Menu Close

Tanganyika and Zanzibar: Tanzania’s 60-year-old union may need a restructure

An aerial view of the sea and a beach surrounding an urban settlement
Zanzibar island has been a Tanzanian territory since 26 April 1964. MOIZ HUSEIN STORYTELLER / Shutterstock

On 26 April 2024, Tanzania celebrated 60 years of the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The union, which created the present-day United Republic of Tanzania, stands out among the longest lasting political arrangements of its kind in Africa, and has shaped the country’s construction of national identity. Nicodemus Minde, who has researched Tanzania’s politics, unpacks the union’s dynamics.

What’s unique about the Tanganyika-Zanzibar union?

The union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar is not the only attempt at political unification in Africa. Previous ones include the Ethiopia-Eritrea Federation (1952-1962); the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union (Union of African States) (1958-1963); and Senegambia Confederation (1982-1989). Those have been wound up, but the Tanganyika-Zanzibar union has remained intact.

Unification attempts in post-independence Africa have been fraught with challenges. In some cases, nationalist movements wanted to annex territory. In others, countries have split into two, such as Ethiopia-Eritrea (1993) and Sudan-South Sudan (2011).

There are still many active separatist and nationalist movements across the continent.

For six decades, the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar has withstood challenges. It has been celebrated as a success of the pan-African vision of a united Africa.

But there are murmurs and disquiet over the nature, structure and the future of the union.

What led to the union?

On 26 April 1964, two independent states, the Republic of Tanganyika and the People’s Republic of Zanzibar, merged to form the United Republic of Tanzania. Tanganyika had gained independence from Britain on 9 December 1961 with Julius Nyerere as its prime minister.

Zanzibar, also a former British colony, had become an independent constitutional monarchy under Sultan Jamshid bin Abdulla on 10 December 1963. The African majority led a revolution against Arab control on 12 January 1964, establishing a new government led by Abeid Karume.

The formalisation of the union was agreed in the Articles of the Union, which outlined 11 areas of cooperation between the two regions. These were the constitution, foreign relations, defence, police, emergency powers, citizenship and immigration, external trade, public service, tax related matters and harbours and civil aviation.

A stock photo showing Tanzania's political map
Tanzania’s political map. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The union was conceived in the midst of debates on pan-Africanism and the politics of the Cold War. After the Zanzibar revolution of January 1964, western powers such as the US and Britain labelled Zanzibar as Africa’s Cuba. This was in reference to Cuba’s proxy role in the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union.

Nyerere also saw Zanzibar as a security threat and once remarked that if his wish could be granted, Zanzibar would be towed further into the Indian Ocean. There were however socio-cultural and economic ties binding the people of Zanzibar and Tanganyika that justified the union formation.

The union is credited with construction of Tanzania’s national identity. It has enhanced the social, economic and cultural interactions between residents of Zanzibar and the mainland. The constitution requires the sharing of the president and vice-president positions between the mainland and Zanzibar. Tanzania’s current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is from Zanzibar. The ruling party, CCM, has often supported the current union format, which favours its continued stay in power. The party’s fear is that democratising the union could result to an opposition win.

Zanzibar is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and as a result, both Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania have reaped substantial economic benefits from tourism.

Has the union eased tension between the regions?

There are always tensions between the two entities. Between 2011 and 2013 Zanzibari nationalism was at its peak. Sections were calling for secession. They were dissatisfied with the structure of the union and waning sovereignty, especially the mainland’s influence on economic and political affairs in Zanzibar. This cooled down with the elevation of Samia to the presidency.

The ruling party has often ignored calls to deal with the union’s squabbles. Lately, there has been clamour to bring back the government of Tanganyika. The opposition is questioning Samia’s two main decisions that affect mainland Tanzania. The first is the eviction of Maasai people from their ancestral land of Ngorongoro and the second is the decision by the government to enter an agreement with the Dubai based DP World for the management of the Dar es Salaam port. The president being from Zanzibar, the opposition has accused her of auctioning mainland land. These claims highlight the fragility of the union, which the opposition cites as grounds for demanding a new constitution.

From some of the published opinions and several interviews that I have had with political leaders, it appears many Tanzanians feel the union should be reformed to reflect contemporary realities.

A 2014 report by the Constitution Review Commission, set up to collect views and propose a new constitution, outlined emerging political and economic grievances from both entities. For example, many mainlanders see Zanzibar as a distinct entity, with its own president, national symbols like a flag and anthem, and a semi-autonomous government. On the other hand, Zanzibaris have criticised the lack of transparency in union finances and the absence of clear procedures for managing the union. These issues have still not been addressed.

What’s ailing the union?

One of the major issues that has bedevilled the union has been its structure. It is a two-government system consisting of the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar and the United Republic of Tanzania. Both governments are led by the ruling party, CCM, which has guarded the union as a sacrosanct entity that defines Tanzanian nationhood.

In 1993, a section of mainland legislators known as the Group of 55 (G55) pushed for a return of the government of Tanganyika. They wanted a three-tier government: one for each region and a union government.

A presidential commission had, in 1991, recommended a similar structure. Two other commissions also recommended a three-tier government.

What needs to be done?

For the union to continue to exist, recommendations made by different commissions on its nature and structure should be implemented. The proposal for a three-tier government format with executive control in the two entities and a union president would go a long way in easing the union tensions. These recommendations were after all made from popular opinions from both sides of the union.

Alternatively, the union question should be subjected to a popular referendum. Referendums have been done in South Sudan, Catalonia, Quebec and elsewhere to determine people’s views on independence.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,300 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now