When I played hide-and-seek with police in Zanzibar islands

Sunday January 20 2019

Flashback to the last poll in Zanzibar in October 2005: Voters flee under attack after scuffles broke out amongst voters at a polling station in Stone Town during the Zanzibari election. After the passing of the referendum on the coalition, such scenes will be rare on the island. FILE | DAILY NATION

Voters flee under attack after scuffles broke out amongst voters at a polling station in Stone Town during the Zanzibari election in October 2005. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Perhaps because media doesn’t have as much space to be as robust in Tanzania as it is in Kenya, the full extent of violence and sensitivity of issues raised during October 30, 2005 elections in Zanzibar islands didn’t fully come to the fore.

Two days before the polls, outgoing President Ben Mkapa, ordinarily a cool-tempered former diplomat, went to the islands and made one of the toughest speeches in his presidency. He said the government knew there were plans to disrupt the elections but warned it would use necessary force to ensure the elections went on as planned.

But even as he spoke, hundreds of opposition supporters poured into the streets to protest alleged massive pre-poll rigging by the authorities in favour of the ruling party candidates. They alleged gross tampering with voter register, importation of ineligible voters, and intimidation of the opposition candidates.

Come voting day, the opposition lived to their threat and attempted to disrupt the exercise. Police responded by firing tear gas as well as live bullets. A number of civilians were reported dead, of course with authorities and the opposition giving different figure of the dead, and different version of what transpired.

The ruling party, CCM, presidential candidate Amani Abeid Karume was declared winner with a narrow margin of about 30,000 votes. At the same time, the opposition candidate from the CUF party, Seif Sharif Mohamed, claimed marginal victory of 50.38 per cent of the vote against the ruling party’s 49.62 per cent.


On the day the winning candidate was sworn in, police had to barricade opposition party’s headquarters where hundreds of supporters had gathered and vowed to disrupt the swearing-in ceremony.

World disquiet was raised when tension and incidents of violence continued in Zanzibar islands months after conclusion of the controversial poll.

I got to know about it towards end of march 2006 when a contact well-known to me approached me and said a certain western embassy based in Nairobi was keen in sending a journalist from Kenya to Zanzibar and give an objective report on exactly what was happening on the ground. He told me the embassy already had a report of it from their embassy in Dar es Salaam but wanted to compare notes with what journalist were seeing on the ground. “Then why not use the Tanzanian journalists more conversant with their own country?” I asked the contact. He replied that the media in Dar es Salaam was almost divided in the middle for and against the opposition, hence it was somehow tricky to expect unbiased report from the local media operatives.

I had no objection to take up the assignment. I flew out to Dar on the morning of April 1. My first task was to strike rapport with local journalists to have an idea of what was happening in the islands before I proceeded there. They were also to give me contacts of key political players to talk to once in the islands.

My old colleague and friend Julius Maina, then managing editor of the Citizen daily, came in handy in introducing me to local journalists working for media houses perceived to support rival political groupings. The good thing about journalists is that they have unwritten creed to be helpful to one another, irrespective of their personal preferences, which made my one week stay in Dar very fruitful.


I got so much of the ruling party’s version of events while in Dar, which made me conclude the person I really needed to talk to while in Zanzibar was the opposition presidential candidate Mr Shariff, and hear his side of the story even as I sampled the situation on the ground from other players. After all, it is the one wearing the shoe who feels the pinch.

While in Dar, I got contacts of a local journalist to get in touch with once in Stone Town, the Zanzibari capital, and who would hook me up with the opposition leader. The contact proved useful and she was able to secure me appointment with the opposition leader the same day I arrived. Little did I know it would turn out a hide-and-seek game.

On the first day, the opposition leader was to meet me at agreed venue where I would be waiting with my journalist contact. We waited until past nine in the night when his aide arrived. He excused himself for keeping us waiting but told us his boss wouldn’t be coming after all. Reason: he was being trailed by police wherever he went and there was no use getting himself and me in trouble by granting an interview. But on a positive note, he advised that I hang around for two to three days to enable his boss work out a way of dodging the police trail and meet me. He also advised me not to make my mission to the island so open lest I attract police attention and be shadowed as well.

I suggested I could as well take a day or two to see the fabled beaches in the Spice islands. Luckily, I had a good budget to tanga tanga around like any other tourist, even as my journalist arranged meetings with crucial contacts in camouflage. She also forwarded list of questions and issues I wanted to discuss with the opposition chief.


It is on the fourth day when the opposition leader felt sufficiently safe to meet me. His aide was to pick me from the hotel where I was staying and take me where the boss was. Come the appointed hour, the aide picked me from my hotel to another hotel not too far away. He ordered for refreshments as he told me there was a cab waiting for me at the back of the hotel and which would take me where the boss was. Under the table he passed me a note with number plate of the waiting cab.

I went through the motions by munching the bitings on the table, then suddenly excused myself and vanished through the back door.


I found the opposition leader well prepared for me. He’d documentary evidence of how the elections in the islands allegedly were stolen. He claimed the same had happened in the 2001 and 1995 elections. I asked him why not go to court given the massive evidence he had assembled. He laughed and asked me since when did I hear of a goat filing a case where the leopard would be judge.

So what next? I asked him. He told me the whole issue of rigging elections in the islands was to deny the islanders their right to self-determination. Should the trend continue, he said, the Zanzibaris would collect signatures and file a case at the UN headquarters in New York to challenge the articles of the agreement that brought about union of the islands and the mainland Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika) in 1964. He claimed Zanzibaris were never consulted

And there lies a story. Not long after Zanzibar independence from the British in 1964, a Soviet backed self-styled “Field-marshal” John Okello staged a coup in the islands. On the same day, the army mutinied at Kenya’s Lanet Barracks to send panic that had the British military intervene to suppress a Zanzibar-like coup.

The US charge d’affaires in Zanzibar, Frank Carlucci, cabled Washington to say there was a real danger that “Zanzibar was fast becoming the African Cuba” and that something must urgently be done to stop it. Hotheads in the US intelligence the CIA, proposed military intervention to neutralise the revolutionaries in the East African islands.


But the US state department was hesitant of use of force and advised that a diplomatic option first be given chance. US secretary of State, Dean Rusk, instructed the US embassies in Nairobi, Dar, and Kampala to personally lobby Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote to find what he called “an African solution to an African problem.” The first option on the table was to form an East African Federative state with Zanzibar on board, and which effectively would cripple the radicals in the islands and stop the communist penetration in the region.

But when that couldn’t work, especially when Kenya and Uganda proved not keen to cede individual sovereignty, an idea was quickly cobbled to create a union of Zanzibar and the mainland Tanzania.

That worked and President Nyerere, though himself a socialist of his own version, was able to effectively contain and vanquish the revolutionaries in the islands.


Back to my mission in Zanzibar, at the conclusion of the interview, the opposition leader told me of the “safe passage” he’d worked out for me back to my hotel without causing problems to him or to myself. In two days, I was back in Nairobi and made my report.

Certainly it wasn’t my business to follow-up on what the client did with the report. Happily, the situation in the beautiful islands calmed and as many Kenyans find it a worthy holiday destination.