Zanzibaris Besieged by Tanzanian Security Forces


We are two concerned academics with long research experience and close relationships with friends and informants in Zanzibar. We have conducted anthropological fieldwork on the island of Pemba over the last five years. As scholars we have always attempted to maintain critical distance from partisan politics. However, distressed by recent events, and by what we feel are misleading representations of the situation, we feel compelled to offer own analysis. We are responding to the pressing need for informed evaluations of the unfolding situation.

While Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa attended the Davos Summit in Switzerland, a political storm unleashed by his own security forces has left at least sixty dead and dozens seriously injured in the semi-autonomous Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar, with serious implications for future stability in the region. Last week, a broad-based movement in Tanzania prepared to hold a nation-wide, peaceful demonstration scheduled for Saturday, January 27th, calling for a re-run of the Zanzibar elections and constitutional reform of the Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which together form the entity of Tanzania. Police and military, acting under orders from the Tanzanian government, reacted with an extraordinary show of force. In the mainland towns of Bukoba, Arusha, Tabora, Tanga and Dar es Salaam, demonstrators were harassed and beaten, and many were arrested. But the reactions of security forces to the mainland demonstrations has been mild in comparison to the state-sanctioned campaign of reprisals that has been carried out in Zanzibar.

In the days preceding the demonstration, hundreds of police from the mainland were deployed in the islands, where they committed acts of intimidation well before the protest began, including beating worshippers at a mosque and killing two men, one of whom they shot in the face. The actions of the police and army during and after the demonstration, officially portrayed as efforts to “restore order” in Zanzibar, in actuality constitute the attempts of an authoritarian regime to suppress and punish those who would contest the legitimacy of its rule. The security force actions, ordered by the Union government, and entailing a de facto military takeover of the islands, throw Zanzibar’s status as a semi-autonomous power into serious question.

While international media attention has been focused on the capital city of Zanzibar Town, it is on the neighboring, and more remote, island of Pemba that the most egregious human rights abuses have been committed. Pemba is currently under a de facto military occupation attended by the shooting of unarmed civilians with live ammunition, beatings, denial of medical treatment to wounded, hundreds of detentions, looting, and rapes, which together bring the estimated death toll on that island alone to well over fifty.

Pemba island has been the object of state repression and systematic underdevelopment since the Revolution of 1964. The Revolution took place on the main island of Unguja, and Pemba’s inhabitants, because they did not participate in, nor generally support it, have since been regarded by the Revolutionary and Union governments as dangerous, disloyal citizens, and have been treated as such. During the post-Revolutionary period, military forces in Pemba engaged in public beatings, humiliation, torture, rapes and the looting of property with full state support, as part of a campaign aimed at cowing the population and suppressing any potential opposition. At that time, the Zanzibar government’s unrestrained brutality against its own citizens garnered international condemnation. In contrast, the international community has been peculiarly slow to act while a systematic campaign of human rights abuse, in the context of a de facto military occupation of Pemba island, is given full support by Benjamin Mkapa, Prime Minister Frederick Sumaye, Zanzibari Vice President Omar Ali Juma, and Tanzanian Chief of Police Omari Mahita.

Peaceful demonstrations were planned in the towns of Chake Chake, Wete, and Micheweni in Pemba Island. Wearing white arm-bands to signify their commitment to non-violence, demonstrators, including the elderly, women, and children, braved police road blocks and were confronted by police armed with assault rifles. Each demonstration was met by unrestrained violence on the part of the security forces, who, far from ensuring the security of citizens, in fact placed it in the gravest jeopardy. Police detachments in Wete fired tear gas pellets and live ammunition into the crowd both from the street and from the top of nearby apartment buildings. A police helicopter, reportedly carrying the Tanzanian Chief of Police Mahita swooped in over the crowd, dropping tear gas canisters. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the helicopter may have also dispensed artillery fire into the crowd. As protesters fled, police gave chase, arrested at least fifty people, and began to undertake house-to-house searches, severely beating the inhabitants, including women, the old and the infirm. The death toll in Wete is now between 20 and 37, and likely to rise as beatings continue and wounded are denied medical treatment.

In one instance a man was shot at close range three times in the stomach. Two young men were shot dead in Limbani, Wete. As a relative prepared the bodies for burial, police broke into the house and shot and killed him. One middle-aged woman who stood in her doorway to throw out dirty water was shot in the thigh. Others were wounded by rifle-fire.

Police and army then prevented ambulances and private cars from carrying the injured to the hospital, beating the drivers. At least one doctor was arrested for attending to a patient. Relatives coming to the hospital to claim bodies or inquire about the wounded are subject to harassment and beatings, and one man, intending to retrieve his brother’s corpse, was reported shot and killed by police. Recent reports indicate that when patients are discharged from the hospital they are not sent home but rather taken immediately into police custody, and charged with participation in an illegal gathering – though many of the dead and wounded were not involved in the demonstration. One woman, apparently in good health when arrested, was later sent to the hospital with a gunshot wound in the leg. It is understood that the injury was sustained while she was under police custody. One report by an eye-witness states that large numbers of corpses have been spotted in the bush near Mtambwe Mkuu, Wete, and informants say that the hospitals smell of rotting bodies. Currently the people of Wete fear police retaliation for the beating of a police officer which took place in a village to the north.

Since early Monday morning police have stepped up house-to-house searches, continuing to loot property and violently detain residents. An estimated six hundred reinforcements were sent to Pemba, under the pretext of “restoring order.” In our view, however, these forces of ‘security,’ injuring and killing unarmed civilians, are the very source of current diorder.

The demonstration in Chake Chake met with military and police force disproportionate to the intentions of the protesters. Police sealed off the town, halted vehicles, and beat people approaching the town center. It is reported that security forces entered houses, beating children and old people; they carried away televisions, jewelry, money, and even women’s clothing. There are many reports of rape. At least five people have died in Chake Chake, but one eye-witness reports that police transported eleven bodies from the town. Relatives are denied information about the whereabouts of the dead.

It is difficult to gather information concerning what occurred in the remote village of Micheweni, but we understand that the demonstration was met by particularly brutal measures. People were killed during the demonstration itself, and also afterwards, with police going so far as to shoot people in their homes. Reported deaths in Micheweni total at least seven, and in Konde area, four people have reportedly been shot dead. There are other reports to the effect that police shot at people on the roadsides in this northern area. Since very few people are traveling, and there has been almost no public transportation between towns, it is likely that there are many more as yet unreported casualties. 

As the wounded were denied access to medical treatment, some people attempted to transport the injured by boat to Mombasa, in Kenya, and Tanga, on the Tanzanian coast, for treatment. A police helicopter was reportedly patrolling the air above the channel between Pemba and the mainland. Reports from several independent sources, including wounded who succeeded in reaching Kenya, state that boats transporting the injured from the town of Gando were sunk by a helicopter dropping bombs or by artillery fire. Death tolls from the event reported by BBC were twenty-four; while others estimated casualities numbering up to 200. 

After the demonstration and throughout the weekend, many people in Pemba stayed locked in their homes, although on Monday government employees were ordered to report to work. On Saturday and Sunday, anyone stepping outside faced possible reprisals from patrolling army and police. In some areas, young men are in hiding in the bush, fearful of nearing the main roads or of going home, as they are the most likely to be beaten and arrested. Other families are doing all they can to send their young women out to rural areas, away from the heaviest military patrolling, fearing the possibility of rape. No foodstuffs have been available since Friday, and Wete’s main market has been ransacked by police. The police have also broken open and looted many of the larger shops in town. People report dwindling food stocks and fear hunger in the coming days. 

Telephone communications to Pemba are audibly monitored by third parties, and connections are often cut if a discussion turns to details. It has been reported that at least one person has been arrested as a result of having discussed the situation over the telephone. Almost all of the opposition leadership has been imprisoned. 

As the excesses of the Tanzanian security forces in the islands become the subject of international news reports, readers might ask how this crisis has come about, and why Zanzibar has not been garnered greater international interest and concern. The situation has not come about suddenly and without cause. It should not be understood as a peculiar and inexplicable “African crisis” with primordial roots. It is the direct result of four decades of authoritarian rule and the systematic silencing of free speech and brutal quelling of opposition. 

We do not intend a blanket condemnation of the Tanzanian state. We have long admired the progressive and tolerant principles which have ensured the peaceful cohabitation of an impressive diversity of ethnic and religious communities in Tanzania. We are concerned that recent events represent a serious erosion of these ideals. 

The Zanzibar elections of 1995, the territory’s first multi-party elections since the 1964 Revolution, were widely believed to have been rigged by the ruling party. They were attended by a marked lack of transparency on the part of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission, which was under the ruling party’s authority. Seif Sharif Hamad, leader and presidential candidate of the Civic United Front, the primary and most broadly-based opposition party in the territory, called for peace and calm. Although many believed that he would have won a free and fair election, Seif Sharif undertook a long and sustained campaign for diplomatic intervention and reconciliation. The ruling CCM party did nothing to placate the opposition, instead mounting a campaign of reprisals against its members. 

True to historical form, the ruling party’s actions were specifically aimed at people from Pemba island. Hundreds of Pembans were fired from the civil service and others lost their homes as the Revolutionary government razed several of Unguja’s Pemban-populated neighborhoods with neither notice nor compensation. Seif Sharif Hamad, also Chairman of the UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization), continued to call for restraint among the opposition, a call which was heeded with extraordinary dignity and steadfastness, as people withstood periodic looting of their homes, arrest, and beatings. 

Finally, in 1998, the Commonwealth succeeded in brokering an agreement between CUF and CCM. The agreement was met by territory-wide relief and the re-emergence of hope for a peaceful solution. But the CCM government failed to implement the agreement, and carried out none of its stipulations. As Zanzibar’s second multi-party elections neared in the fall of 2000, the opposition was consistently denied permits to hold rallies, and in one instance at Kilimahewa, Unguja, the police shot into a seated crowd, severely injuring six men and wounding others. The registration period was fraught with bureaucratic sabotage on the part of ruling party officials. The elections themselves, as confirmed by observer reports, were characterized by the mass ferrying of unregistered voters by CCM party leaders to opposition strongholds, systematic intimidation of voters, and, ultimately, a military takeover which put departing CCM president Salmin Amour (who objected to mainland interference in Zanzibari affairs) under house arrest. 

To forestall a clear CUF victory, the army and police were deployed across both islands to seize all ballot boxes, counted and uncounted, and carried out extraordinary beatings of opposition party agents who had been present in the polling stations to monitor the votes. The weeks following the elections saw riot forces shoot into gatherings, tear gas people in their homes, and beat passersby in the presence of international observers and members of the press. At night all over Pemba and in Unguja’s urban areas, police accompanied by local militia broke into the homes of opposition members, beat them, and arrested scores of others. 

We believe that this weekend’s events are the culmination of a long-term pattern of violent repression and non-violent resistance. But they are the worst since 1964, and they have contributed to the increasing polarization of political discourse and affiliation in Zanzibar and Tanzania as a whole. Security forces acting under the express orders of the Union government have created a climate in which the possibility of reconciliation and stability in Zanzibar is increasingly unlikely.

In response to the brutal and unwarranted actions of the security forces to date, the University of Dar es Salaam’s Legal Aid Committee has condemned the killings, and what it sees as “the sheer use of force and military might without any legal backing. It is,” their spokesman added, “a clear prelude to fascism.” Zanzibar president Amani Karume has congratulated the police forces and the army for the “fine job they have done of preventing violence on Zanzibar.” Yet throughout the events of October, and of the past five years, [most]the people of Zanzibar have demonstrated great forbearance and an impressive commitment to non-violence.

It is our impression that Karume’s congratulation of the police and army is an insult both to all Zanzibaris and to the international community, as the repressive measures taken by security forces have themselves been the root cause of the upheaval. They have instigated, rather than prevented, chaos. Furthermore, they have left Pemba under siege in a campaign that is no longer simply about punishing the opposition but has distinct elements of ethnocide: scapegoating Pembans, and conflating membership in CUF with Pembanness serves to deny the extent of opposition to the ruling party country-wide. Karume has publicly mourned the death of a presumably non-Zanzibari police officer, but has extended no condolences to the families of Zanzibaris who have lost their lives. 

The lack of a strong response from the international community constitutes implicit support of the actions of the security forces. We call for a re-examination of the current ties between the Tanzanian regime and donor countries, and urge for a strong statement of condemnation. We recommend that:

1. The Red Cross and other relief agencies be allowed immediate unrestricted access to care for the wounded, and freely enter prisons. 

2. The press and international observers be permitted to travel and freely gather information 

3. Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces be returned to their bases, and their numbers reduced. 

4. Police be divested of live ammunition. 

5. People be allowed to bury the dead with full participation of relatives and religious authorities. 

6. An international body be granted permission to investigate and assess claims of wrongful violence, theft, and rape. 

Continued inaction on the part of the international community, and especially the United States, suggests complicity with a regime which clearly has little regard for the rights of its citizens, nor for the principles of freedom of expression, movement, and association. We urge academics and other concerned observers to take a stand on this crisis and to offer informed analysis of these disturbing developments.

Nathalie Arnold is in Indiana University and Bruce McKim in Yale University, USA.

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