Political passion, tourist flesh-pots

12 March 1998
The Economist
(c) 1998 The Economist

Indian Ocean islands may be a paradise for tourists, but locals, in Zanzibar and the Seychelles, do not quite see it that way

ZANZIBAR – A British official, commenting in 1958 on the passions aroused by Zanzibari politics, noticed that “Funerals and religious ceremonies are boycotted by rival political parties.” Since then, the islands have come full circle, despite a revolution, union with Tanganyika to form Tanzania and three decades of one-party rule. But, these days, the boycott extends beyond weddings and burials to politics itself.

Legislators from the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) have refused to play their part in Zanzibar’s House of Representatives since the 1995 election. This was the first in 32 years to be contested by more than one party but the CUF claims it was rigged to ensure that Salmin Amour of the Revolutionary Party (the CCM, which also rules on the Tanzanian mainland) remained Zanzibar’s president.

Countries that used to support Zanzibar financially have grown fed up with the two-year political stalemate—and dismayed by the recent imprisonment of 16 CUF members arrested during a by-election rally. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity including meetings between Mr Amour and neighbouring heads of state, and a shuttle-diplomacy service by an envoy of the Commonwealth’s secretary-general.

The CUF claims that all this justifies their stubborn refusal to open their mouths during two years of house sittings. Throughout this period the government has insisted that democracy in Zanzibar was going swimmingly. “They thought we would melt away,” says an opposition parliamentarian, Juma Duni, of the government’s men. “They just can’t believe that our silence has forced others to speak up.”

But there is still a long way to go before any sort of negotiated solution emerges. Last month, when Tanzania’s ex-president, Julius Nyerere, at last acknowledged the political crisis in Zanzibar, his CCM colleagues were not impressed. “We are not clear what crisis Mwalimu [Teacher] Nyerere thinks is in need of resolution,” was the response of Zanzibar’s deputy chief minister, Omar Mapuri, to the comments of his party’s éminence grise. Mr Mapuri insists that his party will have nothing to do with a government of national unity, one solution proposed by international mediators: “We are going to hold on until the 2000 elections. That is just how it is in Zanzibar.”

Both sides have become more entrenched in the years of mud-slinging that followed the disputed election. The CUF says that the CCM has sold out Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania in pursuit of a failed vision of pan-Africanism. The ruling party accuses the CUF of harbouring plans to dissolve the union with Tanzania and reinstate the Arab sultanate that was toppled in the 1964 revolution.

The fight may decide the direction of Zanzibar’s economy. The islands’ traditional cash crop, cloves, faces a bleak future. Not the least of its troubles is that Indonesia’s economic collapse will almost certainly curtail demand for the scented kretek cigarettes that absorb the bulk of the world’s clove crop. The CUF says that it would like to restructure the islands along the lines of Singapore or Hong Kong, with finance and trans-shipment of goods from East Africa at the core of a service-oriented economy. But, so long as the Tanzanian government controls banking licences and customs regulations, such a change is impossible—though even senior CCM officials say they would like to see greater independence from the mainland.

If the links are to remain as they are, the only plausible source of economic growth is tourism. This, indeed, is booming. Some 86,500 tourists visited Zanzibar last year, a five-fold increase in ten years. The Zanzibar Investment Promotion Agency has approved $260m-worth of projects in tourism, ten times the total for other industries. Tourist revenue this financial year is expected to be $2.5m, twice that of last year.

But tourism is causing the hackles of many Zanzibaris to rise even faster than their incomes. A quarter of all visitors last year were package-tourists from Italy, accustomed to wandering hand-in-hand, baring flesh to the sun. This does not suit the conservative norms of Zanzibar, which is racially mixed between Arabs and Africans but overwhelmingly Muslim. Underdressed tourists are reported to have been attacked outside mosques.

The moral and sartorial laxity of tourists threatens, like everything else in Zanzibar, to become a political issue. If our hands were not tied by the mainland, says the CUF, we would not have to depend on half-naked visitors for a living. The CCM, for its part, accuses the CUF of depriving Zanzibaris of a golden future by opposing the development of tourism. Many of the plum jobs in the tourist industry already go to mainlanders.

Even if the current mediation efforts result in a face-saving political formula, the battle-lines between the CUF and the CCM (or, some would say, between Arabs and Africans) are likely to continue through the next election and beyond. Those culturally incorrect foreign visitors will provide plenty of ammunition.

Be Sociable, Share!