Advancing democracy in Africa: why Zanzibar matters


The U.S. government’s relationship with Tanzania took a hit this past year when national elections in October 2015 revealed a decidedly undemocratic streak in a country that U.S. officials had described as a model of democracy in East Africa. An abrupt and unconstitutional annulment of elections on the country’s quasi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar was the most visible manifestation that the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), in power since independence, will use fair means or foul to maintain its grip on power, writes Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

There is a strong possibility that the U.S.-Tanzania relationship will revert to business as usual and that the fate of Zanzibar’s 1.4 million residents will not be considered important enough to put the broader relationship in jeopardy. This would be a mistake, she contends:

  • First, the administration has repeatedly stressed that support for democracy and inclusive governance has pride of place among its interests and engagement in Africa. …..
  • Second, failure to sustain international pressure to resolve the Zanzibar electoral crisis sends a dangerous message to aggrieved opposition movements elsewhere that resorting to violence is the only way to garner international attention and support, even in the face of flagrant electoral fraud. The international mobilizations for Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe might not have happened had images of ethnic clashes and protesters gunned down in the streets not been broadcast on international media. When democratic process is so blatantly subverted, the United States must be as robustly engaged when disenfranchised voters are peaceful as when they vent their anger in violent protest. CUF’s commitment to nonviolent protests should not become a liability.
  • Third, it is generally accepted wisdom in Washington policy circles that an enduring sense of injustice and political marginalization are powerful drivers of violent extremism and militancy. It is no secret that Tanzania sits in a dangerous neighborhood. … The median age on Zanzibar is 16, and all the other ostensible drivers of militancy—poverty, unemployment, inequality—are present. Robust support for Zanzibari rights could be an important opportunity for preventive action. Once the radicalization genie slips out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back in.


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