Acid attacks leave bitter taste

Anver Versi

A spate of acid attacks in Tanzania drew international attention when two British schoolgirls became the latest victims in the summer of 2013. President Jakaya Kikwete is busy trying to unite the country and limit the damaging headlines that risk putting off tourists, who provide a vital source of income 

Tanzania, a vast East African nation made up of the mainland (formerly Tanganyika) and the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, has enjoyed relative political stability since its independence in 1961. Leadership succession for the union government has been smooth and mostly without rancour. 

However, politics in Zanzibar has always been prickly, with occasional outbreaks of violence. Internal tensions on the island acquired a disturbing new trend over the past two years and have taken on a religious dimension. There were five instances of attacks on religious figures – one a Muslim cleric and the others Roman Catholic. The latest was in September when an elderly Catholic priest was attacked with acid in Zanzibar’s Stone Town. 

A month earlier, the scope of the attacks seemed to have widened when two British schoolgirls who were working as volunteers had acid thrown on their faces and bodies by attackers on a motorcycle. Fifteen people were arrested in connection with the attacks. Police commissioner Musa Ali Musa said suspects included members of terror organisation al-Shabaab who were responsible for the massive attack on a shopping mall in Kenya, also in September. 

Religious tensions spilled over even to the mainland. Police arrested 125 people after five churches in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, were burnt and vandalised, allegedly because a Christian boy was seen urinating on a copy of the Quran. And last year, a bomb exploded in a church in the northern city of Arusha, killing two. 

This spate of religion-centred violence is a new and very unwelcome dimension in Tanzanian society which, perhaps uniquely in Sub-Saharan Africa, has been free of ethnic conflicts, with Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews and animists all rubbing along perfectly well. 

It raises the alarming possibility that al Qaeda, which had targeted the East African coast as a recruiting ground, might be returning in force. In 1998, the terror organisation carried out two huge explosions on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and, in 2002, two surface-to-air missiles were fi red at an Israeli chartered plane, and a hotel belonging to an Israeli in the coastal city of Mombasa was ripped apart by a bomb mounted on a vehicle. 

The British schoolgirls have recovered and have pledged to return to the island to carry on with their voluntary work; the President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, visited them in hospital and assured visitors that, despite the attack, Zanzibar was safe. Tourism has become an important income earner for the island and it is clear that both the union government and the island’s semi-autonomous administration are worried about the impact of the violence. 

Zanzibar’s President, Ali Mohammed Shein, said the assault had “brought chaos and confusion to our country from outside”. 

Muddying the waters further is the role of the radical Muslim group Uamsho (Awakening) which wants the Zanzibar/Tanganyika union dissolved and stricter Islamic codes to be imposed. Soon after the attack on the girls, the alleged leader of the movement, Sheikh Ponda, went into hiding facing an arrest warrant for inciting violence. He was later shot and injured by police. 

Uamsho was legally registered as a nongovernmental religious organisation and has been campaigning against the union since the formation of the government of national unity in 2010. Although it is not a political party it has a large following in Zanzibar, where it can tap into a growing pool of disenchantment and a feeling of being marginalised by the government. It is not clear if Uamsho was involved in the attacks or if it has been infiltrated by either al Qaeda itself or al-Shabaab. Many of Uamsho’s verbal diatribes have been directed at fellow Muslims for ‘not being Muslim enough’ – a modus operandi for al-Qaeda in radicalising Muslim youth elsewhere. The tensions between the mainland and the islands of Zanzibar go back to the merger of the two independent states in 1964. Zanzibar, which had come into global prominence as the fabled ‘spice island’ in the 19th century, had become the commercial centre of East Africa with the Sultan of Zanzibar’s authority reaching as far as Uganda. It also gave rise to the Swahili people with their distinctive language, literature and culture that was predominantly Arabic but with infusions from its Persian, Indian, Portuguese and English heritage. 

Zanzibar, then a British protectorate, became independent in 1963, following a general election in which the minority groups – Arabs, Indians and Swahilis – won most of the seats. Abeid Karume, leader of the defeated Afro-Shirazi Party, and a mysterious General Okello staged a bloody revolution in which an estimated 5,000 Arabs were killed. About a third of the population fled either to the mainland or to neighbouring countries while the Sultan took refuge in Britain.

With the island in chaos with widespread looting, raping and forced marriages, and the possibility that British warships would intervene on behalf of the Sultan, Tanganyika’s first President, Julius Nyerere, quickly staged a merger of the two countries. The new entity became Tanzania and Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) merged with the Afro-Shirazi Party to form the CCM – Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary Party). It was also proclaimed the only legal political party. 

Nyerere, a brilliant orator with a sharp wit, was highly respected internationally for his simple lifestyle and complete lack of ostentation. He was convinced that only socialism, as practised in China, would allow the country of “peasants who still use wooden ploughs” to rise. He placed education at the top of national priorities. “At independence, we had only two graduates in the whole country,” he lamented. He also established Soviet-style collective farming – ujamaa – because “our villages are scattered all over a vast area. The only way we can bring modern amenities to them is to collect them in larger units”. He also nationalised virtually all enterprise, including banks. Communist East Germany established a strong presence on Zanzibar, erecting hideous housing units that contrasted sharply with Stone Town’s often exquisite architecture. 

Ujamaa sounded ideal in theory, but in practice it failed to work. The nationalised enterprises quickly ground to a halt, creating shortages of essentials, and corruption on a vast scale took root. 

Nyerere retired in 1985 and President Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Zanzibar succeeded him. Mwinyi, a born diplomat, began to dismantle the socialist state and restored multi-party politics in 1992. Journalist-turned-politician Benjamin Mkapa won the first multi-party election in 1995 as CCM virtually swept the board on the mainland. He won a second term five years later with 72 per cent of the vote. 

But the transition to multi-party politics was far more fractious in Zanzibar, where the CCM was strongly challenged by the Civic United Front (CUF) which felt that Zanzibar had lost more in terms of economic freedom than it had gained through the union with the mainland. It claimed the union had been a “forced marriage”. 

The CUF accused CCM of rigging the 2000 elections and riots followed. A year later, at least 31 people were killed in what the CUF called a “massacre”. The two parties agreed to bury the hatchet to restore order, but trouble flared up again during the 2005 elections with the CUF boycotting parliament until 2009, a year before the next elections. 

Jakaya Kikwete, who had been the country’s Foreign Minister for ten years, won the 2005 elections and was re-elected in 2010. Under each succeeding President, Tanzania has moved away from its earlier socialism and encouraged free enterprise. Its economic growth over the last ten years has averaged a solid six per cent. Kikwete has been ruthless in his efforts to stamp out corruption. In 2012, he fired six ministers for “rampant misuse of funds” and had earlier instituted a far-reaching probe into a multimillion dollar air traffic control system deal with Britain’s BAE Systems in which the middlemen are reported to have received a US$12 million commission. In 2011, BAE was fined over the deal and agreed to pay Tanzania compensation of $30 million. 

Tanzania has come a long way since its neighbours dubbed it the ‘eat nothing society’ in the 1980s. It is the second largest economy in the region after Kenya but, with its huge natural gas reserves now awaiting exploitation, it is likely to become the strongest East African economy over the next ten years. 

The only shadow hanging over this nation is the still ill-defined spectre of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The silver lining is that the recent attacks have brought the bulk of the Muslim and Christian communities closer together as they seek to isolate the common threat.

About the author:

Anver Versi is Editor of London-based African Business and African Banker magazines


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