Secret manoeuvres that led to formation of Tanzania as union of the mainland and the islands

Fidel Castro chats with Julius Nyerere during his visit to Tanzania in March 1977.

Monday is the 60th anniversary since signing of the treaty that brought together mainland Tanzania, then called Tanganyika, and the islands of Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania on April 22, 1964.

Unknown by many, the creation of Tanzania was a hurriedly crafted move to avoid possible military showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. At the time, eastern Africa was one of the hotbeds of East-West superpower ideological rivalry that often spilled into armed confrontation through proxies. The capitalist US and communist USSR regarded the eastern African coast as crucial in controlling the strategic Indian Ocean corridor as well as a penetration point to the mineral-rich eastern Congo.

Tranquility in the idyllic Spice Islands, as Zanzibar is called, was stirred in early 1964 when a Soviet-leaning faction staged a successful military coup and seized power in the islands. By coincidence or design, as the coup took place in Zanzibar, army mutinies were simultaneously staged in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, where a Soviet hand was suspected.

Alarm bells rang in Western capitals over what was seen as a daring and provocative move by the Soviet Union to take control of East Africa in one fell swoop. In particular, the US feared a communist take-over in Zanzibar would have serious ramifications for the region and the continent. 

In Washington, emergency meetings were held to plot counter-action to stop looming communist ‘State capture’ in East Africa. Two plans were drawn. The first one-the Zanzibar Action Plan-would see Britain, which still had troops in Kenya and mainland Tanzania-receive US support to storm Zanzibar and topple the communist-backed rulers who had taken over. Plan ‘B’ was to lobby for formation of one East African Federative State made up of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar where the latter would be ‘swallowed up’ by the three bigger brothers who were pro-Western.

None of the plans worked. Britain, which had no appetite for armed engagement in the former colonies, dragged its feet on the envisaged Zanzibar Action Plan. On the other hand, the three East African countries were not keen to come together as one State.

Confidential files now declassified at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Texas reveal the anxiety in Washington regarding the crisis in Zanzibar.

On March 5, 1964, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled US embassies in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kampala instructing them to explain to presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote ‘the security threat’ posed to their countries by the communist take-over in Zanzibar. He asked the embassies to lobby the Heads of State to support any action the US would take to confront the Soviets in the region.

Next, Rusk escalated the crisis to London through a March 29, 1964 cable to the US ambassador that said: “We are extremely concerned with British complacency in the Zanzibar situation. There is one school of thought that we tell the UK that if we cannot get their co-operation, we will go ahead on our own in the covert action on the problem in Zanzibar. The British will be so appalled as to pick up the ball.”

Bribe for Mr President

Meanwhile, US Charge d’Affaires in Zanzibar Frank Carlucci (later to be appointed deputy director of the CIA) had a brainwave: Why not seek the co-operation of Zanzibar leader President Sheikh Abeid Karume by making him an ‘impact offer’. By that, he meant a personal bribe to President Karume to make him soften up to US interests and turn his back on the Soviets. Carlucci cabled Washington on March 30, 1964 to say: “We should offer President Karume a ‘gift’ of dynamic proportions which would appeal to him personally. One thought which comes to mind is that we gift him a helicopter and a US pilot … A firm refusal to accept our gift would at least clear the decks and allow us devote full attention to other solutions.”

Meanwhile, Tanganyika Foreign Affairs minister Oscar Kabona, who was well disposed to the Americans, had a brainwave: Why not create a union of mainland Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania? That way, the islands would be ‘swallowed’ by the mainland and pose no more threat to US interests.

Kabona shared the idea with the US ambassador in Dar es Salaam who immediately relayed it to Washington. The White House liked it and instructed the State Department to move with speed.

US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs George Ball cabled the US embassy in Dar es Salaam to say: “The department gives its blessings and support to the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Federation or incorporation … It would be far preferable in our opinion if Tanganyika were to make the move to avoid creating the impression that the US is trying to take over. We will offer any assistance Dar es Salaam requires to make it happen.”

Done deal

In the next few days, preparations for the union to form Tanzania got underway as the Americans pretended to watch from the sidelines, even as the CIA clandestinely worked round the clock to ensure everything went according to plan. On April 22, the articles for the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar were signed by presidents Nyerere and Karume. Champagne bottles were uncorked in Washington. Carlucci reported: “Had there not been the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, Zanzibar would have been an African Cuba from which sedition would have spread to the continent.”    

In Zanzibar, Karume was happy to have radicals in his ranks who were opposed to the merger subdued and dehorned. Kenyatta, Nyerere and Obote, fearful of communist-backed insurgencies at home, were also happy to see the radicals’ hide in Zanzibar nailed to the wall.

Scavenge for crumbs

In an April 29 brief to Washington, the US ambassador in Dar es Salaam cabled: “Formation of Tanzania as the union of the mainland and the islands has given us a better political environment within which we can work better. Key powers of foreign affairs, finance, army and police are all in Dar es Salaam … Nyerere’s strongest men are in charge. Six Zanzibaris are in the new Cabinet, but they hold minor posts and are ably checked-mated by Tanganyikans in closely related ministries.”

The radicals in Zanzibar had been outwitted, outgunned and left to scavenge for crumbs in the power matrix. This came out in an interview their leader Abdul Mohamed Babu gave the media years later. Babu led the Umma Party whose translation is ‘party of the masses’. His was an openly leftist movement with a large and relatively youthful membership drawn from both the mainland and the islands.

He bitterly complained that Nyerere had taken advantage of the formation of Tanzania to make Cabinet appointments that weakened ‘progressive’ forces in Zanzibar.

“With assistance of the US, he (Nyerere) pinpointed people like me who, according to the US, were communists. We were appointed to insignificant Cabinet posts. In my case, I was put in the ministry of Economic Planning but I was not to be in charge. I couldn’t plan or implement policies. There was a director of planning in the office of the President who was in charge of economic policy and implementation. So I was merely a figure-head to rubber-stamp what had been decided elsewhere!”

He went on: “The effect of that kind of arrangement was to incapacitate us. Furthermore our offices were in the mainland and not in the island where we came from and had influence.”

Not long after, Babu and other radicals were sacked from their ministerial positions and carted away to jail or forced into exile abroad.