The Value of Conflict

Sometimes a good fight is the only way forward.

In the wake of Zanzibar’s recent elections, a friend and I had an argument about the proposed form of the new Government. The two main parties had agreed before the event to create a Government of National Unity, a structure that normally exists only when one party is unable to form a workable Government on its own or (as in the case of Zimbabwe) to forestall serious political conflict. As it happened, the results were such that the incumbent party, CCM, took the Presidency against a stiff challenge from CUF by a margin of a single percentage point – 50.1% to 49.1%. The two parties also divided the Parliamentary seats and representation in the House of Parliament between themselves.

Just to make the point starkly: between them, the two parties accounted for 99.2% of the votes cast for the Presidency, and together account for 100% of the Houses of Representatives and Parliament.

This state of affairs led to the aforementioned argument. My position was that this new Government of National Unity makes a mockery of the democratic system by removing every last vestige of accountability from the political system for the next five years, essentially installing a dictatorship by coalition. The biggest bone of contention for me is that there is literally no opposition at all. The losing Presidential candidate is to be installed as a Vice President and is thus intimately vested in the success and legitimacy of the Government; the Cabinet will involve senior figures from both parties; the ‘Government’ line will now encompass every single member of Parliament and people’s representative. In other words, in the organs of state, there is no-one who by function serves to question the actions of Government.

My friend, a colleague, took a different approach. He argued that the Government of National Unity is a step forward because it heightens the democratic representation of the Government in two major ways. Firstly, the unity Government was a proposal that was put to referendum and carried with a 70% positive vote. Secondly, it also provides a voice to the close to 50% of the population that has traditionally voted for the opposition but has never seen them enter Government (usually due to the underhand flaunting of democratic electoral norms). He pointed out that unity or coalition Governments existed in many other countries, and may have drawbacks, but could not be said to be undemocratic. Secondarily, though an ancillary point, he argued that the historical workings of opposition politics in Zanzibar were incredibly weak: when it has had the chance to ask searching questions of the incumbent Government, the opposition in Zanzibar has never done so. It has never used its role in Parliament to provide scrutiny of the actions of the Government. In this he’s surely correct.

I think both positions have merit, but the reason this concerns me so much is that the value in the democratic system lies only partly in representation. In virtually every country in the world the ‘representativeness’ of Government could be enhanced by coalition even when the ruling party has an absolute majority, since it gives all those who voted for losing or unrepresented parties a more direct line into Government. This doesn’t happen is because democratic systems of Government have proven successful because of the conflict they engender through the process of opposition and accountability. Decisions made by a Government are criticised, publicly scrutinised in Parliament and questioned before voting takes place. When a Government has an absolute majority this accountability may not prevent an action being taken, but it does ensure that the action is scrutinized first. This is one of the most valuable aspects of a democratic system – it promotes transparency, critical thinking and crucially, gives the Government a hard ride every time it tries to take a potentially important decision.

Continue reading

Observations on Election Day

by Carmine Paolo De Salvo

The big day started with voters being greeted by heavy rain as they arrived at the polling stations in and around Stone Town. I did some ‘unofficial observation’ (just to satisfy my own curiosity) around 11am, when the polling stations had already been open for about 4 hours, initially visiting a couple of polling stations close to my place: the Karume College in Mbweni and a school in Kiembe Samaki. Those areas are very close to each other and both are characterized as CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the incumbent party) strongholds, since government officials and their families and friends constitute most of the electoral body in these parts.

A list of pictures of registered voters was well visible outside each polling station and made it easier for everyone to find her/his respective voting room. In both polling stations voters’ queues were quite long and many voters, especially women, had decided to sit down outside their respective rooms to wait for their turn to express their preferences. Military forces and police officers where present in each polling station, but there didn’t appear to be any tension or animosity, and indeed they were actually very obliging to me. They let me in and said there was no problem if I wanted to take some pictures (I was dressed as no more than a random tourist and had no government identification document whatsoever. I spoke Swahili to them though and here in Zanzibar Swahili speakers get a better treatment in different circumstances).

Voting operations did not seem to be very quick, maybe because every voter had to fill and fold five different ballot papers (for the President of Zanzibar, President of Tanzania, Zanzibar House of Representatives, Tanzanian Parliament and Local Council). In any case, the whole atmosphere was peaceful and relaxed.

I then moved on to town, which is usually a CUF (Civic United Front, the opposition) stronghold. I had a look at the polling station close to the Ministry where I work and there, too the situation looked tranquil. From there, accompanied by a friend of mine working as a Temco (Tanzania Election Monitoring Committee) observer, I went on to visit some of the more economically deprived areas around town.

We visited three different polling stations in the vicinities of the Kariakoo and Amani areas and the scenes were very similar to the ones that I have already described. These areas are also supposed to be more CCM-inclined. We arrived there around noon and the afflux of people was clearly decreasing (people here tend to go to vote early, as they get up very early as well). The presence of military forces was heavier in these last polling stations, but again incident-free. In one of the polling stations we noticed some a shortage of ballot papers (but just for the Tanzanian Parliament). This clearly showed at least some serious mismanagement. As far as I could understand from some Temco observers, vote counting will be suspended for that constituency and voters will be given the opportunity to vote on another date. But it is important to underline that these are just rumours that I heard and I can’t provide any official confirmation.

Such was my experience of Zanzibari elections. To be honest, my impressions were moderately positive. Of course, problems can still occur, especially when the votes are counted and results announced. I cannot predict what will happen in the next hours, but I am pleased to have witnessed what seemed to be a decent enough democratic exercise. So far, at least.

Pigani kura, msipige vita!

Today is the last day of campaigning before Tanzania and Zanzibar go to the polls to elect a new Government. Elections in Zanzibar are extremely close-fought events, though you wouldn’t guess it to look at the results over the last forty years. The ruling party, CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, The Party of the Revolution in Swahili), has held power ever since independence. The main opposition party, CUF (Civic United Front) has called foul on recent election results, and even refused to recognise the current Government due to allegations of vote rigging in 2005, a state of affairs that persisted until the two parties recently agreed to a Government of National Unity regardless of the results of the forthcoming elections. Given this fraught political relationship, the elections have been prone to violence in the past: in some cases large scale as occurred in 2005, particularly in Pemba, the CUF stronghold.

Hopes are high this year that the violence that has characterised previous elections will be avoided. CUF supporters recognise that for once, whatever happens, they will have a voice in Government thanks to the Unity Government. While this won’t eliminate their grievances overnight, it will appease them significantly if they lose another contested decision. One friend of mine summarised it as ‘tutapiga kura tu, hatupigi vita!’ – meaning ‘we will vote only; we are not waging war’. It’s a quirk of the Swahili language that to vote is kupiga kura while to make war is kupiga vita.

That said, in the last week, tension has ratcheted up. What had been a relatively subdued campaign has burst into life in the last few days. Virtually every Zanzibari is decked out in the green and yellow of CCM or the white, blue and red of CUF. Today, there are two major rallies taking place. I drove past the scene of the CUF rally this morning and the adjective that most came to my mind was volume: there were tens of thousands of participants, all making the most unimaginable noise. It wasn’t unpleasant, mind: a mixture of political sloganeering, joyous singing, beating of ngoma drums and the bleating of car horns. CCM will be holding its own rally this afternoon, and I’ve no doubt it will be similarly colourful.

Seeing such big, volatile groups surrounded by trigger happy military officers and police is a cause of concern: the army is shipped over from Mainland Tanzania, has a political affinity to the ruling party (CCM in both Tanzania and Zanzibar) and no family ties to the demonstrators – it doesn’t encourage restraint on either side. The groups of different supporters have started minor confrontations recently as well – though most of the time it has so far amounted to a few slogans or mild insults hurled at a passing truck full of political opponents.

In any case, fears of violence aren’t high for election day. The day results are announced may be a different matter, however. As I said before, CUF are likely to accept the results with something approaching equanimity since any outcomes affords them a greater political voice than they have ever enjoyed before. CCM, on the other hand, might react differently. The word in the back streets is that the rank and file of the party are far from happy that their leadership has agreed to the unity Government, and conspiracy theories abound as to the reasoning behind it – most relating to senior political figures’ desire to protect their estates. If they win the election, this probably won’t be an issue – they’ll have the President and bragging rights. If, however, CUF win for the first time, we might see some trouble.

This might happen, too. From what I gather, the voter registration process eventually completed in a relatively even-handed way. Voter registration is one of the main ways in which election rigging can occur, so this is a good sign. What’s more, the CUF leaders have responded to the good-natured joshing of a friend of mine who knows some of them with unusual confidence. Being told ‘hamtashinda safiri hii, tena!’ (‘you won’t win this time, again!’) their response has been an unusually calm ‘hujui. Wengi wamebadilika tangu 2005’ (‘you don’t know. Many have changed since 2005’).

We’ll see, though – tomorrow should be interesting. I’ll be following things via text updates from some friends doing the election monitoring and observation. I’m hopeful of a peaceful time. I’ve stocked up on wine, food and dvds, though, just in case things kick off.

Update: The Zanzibar Untold twitter feed is posting really interesting updates on rumours of electoral malpractice. It all seems to be hearsay thus far, but very interesting nonetheless.

New Political Strategies in East Africa

The future of political recruitment?

New media is all the rage. Tanzania’s political class has been pretty excited over the last week or two by the formation of a new political party, CCJ (the name stands for Chama Cha Jamii, or Party of Society). There are a number of interesting things about this event, but one of wider interest beyond the confines of Tanzanian political discourse is their use of an innovative way of registering new party members, normally poaching them from other parties: text messaging and internet registration. The Swahili daily Nipashe ran an article about this a few days ago which I’ve only just noticed now, under the headline ‘CCJ Yazidi Kujitanua Kisiasa’ (‘CCJ are Growing and Widening Themselves Politically’). It writes:

“This strategy, unprecedented in the history of the whole of East Africa, relates to the use of news and communications technology [ICT] … as the service which allows citizens to join the party by electronic means wherever they are…”

(This and the rest of this piece is based on my translation of two pieces in Nipashe in Swahili – Swahili speaking readers can drop me an e-mail or a comment and I’ll transcribe the interesting bits so they can read in the original language).

How do they do it? Quite simple, really: mobile phones. Prospective members send a text to the number 15337 including the word ‘CCJ’, then their exact name, a star, their address, a star, their state, a star and their area. After three weeks, a registration card will be sent to the address listed. In the most amazing (and selfless) part, Richard Kiyabo, the chairman of the party in question, has said they are ready to provide technical support to other parties to teach them how to use the same system of registration.

This is a great idea, given the size of Tanzania. To sign up people in the villages and fields would require a huge investment in time either from the party (sending out activists far from the towns) or from the potential members (traveling long distances to register). Mobile phone use is very widespread here these days, and the great thing is you can just borrow someone else’s mobile to register yourself. CCJ are just a few weeks old, and this recruitment strategy is the central prong of their drive to ensure that they can participate meaningfully in the elections expected to be held in October.

That’s the technical side of things. The political implications of this new party, formed on the 2nd of March, are now becoming apparent. For those unfamiliar with Tanzanian politics, since independence and the unification of Tanzania and Zanzibar, respectively, only one party has ever ruled in either place: TANU, which became CCM after the Union. My reading is that in the mainland, CCM have had no real worries about their ability to retain power.

The arrival of CCJ didn’t seem like it would influence this much one way or another. But on March 31, Fred Mpendazoe, an MP from CCM announced his defection to the new party. By this defection, Mpendazoe (described as one of the men in CCM on the front line in the battle against corruption by the same paper) has drawn rare praise. It seems this defection is likely to cost him Tsh 45 millions (roughly $35,000) in benefits and other perks of Government membership. By foregoing all of this in order to join the new party he has made himself, and his new party, front-page news. This kind of publicity will perturb CCM, but I doubt it will change the final result at the ballots on the Mainland – but if CCJ succeeds in ‘harvesting’ more members from CCM, things could get interesting.

In Zanzibar, though, the situation is different. Zanzibar’s traditionally warring major parties, CCM and CUF have agreed on a coalition Government after the coming elections, an idea which the House of Representatives just a couple of days ago agreed to put to referendum. This worried me because with CCM and CUF joining arms in a new Governmental structure, Zanzibar would be left without any viable opposition. A complete lack of contestability in Government would be disastrous for political accountability. The remaining party, Chadema, never really seemed to me to be at the races much. The emergence of any new source of political contestability would be great: Zanzibar would enjoy the benefits of peace and better representation that the coalition Government will likely bring without losing too much of the contestability that is required for democratic politics to work.

It’s going to be an interesting few months for East African politics.

UPDATE: A reader has tried the service and found that he wasn’t asked for an exact address, as reported in the papers. It seems that the service may not be all its made out to be. He still got a membership number, though. And I imagine that boosting numbers to get on the October ballot is CCJ’s main aim, so perhaps they’re getting what they need out of it.

FURTHER UPDATE: It seems that registration safeguards on this system aren’t very strong, thanks to a bit of investigation from a reader. But the point about how this technology, once problems are ironed out, could be useful remains valid.

Habari ya Umeme?

Missing in action.

Missing in action.

Nipashe and its English-language sister publication, The Guardian, have reported a few facts about Zanzibar’s ongoing power outage, which I’ve blogged about before. The title of the piece in Swahili is ‘SMZ: Umeme unaikosesha serikali mapato kibao’, which basically translates to ‘RGoZ: Electricity is causing a huge loss of Government revenue’.

I can’t find the online versions of the article in either Swahili or English, but it basically takes a few indicative facts given out by the Minister of Finance about the economic impact of the ukosefu and uses them to illustrate the scale of the economic crisis engulfing Zanzibar at the moment. Highlights:

  • Telecommunications companies are hit particularly badly. Zantel, a local mobile services provider, has seen monthly revenues drop from TSh 6.7 billion (roughly US$ 5 million) to around Tsh 3 billion (largely because people are seeking to conserve their phone batteries by using them as little as possible, except in emergencies)
  • This has a knock-on effect on Government revenues. Zantel alone normally accounts for Tsh 465 million per month in VAT, an amount that is expected to fall significantly in response to this reduction in revenues (the maths doesn’t quite tally here, but I’m reporting the newspaper’s figures)
  • Zanzibar’s electrical company, ZECO, is contributing no VAT whatsoever to the Government’s revenue basket either, since it is unable to provide any electricity through the national grid at all. Its normal contribution is about Tsh 72 million per month
  • Trade and Industry is also suffering. Some factories have closed, and as a result, people have lost work.
  • Initial indications suggest that the Government alone is losing up to 30% of its revenues each month due to the outage.

There is no further comment in the article beyond what the Minister of Finance announced. However, a little more, from my reading of the situation:

  • The VAT issue is of major importance. I’ve pointed out before that countries with large informal sectors and poorly developed tax structures depend disproportionately on VAT to raise revenues. Reduced VAT is in the short-term sharply increasing aid dependency in a place that is already heavily aid dependent. What’s more, this reduces the scope for autonomous action by domestic actors
  • The reduction in Zantel’s revenue is likely to be replicated in direction (though not necessarily size) across the board in Zanzibar, as most people are finding basic necessities more expensive and spending less on everything other than essentials
  • Profits are doing even worse than revenues: whatever money you are making is coming at a higher average cost due to the expense of running generators in businesses not designed to be generator-dependent.
  • In addition to this, noises from people working in the sector suggest tourism is down significantly from the same period last year
  • On the sunny side of things, I’m assured that the closing of factories is likely to be temporary and the loss of jobs is closer to forced unpaid leave than mass layoffs

As someone who believes that development must be driven by the development and growth of domestic capitalism, it’s sobering news. With electricity hopefully to be restored at the end of February, we will be able to start calculating the precise cost of this outage (indeed, initial data collection has already started), and seeing what damage to the economy has been done and how it can be repaired. On the plus side, this has focused attention on the basic business environment and we must take this opportunity to improve it significantly once the immediate problems are resolved.

The Comforts of Daily Chaos

Milton: the prototypical eccentric colleague.

Milton: the prototypical eccentric colleague.

This morning I walked into the office and found a colleague ironing clothes on her desk.

Last week, a colleague sent me an SMS saying: ‘my office-mate has given up. She has taken two chairs and a cushion and made a bed to sleep in!’

One year ago, in Malawi, during an important meeting setting out a new debt policy, one staff member was assigned the crucial task of keeping track of the score of Malawi’s World Cup qualifying match against Djibouti. We won 8-1. Productivity has an inverse relationship with uncontainable joy, which in turn increases with each goal. There was literally dancing in the meeting room when news of the eighth goal was relayed to the participants by excited shouting through the window.

A friend of mine, a fellow cricket enthusiast who works for DfID, once explained to me that one particular posting (the Ministry of Finance, I believe) in Jamaica had been extremely sought after in the 1980s and early 1990s. The office building for this post was built directly overlooking Sabina Park, Jamaica’s famous Test Cricket ground. When Viv Richards came to smash the ball out of the ground or the magnificent Malcolm Marshall was bowling hand grenades at 94mph, all work would cease, sometimes for hours at a stretch.

For most of my career, I have worked in developing country Governments directly, sponsored by various donors, but with limited or non-existent outside management. From the Government point of view, the idea is that I function as a civil servant, though one with a remit to help stimulate improvements in the structure of the work done as well as to get involved in the minutiae of civil service work. It’s a privileged position, because once you’ve won the trust and friendship of colleagues, you have as close to an insider view as you ever can of how the Government actually works.

This allows me (and others with similar jobs) to see and hear exactly what Governments think about a donor’s behaviour, policy or personalities. You work with people who have a lifetime’s experience of the country, not just a few years’, and they are not the minority as they usually are for donors and INGOs. There is no better way of grounding one’s ideas about development in a country than to see 30 local people, at least ten of whom have direct power of veto over you, discuss your proposals.

You also get to see all of the glorious idiosyncrasies of a workplace in which many staff are underpaid, underemployed and under-supervised. It’s not a secret that many civil services manage the double act of being both understaffed and (on the whole) underworked. Most Government departments have a core of dedicated, hard-working professionals who will, for salaries that in the North would barely break the minimum wage, work for 12 hours and on weekends to see things through to an adequate completion point. Most also have a large and equally committed core of wasters who do as little as possible, as slowly as possible and with as many eccentricities as their personalities can accommodate.

Continue reading

Street Fighting Men?

Whatever else a city might be, it is at the same time a place inhabited by a concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the locus of political power that affects their lives. Historically, one of the things city populations have done about this is to demonstrate, make riots or insurrections, or otherwise exert direct pressure on the authorities…

This quote, again from Hobsbawm’s collection of essays, Revolutionaries, has been at the back of my mind for the last few days. Compared to Europe’s historical habit of urban revolt and revolution (the city of Palermo alone had 12 popular insurrections between 1512 and 1866), Sub-Saharan Africa has actually had relatively few mass urban mobilizations that seriously threatened or achieved regime changes. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few: the ‘IMF Riots’ that brought down Governments in Zambia, Liberia and Sudan in the early 1990s and the unionist insurrection against the Government in Brazzaville in the early 1960s. Of course there is also Zanzibar’s revolution in 1964, though it was not solely an urban phenomenon. Urban struggle against Apartheid was more complex than an insurrection, but clearly counts as well.

There are plenty of demonstrations, though they rarely seriously threaten Governments. There have been military coups, as in Nigeria; some leaders have been deposed by foreign forces or through full-scale civil war; and there have been regimes which have disintegrated into chaos. But the role of the city as a point at which popular rebellion is fomented, carried out and generates new Government is limited. Even independence movements, characterized by urban unrest, found their greatest success through negotiation with colonial powers or guerilla insurgency directed from outside the country altogether. Regime change is common, but rarely popularly-led and powered.

This is surprising for two main reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of Governments in the region that could do with a good shoeing: undemocratic, kleptocratic, violent and morally bankrupt regimes that maintain their hold on power through electoral fraud and intimidation. Secondly, cities in Africa are teeming with huge numbers of unemployed, dissatisfied young males, often with easy access to affordable weapons.

Yet, organized or spontaneous urban insurrection rarely threatens established regimes. Why has this been the case? Are Sub-Saharan African cities less prone to intrigue, or more docile somehow? I don’t think this is the case. There have been violent riots before, such as those in Nairobi in 1982, and more isolated and often smaller demonstrations or riots still occur with moderate regularity. In late 2008 there were a couple in Malawi, both small scale; last year Kampala witnessed some, and there were also demonstrations in Conakry that were met with a violent response from the army.

I also take issue with the common characterization of Africans as infinitely patient, capable of enduring endless suffering with dignity and acceptance. Like anyone else, people in Africa get angry at misgovernment, and they express it. In Swahili, there is a verb ‘to complain’, kulalamika; but people also use a word, dukuduku which can best be translated as a deep-seated, profound grievance. This word is normally used with the verb kutoa, which means to extract or give out, e.g. anatoa dukuduku lake (‘she is giving out her profound grievance’). This apparently minor piece of linguistic evidence has significance: the idea that Africa is a continent of Atlases, holding the weight of the world on their shoulders stoically and silently is at best incorrect.

Rather, there are rather three or four central reasons why mass urban protest rarely shakes Governments. The first two are related: firstly, there is the geographical and physical structure of modern cities; secondly, there is state violence, realized and potential; and thirdly there are the political realities of urban dwellers. Finally, the role of urban centres as political agents has changed. In sum, they have important implications for governance and reform in Africa.

Continue reading

Power, Glory, Sound, Fury

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker prepare to restore power to Zanzibar

Two international consultants prepare to restore power to Zanzibar

In solidarity with the recent (failed) efforts of the Copenhagen summit conference, Zanzibar is doing its level best to both promote and wreck responsible attitudes towards the climate and measures to secure our global future. We’ve had a power cut on Unguja, the larger island and seat of the Revolutionary Government for about 2 weeks now. We recently tried restoring the power, but the problem was discovered to be larger than originally thought and we probably won’t have any power for a few more weeks yet.

This is just an inconvenience for well-off individuals: most have generators (though I don’t), and can afford to eat out (be it at a nyama choma stall or a high-end restaurant) when necessary. It’s actually quite amusing in some ways. You can see us foreigners congregating in cafes with our laptops, using their power outlets to charge five things at once. Outside, I imagine a line of muggers licking their lips and lining up to a kind of ATM machine for thieves: a huge supply of laptops, mobile phones and cash-rich wazungu.

For the poor, though it is more serious: on the one hand, people in rural poverty don’t have power at any time in the year, so it makes very little difference. On the other, in the urban area (yes, that is singular!), the poor depend on electricity to pump water into their houses, and to provide security lights in the darker recesses of stone town, where the near-total darkness provides cover for the few unscrupulous individuals who do exist here. With water powered by electric pumps in urban areas, the ukosefu is also a public health nightmare. What water that is available isn’t always of the best provenance and may also be transported in dirty vessels. Water borne diseases are likely to spread rapidly.

The economy is being brought to its knees as well. Tourists on the mainland are forgoing Zanzibar; but enough are still here to require businesses to stay open with their generators running. These generators are incredibly expensive to keep going and a fair few places are operating at a loss. They can’t close though, because competition for the tourist dollar is fierce here, and sustained success requires constant positive word-of-mouth support. Being closed has long term ramifications. Beyond the service industry, much production in Zanzibar is undertaken using piece work. Piece workers don’t have generators, and so any work requiring machines is being done ad hoc as and when a generator can be borrowed, or not being done at all. Alternative employment is thin on the ground but people are necessarily looking.

All of this has really opened my eyes to how important it is to have reliable energy sources. Talking to private sector business owners in Malawi gave me an idea of how much money was lost in each power cut then (not to mention the hospitals running without electricity), but here it’s even worse.

Lastly, this isn’t doing any good for the climate. While many of us are operating in the darkness at home, offices and hotels use monstrous generators. One large hotel allegedly guzzles 800 litres of diesel each day to make sure its rooms have round the clock air conditioning. And yet, not a single project I’ve seen here examines alternative energy sources, such as solar power, windmills or hydroelectricity; and from accounts, few donors are willing to fund such studies. Why? Well, the power solution is provided by a European company – word on the street (not the most reliable source, of course) is that few are willing to put them out of a lucrative contract.

* * *

I’m off to the Serengeti for Christmas and to the beach for New Years – I won’t be posting again until early January. Happy Holidays!

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight…

It takes about ninety minutes to drive from the main port in Unguja, the largest island that comprises Zanzibar, to its northernmost tip, assuming you don’t first suffer death by dala-dala. Making this journey earlier this week, something my companion said raised a question: Is Zanzibar simply too small to form a viable unit of development? And, if we accept that size alone is not its impediment, why has Zanzibar developed so slowly since its heyday as a port and centre of regional trade when other island-states have boomed?

This is not simply a parochial question, significant only to its one million-odd inhabitants. To reflect on it forces us to engage with the historical development processes of other island-states and Zanzibar’s own involved history; it raises questions of the role of geography; of colonialism; of local identity, culture and political history in development. A blog post can only touch on these questions, but they illuminate some of the bigger issues with which we need to get to grips in other African countries if we want to have a fuller understanding of why they are stagnating or developing only slowly.

The question is also ripe with political significance. Though it’s part of the Union Republic of Tanzania, and lies just 35km away, Zanzibar has a distinct cultural, political and economic history, which form the basis of a vigorously independent identity. This is reflected institutionally: Zanzibar has its own President and House of Representatives, its own Budget and its own revenue collection authority. This identity and set of institutions has not seen off poverty: most of Zanzibar’s population remains food-insecure, and the economy is heavily dependent on a few unreliable sources of income, chiefly spices and tourism.

First, it’s worth briefly dismissing the ‘size-matters’ argument as sufficient to explain why Zanzibar has not escaped from poverty. Island-states have developed elsewhere in the world, particularly in East and South-East Asia. An interesting comparison is with Hong Kong. Zanzibar is actually larger than Hong Kong by about 600 square kilometers, though its population density is far lower. Hong Kong’s geopolitical situation also bears resemblance to Zanzibar’s: it is a small island off the coast of a massive continent, and in particular, off the coast of one of the continental powers. The climates are not wildly dissimilar: rainfall is seasonally isolated, but severe when it does occur; for most of the year it remains hot and humid. (Indeed, Zanzibar is unique in Africa in that its climate supports growth of fruit that is otherwise found only in South East Asia). It is a natural port that attracted colonial and commercial interest for this reason. It has relatively recently ‘unified’ with its mainland power, while retaining a degree of autonomy (and in both cases, this autonomy is much clearer in principle than practice).

Despite these similarities, their histories are not even distant relatives. Hong Kong’s importance as a port was gradually superseded by its importance as a financial centre, and it became a service-oriented economy, which propelled it to remarkable growth rates in the second part of the twentieth century as one of the most successful East Asian Tiger economies. Zanzibar, on the other hand, was overtaken as a port by Dar es Salaam, and its economy diversified from its plantation-and-subsistence agriculture mix only by the addition of tourism as a major source of revenues. Poverty and hunger remain common and private enterprise outside of the tourist industry demonstrates little dynamism.

Continue reading