Threat to Liberation: Tishio La Ukombozi: Ubeberu na Mapinduzi Zanzibar

What was ‘The Threat of Liberation’ by Amrit Wilson in her book? Zahid Rajan reviews Amrit Wilson’s book originally published in English by Pluto Press (2013) as The Threat to Liberation

The Relevance and the Context today:

Academicians, intellectuals and historians will benefit immensely from this excellent book by Amrit Wilson, published by Daraja Press. This is particularly important in the context of the political and economic onslaught by US Imperialism on China and the Russia.  John Pilger’s documentary series,‘The Coming War on China’, available for free viewing on YouTube and the Aljazeera Website is a good resource. To note is also the unstable situation the US has created in the Middle East through the wars on Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran and Palestine, hopelessly dividing the Gulf nations and ruling by proxy through Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In her introduction, Amrit Wilson describes Zanzibar in today’s context ‘as an important piece in the jigsaw of the United States foreign and military policy in Africa’. The US army in Zanzibar today, is opening schools, conferring awards and entrenching themselves on the island as secret documents revealed recently by WikiLeaks.

Zanzibar is part of the US’ greater strategic area stretching from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to Ethiopia, the Seychelles and Kenya. The ‘War on Terror’ is conducted from these areas bordering the Indian Ocean where secret drone bases have been established to enable them to attack and destabilize any country that does not allow the US access to its resources. Drones take off from these bases targeting unarmed populations and killing men, women and children who are simply ‘collateral damage’. In June 2009, Tanzania agreed to the establishment of the presence of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which allows the US to carry out surveillance, rendition and torture to deal with anyone who challenges the US. AFRICOM also has bases in Djibouti and Ethiopia?

It is in this context that the ‘Zanzibar Revolution’ in 1964 was such a threat to the US and Imperialism.

Uprising and Revolution

The Zanzibar Revolution was in part due to the revolutionary organizing of the Umma Party. Abdulrahman Babu as leader of the Party was to write later that the people rose up not simply to ‘overthrow a politically bankrupt government and a caricature monarchy’ but to change a social system, which had oppressed the Zanzibar people for so long, and to take the destiny of history into their own hands (Babu 1989:3). Hashiel Seif Hashil who was on the Central Committee of the Party said that one of the things the party did was to explain to the people the purpose of the revolution, which was not to kill, rape or steal but to change the country.

However, the reasons for the uprising had its genesis in colonial Zanzibar. Since the 1830s, Zanzibar was ruled by a dynasty of Sultans from Oman who had settled there and married with the local people. Historically Zanzibar had faced a series of colonial incursions by the Portuguese, Omanis, Germans, French and finally in 1890 by the British. The South Asians who had arrived in Zanzibar as early as the 1st Century became moneylenders and impoverished the Arab Landowners who were vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of cloves. As a result, Zanzibar was a society mired in deep racial divisions. It had also become an entrepot for the slave trade although not on the scale of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Cloves introduced in the 19th century made it into a plantation economy and a slave society until the abolition of slavery in 1897.

Demographics on the two islands of Zanzibar

In the 1950s, Unguja consisted mainly of absentee Arab landlords who lived in Zanzibar town. The peasant subsistence farmers were mainly Shirazis who traced their ancestry to the Shiraz from Iran while the squatters on the plantations were from mainland Tanganyika who had come in during the picking season and stayed. Zanzibar town on the western tip of Unguja was a sophisticated city and had streetlights even before London and its population consisted of merchants, traders, street vendors, shopkeepers, casual labourers, dockworkers etc.

Pemba on the other hand was almost entirely rural. Big landowners, Shirazi and Arab middle classes and rich peasants populated the fertile land.

The British in its usual colonial style imposed a racist colonial ideology by setting up 23 racial associations such as the African Association, the Arab Association, and the Shirazi Association etc through which it effectively divided and ruled society. The leadership of associations comprising of the dominant classes, actively festered institutional racial divisions and antagonisms.

The early 1950s saw the rise of nationalist consciousness and one of the first revolts was a peasant uprising between 1951-54 in the west of Unguja which was brutally suppressed by the British.  However, far from being cowed the uprising led to the setting up of the first political party for independence, the ‘Party of National Unity for the Sultan’s subjects (PNUSS) which sought to unite not only the peoples of Unguja and Pemba but also the Swahili speaking people of the Kenyan coast.

Fearing the political contagion the British enforced a law that prohibited political activity by civil servants and effectively paralysed the African Association led by Abeid Karume who later became a prominent figure in Zanzibari politics. Al Falaq the newspaper of the Arab Association meanwhile in solidarity published material in support of the peasant uprising and condemned the colonial government’s brutal response.

In retaliation, the British charged the publisher and the entire executive committee of the Arab Association with sedition. The sedition trial galvanized the population and attracted the membership of urban workers, craftspeople, the petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals. Soon the PNUSS changed its name to the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) led by Ali Muhsin who had been a committee member of the Arab Association.

Threatened by these developments the British sought to undermine the struggle and divide the people.  It projected the ZNP as an anti-colonial movement. To the Arab landowners it presented the party as a threat to their personal privilege and to the African and Shirazi petty bourgeoisie as an Arab ‘front’ to get rid of the British and impose Arab domination. It hurriedly sought to front an ‘African’ party in opposition and after a little floundering found the perfect ally in the late Julius Nyerere. Nyerere visited Zanzibar in 1956 to persuade the Africans and the Shirazis to work against the Arabs. Soon enough the ‘Afro-Shirazi Union (ASU) was formed in readiness for the forthcoming elections which it won but not with the majority it sought. Soon the Pemba Shirazis joined the ASU resulting in the formation of the Afro Shirazi Party (ASP). The ASP with Karume as its leader was clearly an ally of the British.

Return of Babu

In 1957, Babu who was in London returned to Zanzibar just around the time of the elections. While in London, he had undergone leadership training with the British Labour party and on his return was ready to reinvigorate the ZNP. He was now the Secretary General of the party and one of his first tasks was to make the ZNP into a mass based party with a broad based coalition of all racial grouping and classes against colonialism. He set up the Youths Own Union (YOU) to reach out to students at primary and secondary level, male and female and to all racial classes. He founded ZaNews, which become the voice of the Left and adopted an anti-imperialist stand.

He quickly came under the surveillance of the CIA as it regarded the ZNP as a threat to its work in the region. It branded ZNP an ‘Arab Party’ and tried to influence both the ZNP and the ASP Trade Union leaders by funding propaganda visits by Irving Brown to Zanzibar in an attempt to align them to the American funded International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The Americans, despite protests to the contrary by both the parties, set up a satellite tracking station named the ‘Mercury’. The CIA also set up a network of stooges and informers in Zanzibar.

Racial tensions

By now, political differences between the Right and the Left had developed within the ZNP. The ASP similarly had class differences between its members and big business represented mainly by the Indian National Association wielded enormous influence. The ASP cadres began fermenting racial hatred by organizing boycotts of Arab businesses and threating Arab landowners. The landowners in response started evicting squatters on their land.

Reprieve to these tensions came in the form of intervention by the Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) which resulted in the formation of a ‘Freedom Committee’, that preached reconciliation and peace on the islands through a series of national tours condemning racial aggression and promoting unity and nationalism.

The détente however only lasted a year. The ASP (now dominated by TANU) became hesitant to follow the path of national reconciliation as it realized that it could not lead the independence movement without the cooperation of the ZNP. There was tension and dissent within the ASP with the Pemba delegates ‘doubting the necessity of co-operating with the Nationalists’ but the intervention of the British and  the TANU faction gained the upper hand by declaring that the Afro-Shirazis were ‘the rightful owners of Zanzibar’; and that after independence Tanganyika and Zanzibar would be united under one republic.

By late 1959, ASP supporters once again started attacking the Arabs and the right wing within the ZNP began fermenting racial tensions by evicting squatters from their lands. An alliance was formed by the Pemba section of the ASP party and the right wing of the ZNP and a new party, The Zanzibar and Pemba Peoples Party (ZNPP), was formed. Babu who by then was out of the country in Egypt and on his way to China was stunned at the change in events: ‘Our painstaking work for the unity of the people of Zanzibar was suddenly in ruin…we were witnessing the end of our carefully nurtured inter-party unity. It was a victory of the reactionaries in both parties and goodbye to Zanzibar’s political stability.’

The Left strategizes

The Left recognized colonialism and not the ASP to be the primary contradiction and even considered joining the ASP despite all the hostilities within the right wing of the ZNP. However, it resolved to remain within the ZNP taking cognizance of the tremendous amount of work the party had put into charting Zanzibar onto a revolutionary course.  The party focused on the primacy of the similarities between the working class in Zanzibar and the mainland. It also worried about its peasant base, which did not fully comprehend the contradictions within the party and could play into the hands of the colonialists especially given the vital need for their support as the revolutionary struggle intensified. Should the Left wing then have resigned from the ZNP and launched the Umma party in readiness for the national elections? The Left found it more prudent to be active within the existing nationalist anti-colonial movements taking cognizance of the extreme repression of the Left under colonialism.

The Elections in January 1961 proved indecisive. The 22 available posts were divided equally between the ASP and the ZNP-ZPPP alliance, and a caretaker government was set up to see another election in June 1961. The British quickly created a new parliamentary constituency in South Pemba to ensure victory for the right wing of the ZNP-ZPPP in the run off. Soon riots erupted and the British declared a state of emergency and brought in troops for the next 20 months.

Babu was arrested in early January 1962 in order to paralyze the organized Left. He was charged with sedition and although the official reason was that he had made a statement alleging that the ASP in connivance with the colonial government planned the riots of 1961; the real reason was that Babu had all along been a threat to the colonial government since his return from London in 1957. His British lawyer Ralph Milner was denied entry into Zanzibar and Babu was consequently jailed for 18 months in the absence of a jury.

At the end of March 1962, the British Government convened a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London. Released on bond, Babu was allowed to attend as an observer. The British Government was by then eager to hand over power to a coalition government between the ZNP-ZPPP and the ASP but divisions emerged between the parties over ministerial positions and policy matters like land distribution and racial composition of the civil service. The conference was a deadlock and in March 1963, the British secretary for State Duncan Sandy visited Zanzibar and forced through a compromise plan under which there would be  self-government in June 1963, followed by a general election.

Babu’s release on April 29, 1963 was euphoric. It raised the spirits of the YOU members and the Zanzibari people as a whole. The Left now openly challenged the right wing within the ZNP and in June, at a pre-election party meeting of the leaders, the Left wing resigned en-masse and launched the Umma Party the next day. This re-awakened the Zanzibari people and Umma Party membership shot up dramatically. Its programme pledged to be a ‘conscious vanguard of the oppressed people of Zanzibar representing the broad interests of the African people who today are bearing the brunt of economic oppression resulting from foreign colonialism and local feudalism’. Members of the FPTU members who had left the ZNP now joined the Umma Party in droves leaving the ZNP-ZNPP government without any trade union support. Umma also developed links with the Zanzibar and Pemba Federation of Labour (ZPLF), which was the ASP affiliated trade union federation.

Lofchie says ‘Babu was universally acknowledged as the organizational genius of Zanzibar politics’. On December 10, 1964, the British granted independence to Zanzibar with the Sultan as the head of State. Repression soon ensued and two bills were presented to Parliament aimed at giving the Government power to ban any political party and proscribe newspapers.

Sensing the danger the Umma Party formed an alliance with the official opposition the ASP and set up the Zanzibar Journalists Organisation under whose umbrella fell various newspapers. The Umma Party used these platforms to mobilise the people and campaign against the new proposed laws. However, the Government pushed through the new laws and simultaneously decided to restructure the security apparatus. Senior police and the regulars recruited under the colonial administration were sacked overnight causing much resentment. On January 1964, the Umma Party was banned and all its assets seized. Babu’s house was raided although he was not in. Babu escaped overnight to the mainland. Rumours started circulating that members of the ASP youth league and lumpen elements were planning to burn down the city. The Zanzibar Revolution was about to happen.

The uprising led by ASP Youth League Members together with some lumpen unemployed youth supported by the disaffected ex-police officers started at about 2.00a.m. on January 12, 1964 with the takeover of the Ziwani Barracks and the armory. Umma members were initially not part of the revolt but quickly took control and offered leadership. Babu meanwhile was in Dar-es-salaam. He returned to Zanzibar on the morning of the same day with Karume who had also fled overnight.

The British naturally panicked and supported the Zanzibar Government’s call for Nyerere and Kenyatta of Kenya to send re-enforcements while urging the US to do the same. The US sent the USS Manley sailing to Zanzibar.

The Umma Party played a vital role in consolidating the uprising and revolution by primarily transforming the revolution from a lumpen apolitical uprising into a popular, anti-imperialist revolution through the intervention of socialist forces to create favourable conditions for revolutionary and socialist prospects throughout the region. Babu and Karume quickly capitalized on the revolutionary moment and formed a Revolutionary Council and Cabinet with Karume as president.

The UK and the US governments embarked on a flurry of political activities to decide on how to deal with the revolution and stop the revolutionary spirit spreading throughout the region. Nyerere became an ally of the British by refusing to recognize the new government although Kenya and Uganda had done so already. CIA’s man, Frank Carlucci, came to Zanzibar directly from the Congo where the CIA had successfully crushed the Patrice Lumumba Government. The US was also petrified that Zanzibar might become an ‘African Cuba’ and started to manipulate Karume in order to split the Revolutionary Government.

Amid all these cloak and dagger politics, the new Government under the leadership of the Umma Party brought several progressive changes to the People’s Republic. A new Economic and Foreign Policy was formulated which established more fraternal relationship with the socialist camp away from the imperialist block. They also set up a ‘Peoples Liberation Army’ and abolished all executive privilege.

However, Karume was the weak link and was manipulated easily by both the Tanganyika Government and the Imperialist powers. He started to consolidate his power within the cabinet and government and formed a ‘Committee of Fourteen’ to undermine the power of the Umma Party. Babu intervened severally to work out compromise positions but to no avail.

One of the shocking happenings around the time of the revolution was what Amrit Wilson describes as the ‘Racial Strategy…on Women’s Bodies’. The sexual abuse of young Arab, Shirazi and ASP politicians became quite common through the deliberate misuse of the law. This particular phenomenon until today has been grossly under reported in mainstream academic studies and deserves a public Truth and Justice Commission in my opinion to deliver justice to the victims.

The British continued to undermine democratization of Zanzibar by using people like Thomas Franck who was involved in various Lancaster House conferences and had advised Kenya, Mauritius and Chad resulting in reactionary and racist constitutions. The new laws when passed in January 1964 miserably failed the democratic test and were executive and draconian in nature. Preventive Detention, the appointment of ministers, confiscation of property without compensation and total control over the armed forces were the basis of the new dictatorship.

Realizing the imminent crackdown on the Umma Party and taking into consideration the weak and underdeveloped mass base, Babu and his comrades decided to dissolve the party on March 8, 1964. Members now continued as a political group within the Trade Union Movements and other mass organisations. The move also helped ex-Umma Party members to develop links with the left wing within the ASP. However, Karume clearly wanted to destroy the party and its activities in any form and quietly ‘encouraged’ the main Umma leaders to leave Zanzibar.

Soon the counter-revolution was complete by the complete capitulation of Karume and the formation of the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika. Babu said then ‘a great historical opportunity had been lost’. A coup d’etat had taken place. The neo-colonial forces had suppressed the ‘Threat of Liberation’ by the Zanzibar people.

A democratic Zanzibar under the leadership of the Umma Party would have had an opportunity to break with colonialism and use its human resource and local capital to revitalize the agriculture, industry, banking, insurance, commerce, trade, tourism and social services in the service of the people;  transforming Zanzibar into an economic force within the region. However, this reality had to be postponed.

The book has also been translated in Kiswahili named ‘Tisho la Ukombozi’ and is a must read for historians and academicians interested in the history of East Africa and the politics of the Indian Ocean. Please contact Daraja Press for more information.

A Luta Continua!

Zahid Rajan

Zahid is the Executive Editor of AwaaZ Magazine.

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