The first person heard on Zanzibar radio after the bloody revolution of January 12th 1964 was virtually unknown. His name was John Okello. He soon became very well known indeed in Zanzibar and around the world. But, after a short period in the limelight, he disappeared back into obscurity.
The Dar es Salaam ‘Express’s Samwillu Mwaffisi has been asking whether John Okello was the hero of the Zanzibar revolution or the villain. According to his article this is what happened.
John Okello was born in Uganda and travelled via Mombasa to Pemba to look for work on June 22, 1959. He worked first as a bricklayer and, later, in Zanzibar, as a carpenter. He joined the Afro-Shirazi Party and became an activist in opposing the government still headed at that time by an Arab sultan. The extent to which Okello planned the revolution is still not clear. He claimed that, 14 days before the revolution, he had picked 450 freedom fighters and had taken them in groups of 150 at a time to a forest where he trained them to shoot. The Zanzibar authorities have always maintained that he took no part in the planning of the revolution and that this was done by a 14-man revolutionary committee of the Afro- Shirazi party under the chairmanship of the Late Sheikh Abeid Karume who subsequently became President of Zanzibar. It was decided that for security reasons the Sheikh should be outside Zanzibar when the revolution took place and he went to Dar es Salaam. So it was Okello who announced on Zanzibar radio that the revolution had taken place. Okello also took part in the storming of the Ziwani armoury which provided the arms used in the revolution.
According to this account the Afro-Shirazi party had faced a problem. If Sheikh Karume was to be outside the country, who would announce the revolution? The revolutionary committee decided that, for the people to believe that a revolution had taken place, it was necessary to have someone with a deep, authoritative voice to announce it. A voice with a Zanzibar accent should be avoided as people would not believe it. Thus Okello became the spokesman of the revolution.
The revolutionary committee assumed that, after the announcement had been made and Sheikh Karume had returned, Okello would step aside. But he did not want to do so and made it clear that he himself was the leader of the revolution in several more radio broadcasts.
After his return Sheikh Karume summoned Okello and, among other things, discussed the possibility of some ‘bakhshish’ for his assistance. Okello is reported to have said that his lifelong ambition had been to build a house for his mother in Uganda. The Sheikh gave him Shs 80,000 and he went back to Uganda. The revolutionary authorities then declared him a prohibited immigrant and Sheikh Karume asked President Nyerere to talk to his friend President Obote of Uganda to make sure that Okello never returned to the isles. But Okello did return. When his plane landed in Zanzibar he found most of the senior members of the new revolutionary government at the airport and was told to return back to Dar es Salaam immediately. He was not allowed to speak to anyone else in Zanzibar and never returned again.
The writer of the article concludes that Okello must have played some part in the planning of the revolution. Had he stopped after doing what he was asked to do – announcing the revolution – he would most probably have been allowed to stay in the island and might have become one of its heroes. As it was, he became the villain.