Much as lopsided devolution in the United Kingdom ignited a debate about its future, Tanzanians have increasingly asserted their desire to reconfigure the structure of the Union. Yet, to understand the referendum, one must first appreciate how the United Republic came into existence.
On 22 April 1964, Julius Nyerere, President of the Republic of Tanganyika, and Abeid Amani Karume, President of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba, concluded secret negotiations in Stone Town. Their agreement culminated in the Articles of Union: a contract prepared by the attorney general of Tanganyika, Roland Brown, an English barrister. This treaty was quickly ratified by the Revolutionary Council of Zanzibar and National Assembly of Tanganyika, establishing a new nation. The United Republic of Tanzania was later adopted as its official name.
In public, Nyerere and Karume argued that the Union would prevent the Zanzibar Isles – twenty miles off the coast of Tanganyika – from becoming another pawn in the Cold War struggle between East and West. In private, the two presidents had different motives for uniting their nations. Karume was Africa’s newest head of state, eager to consolidate his power. While Nyerere was secure in office, he was committed to advancing Pan-Africanism. Having failed to establish an East African Federation with Kenya and Uganda in 1963, Nyerere eagerly embraced Union with Zanzibar.
Fearing objections from Zanzibar’s foreign minister, Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, a radical leftist, the two presidents agreed the deal while he was overseas. This haste and secrecy may explain why Karume signed the agreement without taking advice from the Isles’ attorney general, and accepted mainland Tanganyika’s 1962 constitution as a temporary statute.
The rush to unite culminated in a peculiar constitutional fudge. Tanzania is the only nation in Africa to possess a dual-government structure, a lopsided arrangement that falls short of being a fully-fledged federation. Zanzibar retains its own executive, legislature, and judicial system; while a parliament in Dodoma and a president in Dar es Salaam take decisions for both the mainland and the Union as a whole. The parallels with the United Kingdom are immediately clear; although unlike Scotland, Zanzibar has not been afforded the chance to secede from the Union.
As a new Briefing Note from Africa Research Institute argues, successive Tanzanian presidents have blocked a fundamental overhaul of governance, citing the need to preserve national unity as the pretext. The recommendations of legal experts and the opinions of citizens have been repeatedly ignored, resulting in a series of incoherent, disjointed and sometimes even contradictory amendments to the constitution.
“After months of acrimonious and increasingly futile debate, many Tanzanians have little interest in debating the potential merits of the proposed constitution”
Looking to secure an enduring legacy, Tanzania’s current president, Jakaya Kikwete, sought to correct this picture. In April 2012, he appointed a former prime minister, attorney general, and judge of the East African Court of Justice, Joseph Warioba, to chair a constitutional review commission. Following extensive popular consultation, in December 2013, Justice Warioba recommended that Tanzania become a federation with a three-tier government: one for Union matters, a second for mainland Tanganyika, and a third for Zanzibar.
The commission’s proposal did not please the president and his allies in the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which was established by Nyerere in 1977. CCM delegates used their majority in a constituent assembly, convened to debate the draft constitution, to veto Warioba’s recommendations. Opposition parties and civil society groups united under the banner of Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (Ukawa) to protest against the ruling party’s uncompromising conduct, and eventually boycotted the assembly. CCM persevered regardless, and a watered-down draft constitution was approved in October 2014.
After months of acrimonious and increasingly futile debate, many Tanzanians have little interest in debating the potential merits of the proposed constitution. With major changes to the structure of government off the table, there has been little deliberation of other planned changes to the basic law. This is partially because a large number of potential voters have yet to see the text, which only began circulating in February 2015; but it does not excuse sleepwalking into a referendum.
Ukawa has threatened to boycott the vote, leading to questions over the legitimacy of the entire process. With politics polarised and no meaningful debate, many citizens will ignore the plebiscite. Turnout is unlikely to compare favourably with the 85 per cent of Scots who cast a ballot in September 2014, or even with the 70 per cent of Kenyans who voted to adopt a new constitution in 2010.
Fortunately, there is a chance that the referendum will be postponed, potentially to coincide with general elections on 25 October. This would allow the government sufficient time to complete biometric voter registration and update the electoral roll. Linking the constitutional question to the election of a new president and parliament would also increase turnout and provide space for a genuine debate over the merits of the proposed constitution.
An even more courageous and prudent decision would be for President Kikwete to accept the flaws in the current process and pass the baton to his successor. This would allow Tanzania’s fifth head of state the chance to revisit the constitutional legacy bequeathed by Presidents Nyerere and Karume, and finally address the imbalance which defined the United Republic’s first half century.