In history books and novels the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar is full of mystery, a land of slaves and spices, a tropical idyll of bleached white beaches with palm trees leaning languidly in the warm ocean breeze. But Mariam Juma Omar knows another Zanzibar, one of struggle and hardship. "For the average person life is not good here," says the 35-year-old mother of five, shooing her kids into the dirt street outside her modest home in a suburb of Zanzibar Town. "I have a husband with a job but even I must work or the children cannot eat." Omar sells home-cooked food from her living room. With the few dollars earned by her fisherman husband Khatib Mohammed Hassan, 48, she saves $7 a week. "Some people can't save anything — we're lucky," she says. "No we're not," cuts in Hassan. "We should be rich but our leaders themselves make the people poor."
Hassan's complaint is a familiar one on Zanzibar. Many Zanzibaris resent their homeland's political union with former Tanganyika on the African mainland. They complain that the government of the United Republic of Tanzania, as it is now known, has stifled development on Zanzibar's twin islands of Unguja and Pemba and that they are worse off than before. This week they get their first chance since the death of the united nation's first President Julius Nyerere to register that discontent when they vote to elect both federal and Zanzibari Presidents. While Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary Party) will almost certainly be re-elected, the CCM candidate on Zanzibar — and the future of a united Tanzania — is under serious threat from the Civic United Front. "If we win I see no reason to stay in the Union," says Seif Shariff Hamad, cuf presidential candidate for Zanzibar. "Zanzibaris have not benefited from it one bit. I would go to the mainland and start talks on a program to move toward full independence."
Zanzibar joined with Tanganyika in 1964, just three months after young African nationalists overthrew the islands' Arab Sultan in a bloody revolution. Over the next two decades Nyerere forged a remarkably cohesive and stable nation. But Zanzibar's entrepreneurial inhabitants — an exotic and mostly Muslim mix of Africans and Arabs — chafed at Nyerere's socialist policies and grew frustrated at their lack of autonomy. "The millions and billions of aid and development money that comes into Tanzania, do your research into how much of it comes here. Nothing," says Wolfgang Dourado, an outspoken Zanzibar High Court judge and former attorney general who was jailed for criticizing the union during Nyerere's regime. "We try to talk to them but it's a dialogue with the deaf and dumb."
Seif Shariff Hamad says the answer is for Zanzibar to take control of its own destiny. He wants to remake the former cloves and nutmeg capital as a free port and center for offshore banking and investment: "Our people are very enterprising and hardworking but we need to find jobs for them to create a better life." To do that, he says, Zanzibaris must rekindle their pride and sense of history. "The older generation knows a Zanzibar that was famous, that had a certain attraction. But the young ones, the ones born since the revolution, have never seen how great Zanzibar was."
Not true, says Ahmed Hassan Diria, head of election strategy and planning for the ruling ccm. "We are very proud of our history and traditions. The real truth is that the young ones were not alive to see the vision of the fathers of the union and so they question it." Diria, a former foreign minister, says Zanzibar will never survive on its own. "Other countries are joining together so they have more power in a global economy," he says. "Who will come to this place? Possibly a third-rate investor or someone avoiding taxes."
The talk on the streets is plainer still. "There's fear," says clothes vendor Ali Nasser, 66, who traveled more than 30 km to see Hamad speak to some 5,000 people in a forest clearing dotted with enormous mango trees. Supporters of the two parties wear different colors — green and yellow for CCM, red, white and blue for CUF — and hurl abuse at each other. Fighting has broken out during rallies and both sides accuse the other of inciting violence. "It's because of the problems with the mainland," says Mohammed Mgemi, who sells vegetables in a food market that spills through the narrow windy streets at the center of Zanzibar's World Heritage-nominated Stone Town. "We can be together but we must correct the union." Or as Hassan the fisherman puts it: "Everybody's tired of the way it is. Tanganyika is the big fish eating the little one. All the fish should be the same."