REVIEWS

Edited by John Cooper-Poole

THE THREAT OF LIBERATION: IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN ZANZIBAR. Amrit Wilson: Pluto Press: London, 2013. ISBN 13 978 0745334073. £18.99

Zanzibar is a small-scale society, with a population, even today, of less than a million people, dispersed between three islands, Unguja, Pemba and Mafia. For hundreds of years its strategic significance rather than its intrinsic value has driven its history. Occupied by a succession of overlords, from Portugal and Oman to Britain, it has been the hub of trade routes for slaves and ivory from Africa’s hinterland, a centre from which to exert political power over semi-autonomous city states along the East African coast, and later a plantation economy focussed on cloves. Each set of rulers has left its divisive mark in a complex, racialised social order and shifting class formations.

Making sense of the political trajectory of Zanzibar has exercised many intellectuals as well as politicians and diplomats. Amrit Wilson draws on her own first-hand knowledge, interviews with participants and existing literature (especially Lofchie, Chase, Babu and her own publications), bringing the story up to date, the Wikileaks revelations. Her interpretation of events and their significance is based on one of the key actors in this political maelstrom, Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, a lifelong Communist and revolutionary.

In December 1963 Zanzibar gained independence from Britain as a constitutional monarchy under a Sultan. Liberation from colonial rule promised progressive social transformation, but Zanzibar tore itself apart and remained the subject of imperialist concern. Within a few months, a series of political battles had put ‘liberation’ in question. In January 1964 a bloody revolution overthrew the Sultan; Wilson does not estimate the numbers killed, but they were primarily of Zanzibar’s ‘ruling class’ – Omani Arabs and Asians – who had prospered from the plantations or from trade, and their political allies. She claims that the uprising was fomented by disaffected youth and ‘lumpen’ elements, people who saw no change in their abject circumstances by virtue of ‘liberation’.

Although the revolution was not initiated by Babu, he had formed a Marxist left wing party (called Umma or ‘Community’) just before independence. This drew on the support of union workers in the docks and in transport, as well as intellectuals. Umma played a strategic role in the revolution and became part of the Revolutionary Council, with Abeid Karume of the Afro-Shirazi Party as President. Zanzibar’s numerous political parties cannot be neatly subsumed into class or racial conflict. Most represent opportunistic alliances of different class groupings. So-called ‘right-wing parties’ have left wing factions and the language of race/ethnicity permeates all political discussion. Wilson’s account does not make this much clearer – and maybe the chaotic reality is not susceptible to easy analysis.

The question now raised is a challenging one. As a Communist and leader of a party dedicated to achieving socialism, what scope did Babu have, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a ‘Revolutionary’ government dominated by increasingly reactionary elements? Wilson makes a brave case for Babu’s initiation of policies to restructure the economy with an integral link between agriculture and industry, and to learn from China. But she describes it as a ‘Zanzibar that might have been’. In April 1964 (only four months after the revolution) whilst Babu was absent on a mission to link Indonesia and East Germany into his plans, a merger between Tanganyika and Zanzibar was engineered by Karume and Nyerere without any vote in the Revolutionary Council. Thereafter, Zanzibar descended into despotism with political scores being brutally settled and many activists murdered. Babu was removed to Dar es Salaam and sidelined as a minister of state without any real power, his only achievement (at Nyerere’s behest) the Chinese involvement in building the Tazara railway.

Nearly a decade of violence and arbitrary rule in Zanzibar led to the assassina­tion of Karume in April 1972 by two ex-Umma members. They were killed in the ensuing melee but mass arrests led to a lengthy Treason Trial. Umma activists in Zanzibar, together with Zanzibari politicians on the mainland (including Babu), were accused on flimsy grounds of being involved in the killing of Karume and the trial was marked throughout by anti-Communist rhetoric. Torture was used to extort confessions, and most of the accused were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Babu received a death sentence after a trial in absentia. He was detained on the mainland when Nyerere refused to extradite him to Zanzibar and he was eventually released in 1978.

Wilson’s book will be notable to some for its critique of Nyerere. Basically he is presented as a stooge of the West, particularly in respect of Zanzibar, with both Britain and the US bringing pressure to bear to neutralise what they saw as a potential ‘African Cuba, from which sedition would spread to the continent’ (quoting Frank Carlucci, Reagan’s Defense Secretary 1987-9). The revolution and the Revolutionary Council were seen as evidence of a Communist takeover. Wilson notes that some have seen the merger between Tanganyika and Zanzibar as evidence of Nyerere’s ‘pan-Africanism’, but she rejects this. Nyerere was beholden to the British for rescuing him after the army mutiny in Dar es Salaam and the Zanzibar revolution was shortened by the appearance of a US destroyer.

Wilson compares Nyerere’s claim to ‘African socialism’ with Babu’s more Marxist-oriented projections for development. She derides the Ujamaa policy as failing to confront colonial economic structures and being more marked by ‘austerity and control’ than ‘self-reliance’. Self-sufficiency in food production led to food shortages and growing imports, and there was no serious policy of industrial development. Babu’s recipe was to develop agriculture, not for export but for people’s basic needs, and to establish industries based of modernising agriculture and exploiting Tanzania’s reserves of coal and iron.

In the last section of the book, Wilson traces Zanzibar’s history to the present, with emphasis on the implications of the merger. A shift to neo-liberal policies and the rise of tourism and other services superseded the clove industry as the major determinant of Zanzibar’s economy, though still on a foundation of subsistence and export agriculture. A major shakeup of the kaleidoscope of political parties reflected the fading political autonomy of Zanzibar. All this against the backdrop of western imperialist intervention – now directed at the growing politico-economic might of China and the representation of Zanzibar as a source not of communism, but of Islamo-terrorism.

Whilst these final chapters lose their keen focus on Zanzibar, the bigger picture is that the merger with Tanzania is still a contested political issue, about to be voted on in a national referendum. Wilson has usefully reminded us of the promise of liberation for Zanzibar, as well as its betrayal.

Janet Bujra

Dr Janet Bujra is an Honorary Reader and Senior Research Associate in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. She is the author of books and articles on gender, domestic service and HIV/Aids in Tanzania.

TANZANIA: A POLITICAL ECONOMY (2nd EDITION) Andrew Coulson: Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN 10 0199679967. p/b 432pp.

The appearance of a new edition of Andrew Coulson’s classic study will be welcomed by admirers of the first edition, which came out more than 30 years ago. Apart from corrections and minor revisions to the main text, there is a new Preface in which the reader is reminded how well-qualified Coulson was to write the original book – being acquainted with many of the players and having a ringside seat at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) when he was not himself right in the fray. And there is a substantial new Introduction in which the author reflects on what he said previously in the light of subsequent developments.

The scope of the book is wide, aiming to cover the whole history of Tanzania from earliest times up to c.1980. Thus, after a couple of short introductory chapters, we have three chapters on the period up to 1900, covering particularly Zanzibar, the slave trade and the early German period. Six more chapters cover the colonial period, starting with German colonisation (and the resistance to it), the disruption caused by the First World War, the award of Tanganyika to Britain under a League of Nations mandate and the virtual freezing of development during the 1930s depression, followed by further disruption during the Second World War.

More than a third of the book is taken up before we reach the post-War period, the nationalist take-over and developments post-Independence. It is clear that Coulson wants to rub in Tanzania’s difficult inheritance, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century. Inter alia, this serves as a corrective to the rosier picture, post-WWII, of a peaceful but backward country taking slow but positive steps towards a brighter future under the guidance of a well-meaning but cash-strapped administration – as attested in the memoirs of some of those involved. It also underlines that this is as much a political history as an eco­nomic one.

Inevitably, these early sections of the book are highly condensed, but Coulson provides good summaries of the main episodes, together with judicious obser­vations on their consequences – for example, balancing accounts of the brutal­ity of the German conquest with their more positive contributions, so that “the economic structure laid down by 1914 was in all but detail that handed over in 1961”.

Having set the scene in this way – and those unsure of Tanzania’s early history, and looking for a short pithy introduction, could do far worse than take Coulson as their guide – the real meat of the book is contained in two hefty sections covering ‘The Early Years’ (1961-67) and ‘Harsh Realities’ (1968­80).In retrospect, the Early Years appear rather benign, the economy making reasonable progress of a conventional kind, propelled by post-independence enthusiasm and by the remarkable growth of export crops produced by progressive smallholder farmers. ‘Kulaks’ Coulson dubs them, imparting a whiff of the radical thinking prevalent at UDSM at the time – a colourful but somewhat chilling term when one recalls the treatment meted out to this class of producers elsewhere by the likes of Stalin and Mao. But tensions were building up, notably frustration at the slow progress of Africanisation, reflected in clashes with the unions.

The turning point was of course the Arusha Declaration in 1967. Coulson documents well the set of radical transformations towards a socialist future set in motion by this and the related policy statements. It was certainly widely welcomed, acting as a lightning rod for the frustrations of ordinary Tanzanians and checking the more materialistic ambitions of some of Nyerere’s colleagues. However, execution of the new policies quickly exposed a disconnect between aspiration and outcome – the ‘Harsh Realities’ that make up the final section of the book. The disastrous effect on agricultural production of villagisation, the inefficiency of the parastatals set up to replace the cooperatives and to take over nationalised enterprises, and the over-expansion of budgets relative to resources (as relations with external donors soured) are all discussed.

Coulson tries hard to be even-handed, drawing attention also to the parallel extension of education and (to a lesser extent) health services to rural areas.

Even so, the kindest verdict might be “Good intentions, bad effects”. The sad truth is that in Tanzania, as in pretty much every other country in the world, whether developed or developing, capitalist or socialist, human nature is much the same: put someone in a position where opportunities can be exploited to feather one’s own nest and most will probably do just that. The task of policy then should be to provide an institutional framework which minimises such opportunities. This means competition rather than monopoly, active democracy and good laws applied impartially. Not easy, particularly with limited manpower and other resources; but, after 1967, under the influence of Nyerere’s somewhat puritanical anxiety about inequality and his distaste for capitalism, Tanzania headed in more or less the opposite direction – and has paid a high price.

Against this background, it is not surprising that Coulson ended his first edition on a pessimistic note: “Talk of ‘Tanzanian socialism’ … does not provide a clear economic strategy … The result was a failure ruthlessly to pursue any single class interest (apart from the bureaucracy’s interest in expanding the functions of the state). The worst results were in rural policy, a series of despairing dashes for freedom, with what seemed like short cuts actually leading further and further into the mud.” “Can the future offer something better?” Coulson asks, sadly concluding: “On the basis of the performance of the 1970s, the answer is no.”

But that was 1980. Since then, there has been the long confrontation with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the structural adjustment programmes and the new problems and opportunities arising post-2000. We turn to the new Introduction to learn how Coulson sees things now.

Retrenchment in the early 1980s set back progress in education and health, but also reined in government and parastatal excesses. When growth resumed, Coulson notes that it was accompanied by more corruption, with the benefits “mostly going to the salaried elite – with little impact on poverty in most parts of the country”. At the same time, opportunities for political competition were opened up, civil society activity grew stronger, particularly NGOs. Tanzania became more attractive to foreign investment, and more urbanised. In the light of these developments, Coulson appears less confident that dependency theory and Shivji’s concept of a ‘bureaucratic bourgeoisie’ provide a sufficient framework for understanding the political economy of post-colonial countries such as Tanzania, indicating room for fresh thinking here. Insights from the new economic geography school and Collier’s The Bottom Billion might help.

Looking to the future, Coulson notes that the 1999 Development Vision and the 2012 Five Year Plan point to a more capitalist development path, as does the ambition to become a middle income country by 2025. While new opportunities have indeed been opened up by the remarkable growth of the mining sector, and the prospect of major oil and gas development, the challenges, as Coulson notes, remain formidable. These include: getting mineral taxation right; how to foster manufacturing with only a small domestic market; the enormous backlog in urban infrastructure investment (electricity, water supply and sewerage); and improving transport (notably ports and railways). As if that were not enough, he adds “Agriculture is even more challenging”, with long-standing questions – large scale vs small scale, transformation vs improvement – still unresolved. He concludes with an appeal to the Tanzanian elite to show the leadership and vision needed.

One measure of Coulson’s achievement is that no comparable work has appeared since 1980. There have been books and articles on particular aspects of Tanzania’s development and bits of the story could be pieced together from these (many appear in the expanded bibliography), and from reports by the Tanzania Government and agencies such as the World Bank, but no-one has attempted a comprehensive overview of Tanzania’s post-Independence economic development to bring the story up to date.

In case someone is contemplating taking on this daunting task, it may be worth drawing attention to some aspects which appear (to this reviewer at least) not to have been given their due weight, either in Coulson’s book or elsewhere. First, there is the regional dimension. There are enormous differences in climate, topography, natural resources and ways of life between the different parts of Tanzania: attention to these differences and their effects would make for a more rounded account. Secondly, population growth at around 3% p.a. right up to the present time has made the development challenge immensely more difficult but receives very little attention in the literature. Only about a third of the increase in the rural population has been absorbed into towns, so that the pressure of population on land and other resources in the rural ares has approximately trebled, compounding the problems attributable to poor policies.

Thirdly, the urban development that has occurred has been rather unproductive, raising questions both about the quality of local administration and about strategies for non-agricultural employment. Finally, on a more positive note, an up-to- date economic history of Tanzania will be able to document the unexpected surge in mineral exploitation, starting with artisanal mining of gemstones in the 1980s, moving to larger scale mining in the 1990s, and (prospectively) oil and gas production in the near future. Hopefully, our future historian will record that these new opportunities have been put to good use, resulting in a better future for all Tanzanians.

Hugh Wenban-Smith

Dr Hugh Wenban-Smith was born in Chunya and went to Mbeya School. His career was as a government economist – mainly in Britain but with periods in Zambia and India. He is now an independent researcher, with particular interest in infrastructure, urbanisation and transport.

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