ZANZIBAR: Death at Sunset

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Early one evening last week, Sheik Abeid Karume, 67, the burly, leftist strongman of the spice islands of Zanzibar, sat down to play cards and sip bitter coffee with his cronies in the white-walled building in Zanzibar Town that served as headquarters of his Afro-Shirazi Party. Shortly after sunset, two cars pulled up outside, and four men armed with automatic weapons and revolvers jumped out.

Then, according to eyewitnesses, they burst into the building and sprayed gunfire at the cardplayers, killing Sheik Karume instantly. Karume's bodyguard shot one of the attackers dead, and the driver of one car was captured; the others escaped. Throughout the night, troops combed the island's clove and coconut plantations, and gunboats patrolled the coral-reef waters lest the assassins should try to reach the mainland by dhow or dugout.

A former merchant mariner who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Heavyweight Boxer Sonny Listen, Karume came to power in a black-led revolution that overthrew the islands' Arab sultan in January 1964. Zanzibar, which lies 24 miles off the East African coast, united with mainland Tanganyika three months later to form the United Republic of Tanzania. The islands retained their own army and remained a tyrannical law unto themselves. Karume, a Moslem, became First Vice President of the union under Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere; in practice he remained the sole ruler of Zanzibar and rarely visited, or bothered with the mainland.

Sheik Karume was a cruel, erratic but folksy despot. His rule was characterized by conspiracy trials, summary executions of his political opponents, and Byzantine factional fights within the ruling Revolutionary Council.

It was no great surprise that Karume was killed, since he had been the target of at least a dozen previous assassination attempts. At week's end, though, it was not yet clear which of the Sheik's many enemies had taken their revenge, or whether the assassination would lead to another period of prolonged violence and factional infighting on what tourist posters used to describe as the "Clove-Scented Isles."