Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Tweet These Stories

Africa's 'forgotten genocide' marks its 50 anniversary: Revisiting the Zanzibar revolution


Zanzibar massacre claimed up to 20,000 lives, left 26,000 imprisoned and 100,000 exiled

Many call it “the revolution”, but for the victims this year marks the 50th anniversary of the mass murder of Zanzibar’s Arabs and Indians by the black majority. This 1964 event was labelled by some historians a “genocide” for the deliberate targeting of specific communities which is said to have claimed up to 20,000 lives, left 26,000 imprisoned and 100,000 exiled. Despite this, it has been poorly documented and probably forgotten in African history because it affected mostly non-black African populations. 

The genocide took place on the back of the 1964 Zanzibar revolution to overthrow the  monarchy ruled by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah. There had already been tension on the island between ethnic groups. The 1960s population of the island had a tremendously cultural heritage with extensive diversity - trade from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East had converged on the islands, bringing with it a multitude of influences. The island had about 600 Europeans, 50,000 Arabs and 20,000 Asians from the Indian subcontinent. Even though at independence Arabs constituted under 20% of Zanzibar’s population, they were economically and politically dominant. 

When the British granted Zanzibar independence in 1963, an election followed in which the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) ran against the Sultan’s Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and the ZNP won with 54% of the popular vote. This compounded feelings of resentment within the black population that led to the fast uprising. Historian Jonathon Glassman described it as a purely “racial revolution” to empower the African majority. “It was a unique manifestation of racial violence between self-identified Africans and Arabs in post-colonial Africa, in that Arabs and not Africans were the primary victims.”

The coup was said to have been led by self-appointed field marshal John Okello, who was able to draw on pre-existing racial animosity for support. A Ugandan by birth who believed that he was divinely chosen by God to remove Arabs from power, in his biography “Revolution in Zanzibar”, Okello recounted his speeches made in public areas. It was clear that he intended to remove Arab presence in Zanzibar through violence with statements such as: “therefore my brethren, we must get them out of the Island by guns and knives”. 

On January 12, 1964, with...

Zanzibar: 1964 Revolution and the One-Party System

The revolution (see 1963 elections) did not only overthrow the ZNP-ZPPP government but also ousted the sultan and proclaimed Zanzibar a republic. State power shifted from the hands of one social class to another.

It is believed that the Zanzibar revolution was a reflection of racial conflict between the Arabs and the Africans. This may not be entirely correct. If we agree with Lenin that any political struggle is a class struggle, then the revolution was not just a mere reflection of ethnic conflict but the outcome of a long class struggle. It is quite true that class divisions were based on tribal lines. The 1964 Zanzibar revolution was, therefore, a revolution by landless peasants in alliance with other oppressed people against the landed aristocrats and their political leadership.

The first moves of the revolutionary government were to suspend the Lancaster House 1963 independence constitution, ban all political parties except the ASP and proclaim a constitutional decree that established a constitutional government and the rule of law. The constitution was set aside and the revolutionary council became the legislative body. Although it was stipulated that the constituent assembly was to be convened in one year's time to endorse a new constitution, this only occurred in 1979 and the first election was held in 1980.

The 1964 revolution which brought the ASP into power was the reaction to a situation that had become intolerable following the electoral manoeuvrings of the previous elections. Although the ASP had always polled more votes than other parties, it could not win more seats in the legislative council. The ASP believed that the British government was jointly conspiring with the Arab monarch to deny it any chance of winning the election. It was not surprising therefore, that just a few weeks after the British colonialists had gone the ASP took over power through a revolution.

At the time of the founding of the Union of Tanzania, on 26 Apri11964 Zanzibar was already under one party rule and mainland Tanzania had already formed a commission to look into the possibility of a one party structure. The Articles of Union provided for the existence of two parties, each operating in the territory in which they did before the union. This continued until 1977 when it was finally decided to merge the two parties and form one political party, the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), thus transforming Tanzania into a true one-party state.

In 1979 the first...