Opposition leaders are lobbying for a referendum as questions of religion dominate local elections on the islands governed in union with Tanzania.
An Islamic organisation in Zanzibar fanned religious hatred and organised anti-union protests in May, provoking the highest tensions on the islands since 1964, when they merged with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.
When President Jakaya Kikwete told a batch of new constitutional review commissioners at their swearing-in ceremony on 13 April that they should not listen to talk of Zanzibar’s secession from the 48-year-old union with mainland Tanzania, Zanzibaris who want a referendum on the issue were incensed.
A group of 300 people, believed to be supporters of the second-biggest party in the islands, the Civic United Front (CUF), marched to the Zanzibar House of Representatives on 24 April to force it to discuss the issue. They were arrested and arraigned, but few predicted that this would be the start of a secessionist movement.
Islamic organisation Uamsho (meaning revival) organised anti-union protests that led to clashes across Unguja – Zanzibar’s main island – on 26 and 27 May. Scores of people were injured and church buildings destroyed. Protestors distributed flyers urging mainlanders and those from Pemba, which is a part of Zanzibar, to leave Unguja.
Zanzibar’s President Ali Mohamed Shein spoke three days after the violence and Kikwete the day after him. They both maintained non-aggressive tones, insisting that churches were in Zanzibar before colonialism and that their presence as houses of worship had nothing to do with the union or the constitution.
Despite a warning from the two leaders that Uamsho should not hold public rallies, Islamic Revival Forum leader Sheikh Farid Hadi Ahmed defied the order and organised a rally on 3 June.
The Zanzibar disturbances are considered the most dangerous threat levelled at government authorities since the Zanzibar revolution. A section of Swahili newspapers have associated the CUF with the riots, some blaming them on an attempt to win back popularity that has been waning since the party joined a government of national unity in 2010 with the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
CUF leaders have chosen to keep a low profile and have not reacted to the allegations. But previous statements by the two top CUF leaders, secretary-general Maalim Seif and his deputy, Ismail Jussa Ladhu, have done little to quell tensions.
In February, when CCM candidate Mohammed Raza won a by-election in Uzini, Jussa blamed it on the number of churches and Christians in Zanzibar. Maalim Seif is widely believed to be behind an article published soon after the by-election in the An-Nuur newspaper that included the line “the churches have decided not to live in harmony with us”.
CCM publicity secretary Nape Nnauye said Jussa’s statement showed a lack of “political maturity”.
Nnauye accused some politicians of using the union discussion to advance their religious agenda and said such groups should be deregistered. “There are set channels which could be used to express views on the union, but the burning of churches has nothing to do with the union,” he said.
Tanzania’s constitutional commissioners will spend the next 18 months travelling across the country to collect views before a draft constitution is drawn up next November and put to national referendum.
However, for the time being, the commissioners will only be canvassing opinion from mainland Tanzania because the Constitution Review Act has not yet been discussed in the House of Representatives. The bill is expected to be tabled there in June●
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