Ahead of the 2025 elections, is President Hussein Mwinyi risking the stability of the Isles by trashing the power-sharing deal?
Three years after a disputed General Election led to a serious bout of electoral violence that was only stabilised by the formation of a unity government, Zanzibar's President Hussein Ali Mwinyi appears to be stirring the political waters again with a new round of attacks on supporters of the main opposition party in the Isles.
Zanzibar has a long history of political violence. The 1964 bloody revolution pitted the African and Shirazi majority against the Arab minority. More recently in the multiparty era, every election since 1995 has resulted in a violent dispute, with the islands' leading opposition party, the Civic United Front, accusing the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi of rigging the election.
It was, therefore, a relief when, following the bitterly disputed 2020 elections that left more than a dozen people killed and 55 others seriously injured, the popular opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo ended its prolonged boycott of the Government of National Unity (GNU) and joined President Mwinyi's administration.
Mwinyi apparently reached out to his rivals after controversially winning the 2020 polls, inviting them to rejoin the GNU as he pledged to unite the country and end the persistent disunity and violence that intensifies with every election. He was taken at his word, according to ACT-Wazalendo insiders.
Three years on, the hope that Mwinyi could break from the past has all but faded. His appointment of Thabit Faina as the new Director of Zanzibar Electoral Commission was seen a stab in the back of his GNU partners. The opposition points out that Faina was part of the maligned election commission in 2020 and does not believe he is the best appointee to chaperone a new beginning.
An independent electoral body is a key prerequisite of the reconciliation process in Zanzibar since peace talks in 1995, the year of the first multi-party elections, culminating with the formation of the GNU in 2010. President Mwinyi is now being accused of appointing the election agency's boss without consulting the opposition as stipulated in the power-sharing agreement.
Given the concentration of power in the presidency, both Mwinyi and CCM have ignored the full implementation of the GNU agreement to ensure a durable peace in Zanzibar. They are exploiting the lack of mechanisms for the opposition partners to hold the leadership to account.
Consequently, persistent allegations of corruption facing President Mwinyi raise serious questions about the future of the GNU. Masses of unemployed youth who view democracy as not working in the context of Zanzibar are getting restless with the direction the country was taking.
Despite the violence and widely alleged rigging that marred the 2020 elections, ACT-Wazalendo galvanised its base to embrace Mwinyi's appeal for unity and a new beginning by recognising his presidency. It is worth recalling that while ACT-Wazalendo emerged as a force in Zanzibari politics after it successfully recruited Seif Sharif Hamad, CUF's veteran secretary-general and presidential candidate. The opposition party, which enjoys the backing of more than half of the Isles' people, had sat out of the GNU since 2016 when the chairman of the electoral body annulled the 2015 presidential election results, widely believed to have been won by Sharif.
The GNU is enshrined in the amendments made to the Zanzibar Constitution in 2010 to end many years of political instability that shred the country's social fabric. But it has also given CCM a dubious legitimacy, allowing for unfettered rule while exposing the opposition to the uncomfortable role of criticising the same administration with which it shares power.
The opposition has protested the working of the GNU against the proposals of an official committee appointed to study the system. The party argues it has been given positions in government without the levers to exercise authority.
One of the conditions for the GNU in 2010 was the need to form a neutral electoral commission by appointing an individual of the equivalent position of a High Court judge to chair the commission. CCM picked Jecha Salum Jecha to fill the position despite having previously contested for a parliamentary seat on the ruling party's ticket. Jecha would go on to single-handedly nullify the election outcome in 2015 in which the opposition was widely considered to have won, casting serious doubt as to whether the opposition would ever win without root-and-branch judicial and electoral reforms.
The subsequent opposition boycott of the government and the House of Representatives for five years had rapturing effects on democracy. The House passed new legislation that would thereafter affect the opposition's participation in future elections. The opposition boycott fell short of its expectations as civil society and the international community interested in Zanzibar affairs did not step up pressure on authorities in Zanzibar and the mainland to operationalise all the GNU provisions.
The boycott also created general political tensions in the isles, resulting in heavy deployment of security agents to quell fears of violence. In a nutshell, the political atmosphere did not benefit the opposition but gave the ruling party political advantage over all public affairs. It thus remains to be seen if the GNU is in fact the lasting solution to the governance problems in Zanzibar.
The First Vice President, Othman Masoud Othman, who is the opposition's most senior official in the GNU, remains a figurehead without substantive authority - the reverse of what was contemplated in the power sharing agreement. Theoretically, the minority partner was expected to lead the House of Representatives, but that power lever is being exercised by the Second Vice President from CCM.
From the onset, the purpose of the GNU was not to incorporate the opposition into the government, but to provide an opportunity for the political players to collaborate in addressing governance-related issues, including restoring accountability and the rule of law in Zanzibar. While details of the ''gentleman's'' agreement between ACT-Wazalendo and President Mwinyi for the opposition to re-join the GNU remains secret, it is understood the president has reneged on most of the provisions of the agreement.
Such omissions, including the formation of a special commission to investigate atrocities committed by security agencies against innocent Zanzibaris, has left the opposition frustrated and in contemplation of quitting the GNU all together. Only the Union government President Samia Suluhu Hassan's constant interventions are said to be holding the GNU together.
But analysts argue that the lack of a clear GNU mechanism to hold the ruling elite to account leaves the partnership doomed to fail. It is even more worrying that President Mwinyi is facing criticism from within his own party, with CCM loyalists accusing him of taking unilateral decisions that, despite his rhetorical efforts to the contrary, increase suspicions of grand corruption creeping back to haunt the government.
It is no wonder that one outspoken CCM cadre was kidnapped, tortured and suspended from the party after he accused President Mwinyi of corruptly selling Zanzibar's islets. The opposition have also criticised the government's decision to award exclusive rights to Dubai National Air Travel Agency (Danata) to operate at the new International Airport in Zanzibar, which saw other aggrieved operators challenge the move at the High Court of Tanzania. Such cases have only helped fuel the fear that corruption is reaching unprecendented levels.
With no mechanism to ensure that power is shared equally, many worry about the future. Poverty levels have increased to the point that desperate young people are turning to extremist groups for financial support, frustrated at the failure of democracy to deliver economic dividends . in the run up to the 2025 elections, the ball will be in the opposition's court to raise its game, locally and internationally, to ensure a level playing field guaranteeing peace and economic prosperity for all in Zanzibar.
Erick Kabendera is a researcher in transitional justice and the International Criminal Court at King's College London.