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When Zanzibar was melting pot of political radicals in the region

By Kamau Ngotho | Aug 22nd 2021 | 6 min read
Sheikh Abeid Karume.

Zanzibar was in the news recently when Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi disclosed that he and Deputy President William Ruto were first to travel to the island before going to Uganda on the day the DP was barred from travel at the Wilson Airport.

He further claimed they have previously been to Zanzibar on a “private mission”, with “an interest in fruit farming” which they intend to replicate in Eldoret.

Zanzibar is famous for one produce, the cloves, which make over three quarter of her exports. Commercial cultivation of cloves in Eldoret would be equivalent to rearing dairy cattle in Wajir or Marsabit. But never mind, geography classes could be one of the many that some skipped in school.

Away from the current saga of DP “private missions”, there was a time Zanzibar was the hotbed of subversion in the region to a point the American spy agency, CIA, toyed with idea of a military invasion to get rid of “revolutionaries” who had taken control and plotting power grab in Kenya and in mainland Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika. The union with Zanzibar to form Tanzania had not been formed.

This is how it began.

Within weeks of attaining independence from the British in 1964, there was a military coup that disposed the Sultan and installed Sheikh Abeid Karume as the Head of State. Two brains behind the coup were a self-styled “Field Marshall” John Okello and a firebrand political operative Abdul Rahman Babu.

A few days later, there were simultaneous military mutinies in Kenya and in Tanganyika masterminded by Okello. The mutinies, however, were crashed thanks to the intervention of British troops. Panic button was triggered locally and in the Western capitals that “revolutionaries” in Zanzibar must be contained.

Bribe for Mr President

According to confidential papers now available at the library of former US President Lyndon Johnson, the CIA had recommended three options in containing the hotheads in Zanzibar. One, formation of a federation of East African states including Zanzibar, which effectively would put in check the “revolutionaries”. The second option floated was to befriend authorities in Zanzibar through massive aid and personal “gifts” to co-opt individuals in power. The third was a US naval raid to oust the mischief-makers.

On March 5, 1964, the US Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a cable to the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam instructing them to lobby Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, President Julius Nyerere and Uganda Prime Minister Milton Obote to implore Zanzibar President Abeid Karume to severe links with the “revolutionaries” as they posed danger to the entire region. The key target was Babu, who was secret ally of Kenyatta’s deputy Oginga Odinga, and Obote. The US top diplomat instructed that the three East African leaders be asked to explain to Zanzibar President “the danger Babu represented to the security of Zanzibar and East Africa generally.”

He cautioned that they recognize the big problem “is that Karume (Zanzibar leader) has great confidence and dependence on Babu.” The US Secretary of State was also worried that Nyerere and Obote too had soft spot for Babu, unlike Kenyatta who regarded the latter “as undesirable” and chief threat even to Zanzibar President.

That is the time US strategists came up with idea of merging the mainland with the island. The US secretary of state cabled: “Would it be useful to raise with Nyerere, despite his previous objection, the idea of a Tanganyika-Zanzibar federation as a possible way of strengthening President Karume and reducing Babu’s influence? Such action at this time might also help Nyerere’s own position.”  Alternatively, wrote Rusk, given Kenyatta’s attitude to Babu, “it might be better to seek initially to persuade him to suggest to Nyerere the advantages of Zanzibar-Tanganyika federation, possibly as a first step in formation of a larger East African Federation.”

But a youthful officer who was the US charge-de-affaires in Zanzibar, Frank Carlucci, was getting impatient at the pace things were going and, with covert help of the CIA, was working things his own way behind the scenes. He established a network of “operatives” to create friction within Zanzibar government with aim to bring to its downfall. He also plotted to co-opt Zanzibar President through bribery. He sent a message to Washington urging that an “impact offer” be made to Karume – “a gift of dynamic proportions which would appeal to him personally.” He suggested a helicopter with a US pilot, adding a firm rejection by the president would “at least clear the decks and allow us to devote full attention to other solutions.”

Meanwhile, talks between Kenyatta, Nyerere, and Obote on formation of East African Federative State went up in smoke. But from the smoldering ashes came the urgency to merge Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Nyerere's Foreign Affairs minister Oscar Kambona briefed Americans of the new development. They were very receptive and promised to lobby for the idea at the United Nations Security Council. The US under-secretary of state, George Ball, wrote to assure Tanzania: “The State Department gives its blessing and support to the Tanganyika initiative… It will be far preferable in our opinion if you were to make the initial request for the type of US assistance required in order to keep it an African initiative and avoid the impression the US is trying to take over.”

As sign of goodwill, President Nyerere ordered the troublesome Babu be placed under house arrest in the mainland to cut his links with other hotheads in Zanzibar. In a matter of days, the articles of the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to give birth to Tanzania were signed between Presidents Nyerere and Karume.

But there was still fear the “revolutionaries” in Zanzibar retained capacity to cause mayhem. The US ambassador in Dar es Salaam cabled Washington with the message: “The next few days will be a critical period. The Tanganyika government is strengthening its police field units in Zanzibar, but its weapons equation on the island is uncertain, and a preponderance of automatic arms is believed to be in the Babu camp. We have recommended an alert condition be notified to US commands in the Indian Ocean.” 

Naval ship at the ready

In the subsequent days, the CIA station chief in Dar es Salaam reported of “revolutionaries” planning a coup in Zanzibar and covertly funding subversive activities in Kenya. The US responded by deploying a naval ship in the Indian Ocean within striking distance of Zanzibar and with orders to intervene in case there was trouble in Kenya.

Gradually, the threat was extinguished, and the island acquired reputation as one of the destinations of choice for tourists.

Postscript: With the end of Cold War in late 1980s, a section of politicians in Zanzibar began to question the rationale for continued existence of the union with the mainland given communism had become extinct. Perhaps, that now is more of an excuse and campaign messaging, especially with return of competitive multi-party politics. In the recent years, there has also been concern in Western capitals that terrorist cells and other criminal entrepreneurs like money launderers could take advantage of political disquiet in the island to advance their agendas in the region. Luckily, Tanzanian authorities have stood alert and co-operated in thwarting any such intentions.                  

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