The determination by Tanzania's ruling party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), to hold onto power in Zanzibar, no matter the cost, is approaching recklessness and threatens to open up a new front of violent conflict and extremism in Africa. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission has set a date of March 20th for the rerun of the elections that were annulled in October last year after informal results showed that the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) had won decisively.
Zanzibar is a small nation, a tropical archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean famed for its beauty and politically a semi-autonomous part of the United Republic of Tanzania, which has been ruled by the CCM since independence in 1962. Despite its size, the struggle for democracy in Zanzibar has much wider ramifications in a region economically rising but facing significant challenges of poverty, unemployment and religious fundamentalism.
The announcement of a rerun rode roughshod over the dialogue that the parties have been engaged in for the last three months to resolve the political impasse.
Since the elections were annulled, the leadership of the CUF has urged its supporters, including many young people who voted for the first time, to remain patient to avoid a repeat of the violence of 2000 when more than 60 people died in clashes after disputed elections. The CUF has decided that it will boycott new elections, which it sees as little more than an exercise in rigging.
Part of the fear of the CCM ruling party seems to be that an opposition victory in Zanzibar will be a first step towards the dissolution of the union with Tanganyika. But this is not sufficient justification for abridging the democratic rights of the Zanzibaris. If anything, it will further fuel their discontent.
The envoys and Ambassadors of a number of countries, including the UK and the US, have sent a strongly worded note to Tanzanian, President John Pombe Magufuli, saying they will not legitimize the election by sending international observers. However, they were not joined in their protest by a single African Ambassador.
President Muhammadu Buhari, as the leader of Africa's largest democracy, should signal that Nigeria is prepared to stand up and be counted in favour of the democratic rights of the citizens of Zanzibar.
The elections were declared free and fair by every single international observer mission - the African Union, the Commonwealth, the European Union, the East African Community and the South African Development Community, as well as American and British observers. The count was concluded days before the annulment and it was clear the ruling party had been defeated. All that remained was the official ratification of a handful of results.
Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) Chairman, Zecha Salim Zecha, said he annulled the election because of "irregularities" but these charges have never been explained, let alone proven. Even if they were, it would be for an independent tribunal to determine whether the offences were so egregious that they merited the extreme action of cancelling an election.
Mr. Zecha, a political appointee of the ruling party, had neither the constitutional nor legal authority to cancel the election, and he took this drastic step without even consulting his fellow commissioners.
One man has been allowed to plunge Zanzibar into a political and constitutional crisis. The equivalent would have been if Professor Attahiru Jega had gone on television to unilaterally annul last year's Nigerian elections while the results were still being announced, because of certain "irregularities" that he would not disclose.
If the new "election" does go ahead on March 20th, Zanzibaris are likely to go to the streets and conflict might ensue. The ruling party has already moved to stifle dissent by closing down radio stations and banning newspapers, by threats of violence, by beatings and arrests, and by a hugely increased security force presence on the streets.
We find it hard to believe that President Magufuli, who has embarked on a robust public relations campaign, would sacrifice his image by endorsing a fake "election" that undermines democracy and the rule of law, and threatens to lead to widespread violence and has already been rejected by much of the international community.
PREMIUM TIMES calls on President Magufuli to exercise leadership and to get all parties to work towards a peaceful outcome. He has the wherewithal to bring the situation to a positive conclusion and he should do what is necessary to consolidate Tanzanian democracy.
Also, we call on President Buhari to rally African opinion against this abuse of the democratic process. We should not wait till the deed is done, as in Burundi, before sending out fire fighters.