory. As the International Crisis Group has noted, international observers have corroborated opposition allegations of cheating in every election in Zanzibar since 1995, the year multiparty elections were reintroduced countrywide. In this year’s election, a heavy military and police presence in Zanzibar set an intimidating tone that escalated into beatings, violent expulsions of legitimate observers from polling places, the use of tear gas against civilians, and killings.
The people of Zanzibar are almost entirely Muslim, whereas Muslims are a minority on the mainland. Their political rights are consistently denied. Asking them to have faith in the rule of law and peaceful institutions of government to address their grievances is a very tall order, given their repeated experiences. Zanzibar would seem a very ripe target for violent extremists. As alarm bells sound ever more loudly about the insurgency in northern Mozambique, which has already spilled over into Tanzania, some international soul-searching about why Zanzibar’s plight has persisted for so long is overdue. The point is not that the people of Zanzibar are dangerous; it is that their disenfranchisement is dangerous, in addition to simply being wrong. Those who claim to focus solely on security issues with transnational implications cannot ignore the very real consequences of politics.