U.S. Democracy Promotion in Africa: Why Zanzibar Matters

The U.S. government’s relationship with Tanzania took a hit this past year when national elections in October 2015 revealed a decidedly undemocratic streak in a country that U.S. officials had described as a model of democracy in East Africa. An abrupt and unconstitutional annulment of elections on the country’s quasi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar was the most visible manifestation that the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), in power since independence, will use fair means or foul to maintain its grip on power. A “rerun” election held in March 2016 was boycotted by the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) and was decried by international observers as neither fair, genuine, nor credible.

How the Obama administration proceeds in Tanzania offers an important test of its professed commitment to democracy in Africa. There is a strong possibility that the U.S.-Tanzania relationship will revert to business as usual and that the fate of Zanzibar’s 1.4 million residents will not be considered important enough to put the broader relationship in jeopardy. This would be a mistake.

First, the administration has repeatedly stressed that support for democracy and inclusive governance has pride of place among its interests and engagement in Africa. The annulment of election results, initiated when it became clear that CUF was headed for victory, is too flagrant to let stand. Despite the unambiguous unconstitutionality of the annulment, CUF leaders entered in good faith into a negotiation with CCM to resolve the dispute. This process was aborted when the chair of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (a CCM stalwart) abruptly announced a rerun, which ultimately gave CCM 91 percent of the vote (just enough to preclude any possibility of a unity government), and a 68 percent turnout, only slightly less than in the October election, despite the opposition boycott. These election fraud tactics are reminiscent of the 2010 elections in Côte d’Ivoire, the 2007 elections in Kenya, and the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, in which opposition victories were overturned by the incumbent party, and which prompted a massive international mobilization of attention, pressure, and concern.

Second, failure to sustain international pressure to resolve the Zanzibar electoral crisis sends a dangerous message to aggrieved opposition movements elsewhere that resorting to violence is the only way to garner international attention and support, even in the face of flagrant electoral fraud. The international mobilizations for Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe might not have happened had images of ethnic clashes and protesters gunned down in the streets not been broadcast on international media. When democratic process is so blatantly subverted, the United States must be as robustly engaged when disenfranchised voters are peaceful as when they vent their anger in violent protest. CUF’s commitment to nonviolent protests should not become a liability.

Third, it is generally accepted wisdom in Washington policy circles that an enduring sense of injustice and political marginalization are powerful drivers of violent extremism and militancy. It is no secret that Tanzania sits in a dangerous neighborhood. The Somalia-based al-Shabaab has extended its reach into Kenya and clearly seeks to expand its recruitment pool, with much of its social media outreach in Swahili. Just a few weeks ago, young men carrying an ISIL flag attacked a mosque on mainland Tanzania, and though terror networks may not have an embedded presence in Tanzania, the risk that pockets of support will emerge is real. The median age on Zanzibar is 16, and all the other ostensible drivers of militancy—poverty, unemployment, inequality—are present. Robust support for Zanzibari rights could be an important opportunity for preventive action. Once the radicalization genie slips out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back in.

How will the United States proceed? In the immediate aftermath of the electoral crisis, the administration took a strong and principled stand. The State Department expressed serious concern, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation suspended indefinitely a much anticipated second compact grant of $472 million. This week, however, U.S ambassador Mark Childress met with Tanzanian president John Magufuli, reaffirming the two countries' strong partnership and promising the continued investment of $400 million annually in development assistance. “Cancellation of the MCC-2,” said Ambassador Childress, “has not changed our relations with Tanzania.” An ebullient President Magufuli emerged from the meeting announcing that the United States and Tanzania remain friends, adding that “they are now pumping more money” to support the ruling party’s development plans. Left out in this upbeat rapprochement are the people of Zanzibar, who, not for the first time, have seen the will of the electorate overruled by the party in power.

Mainland Tanzanians and the CCM government, who are fervent proponents of national union when it suits them, protest that they have no say in the archipelago’s affairs. This is not entirely true, as CCM is a national party and the Tanzanian president’s authority extends over the islands. This is certainly clear when security forces are dispatched to Zanzibar to uphold law and order.

Support for democracy and good governance has long been a central precept of U.S. policy pronouncements on Africa. Strong institutions, free and fair elections, and inclusive and accountable governance are widely considered the key to unlocking the continent’s economic potential, expanding opportunities for human development, and serving as a bulwark against criminality, radicalization, and militancy. But the Obama administration’s democracy credo has been harder to operationalize in effective policy engagement, complicated by competing interests, limited U.S. leverage, and recalcitrant leaders who give short shrift to U.S. admonitions. Zanzibar offers a clear-cut violation; an openness to negotiation by those aggrieved; and a national government that is friendly to the United States and among the largest recipients of U.S. assistance. If the United States cannot move the democratic needle in this case, there is little hope for democracy promotion in more difficult African environments. The Obama administration has an opportunity to finish strong and send a powerful signal to democratic forces across the continent.

Jennifer G. Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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