TRADITIONAL dancers excitedly flinging their arms and wriggling their shoulders and waists amid high-pitched songs and drum-beats. Troops parading majestically and school boys and girls displaying martial arts. Enthusiasts waving miniature national flags, while sun-glassed dignitaries gaze from the VIP stand. Crowds in their thousands have thronged the venue to witness the proceedings: another ritual, another special day in the national calendar.
This time it was on 26 April, 2010—the 46th anniversary of the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, popular as Union Day, the date when Tanzania was born. Like in many other similar occasions before, the day was being celebrated amid mounting clamour for an all-encompassing debate on how to sustain the Union and make it work better for both parties—Tanzania Mainland and Zanzibar.
Many Tanzanians are familiar with these debates. Perhaps what fluctuates from time to time is the temperature manifested in the tone and the dimension of speeches, statements and public views in general being aired by a vocal cross section of the society, including politicians, activists, journalists and ordinary citizens.
A reminder that this is not something new: In early 1990s the debate took a new dimension when on 24 August 1993, the National Assembly, sitting at Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam, “unanimously passed a resolution which directed the government to initiate a process which will involve the general public with a view to bringing before Parliament an agreed new structure of the union…”
The resolution came on the heels of the Nyalali Commission report, a few years before, which among other things, had proposed a federal structure, as a way of preserving and strengthening the union. The proponents of federalism in parliament those days mainly comprised a group of 55 MPs, the so-called G-55. Pius Msekwa was then the Speaker of the House.
After an intense and grueling debate, the G-55 won the day and a resolution dubbed “Tanganyika motion” was passed. It envisaged to create a state government of Tanganyika within the structure of the United Republic of Tanzania, an arrangement more or less similar to the current status of Zanzibar.
What transpired later is not the subject matter of this article. But anecdote is a lingering example of the dimensions that the union debates have taken from time to time. The debates have existed—sometimes tepidly, sometimes with high temperature—thought the almost existence of the union itself.
The positions taken by the contending sides have not changed much either. They are either the proponents of the status-quo (two-government system), federalists (three governments) or unitary (single-government) supporters. Only a fringe minority wants the dissolution of the union as such.
Each of the three main positions have their own criticisms. The federal system, it is argued, would undermine the country’s historical unity by creating overlapping mandates. Furthermore, it would force the poor country to dip into her meager resources to build a new federal bureaucracy, which is unnecessary. Critics also claim that federalism has the potential to incite domestic nationalism and separatism, as has happened –or is happening—in some countries around the world. This would eventually undermine national unity and wreak havoc on the Union itself.
Proponents of the two-government system (status quo) believe it is the best way forward, and the problems that exist in the arrangement are mere kero (annoyances—things that make you slightly angry).
But critics are quick to point out that the Union problems are many and complex, and resolving them would demand a re-write of the Constitution and even a renegotiation of the Articles of the Union. They argue that the need for a fresh look at the Union has now become even more imperative as the country moves towards East African Union integration. In addition, a number of contentious issues have emerged, which would require a broader debate to fix, rather than the current ad-hoc approach. In their view, the prevailing circumstances call for a broader review of the union set-up.
Thirdly, we have the proponents of a single-government arrangement for Tanzania Mainland and Zanzibar. “I strongly believe that one of the things that might strengthen the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar is the formation of one government,” a proponent was quoted as saying last week.
But even the single-government proposal is not devoid of criticism. Some people argue that it is not simply tenable under the present circumstances in Tanzania. It would require dissolving the autonomous status which Zanzibar enjoys—and many people in the Isles would simply reject that idea. In addition, single-government might breed perceptions of “assimilation” given the huge disparity of territorial size between the two sides of the union, and eventually provoke sentiments of separatism.
So which way forward? The good news is that all the major divergent views recognize the need to sustain the union. They only differ on how to achieve that objective. The majority agree that the union is not “an alien idea” or something imposed by the leaders.
Researchers and historians say that the Islands together with Tanzania Mainland have had economic, historical, linguistic or even religious ties since time immemorial. “The Islands and East Africa’s Indian Ocean coastal area have formed a single unit for time out of mind,” once wrote Prof. T.L. Maliyamkono. “The economies are so closely tied together that one wonders why even the British, who made so many mistakes in governing the two territories, could not see the obvious advantages to combine them in one state.”
Prof. Maliyamkono was among those who proposed the two-government system, which he said, “should be continued with some adjustments in the interest of equity.”
Maliyamkono’s view is held by many supporters of the two-government system, who are also quick to point out the prevailing peace under the current system—a crucial pre-requisite for development. It is widely recognized that political and economic reforms in Africa cannot succeed unless they are “underpinned” by civil peace.
In this line of thought, abandoning the current union government system would be tantamount to dismantling something which works—although with a number of difficulties—to start a new voyage in uncharted waters, a journey in which safe landing is anybody’s guess.
However, the Union issue should not be let to be the basis for grudge and conflict—now or in future. To achieve that, a comprehensive debate on the status of the union is crucial in order to build national consensus. The authorities should encourage dialogue between the rival opinions, with a view to charting the best way forward.
The voices from Zanzibar are particularly becoming more and more startling. Many people would recall how the issue of Zanzibar “statehood” became so sensitive in the House of Representatives a while ago. There are also issues related oil matters, exploitation of deep sea resources and equitable distribution of union revenues, among other contentious subjects.
Many Zanzibaris still hold the view—rightly or wrongly—that Tanzania Mainland is benefiting more than the Isles from the current union arrangement. Meanwhile, some Mainlanders claim that Zanzibaris are unfairly favoured in some political and economic aspects.
A newspaper reported last week that some former senior Zanzibari leaders, among them founders of the Union, were now calling for an open debate, including on the option of federal system arrangement. “It is not a sin do discuss the three-government system, if it would appear more appropriate to address Union problems and frequent complaints,” one of the retired senior leaders was quoted as saying.
But above all, Tanzanians should consider the Union as a stepping stone towards a greater African regional and continental unity. That was the dream of the founding fathers.