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Remembering a dawn that changed fate of Zanzibar


By Nasser bin Abdulla al Riyami

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As dawn broke over the Island of Peace on Sunday, January 12, 1964 the deafening sound of fusillades of bullets shook the island, the normally tranquil Island of Cloves.

At first, people thought it was the municipal workers shooting stray dog, but then the rounds of gunfire seemed to go on and on, pounding the city relentlessly, and more intensely, with shorter intervals between firing bouts. Suspicion quickly began to creep in, with sinister premonitions of imminent disturbances.

The worst suspicions were soon confirmed with the shouts of men rising from different directions declaring general mobilisation. An atmosphere of panic, fear, even of forlornness reigned supreme as people started to recall the events of June 1961 when racial violence erupted and resulted in the death of 86 innocent people.

Some people were on a rampage while others were at sixes and sevens as to what to do and where to go to keep themselves out of harm’s way and avoid an impending disaster. The confusion, ranting and raving and the general state of hysteria in the streets made the situation worse, particularly for old women and the elderly as they rightly anticipated ominous days ahead. The atmosphere was charged with tension, anger and confusion. Some Omanis were seen carrying their rifles and running towards Malindi Police Station.

Others took the precaution of locking themselves indoors to protect themselves and their families from the riots in the streets, the worst prospect they had anticipated thus far. Indeed, the majority of the people who had been living in peace and tranquillity could not imagine that they were facing an invasion, and that as a consequence their lives would change beyond all recognition.

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The international community was shocked, astounded by the news filtering from Zanzibar regarding the overthrow of a legitimate government that had only recently gained independence after 73 years of British Protection. The words of John Okello – Ugandan national, who came to Zanzibar in 1959, for better life - announced the toppling of the Sultanate regime. His words came as painful stabs, like sharp knives in their chests. His words augured ill and foretold of the deadly harm and destruction that would soon befall them and their country. Okello’s statement read as follows:

“I am Field Marshal Okello! Wake up, you imperialists, there is no longer an imperialist government on this Island; this is now the government of the Freedom Fighters.”

The Second announcement came as follows:

“Wake up, you black men. Let every one of you take a gun and ammunition and start to fight against any remnants of imperialism on this Island. Never, never relent, if you want this Island to be yours.”

The discussion of the bloody events of January leads simultaneously to the question that has long puzzled many researchers as to who was responsible for the January genocide. This topic has generated much interest and therefore an attempt will be made to take an analytical look at the events leading up to the overthrow of the legitimate government.

In an attempt to make our way through to the truth and in order to avoid any misleading statements or facts, it was deemed necessary to obtain first-hand information from those who lived these events by virtue of their political positions in the usurped Sultanate. It was also necessary to review some archived documents and the few publications that shed light on this painful state of affairs.

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However, it was important before doing so, to determine the most suitable term that can best describe the events that resulted in the fall of independent Zanzibar. Such events are referred to by many as “Revolution,” as a way of adding a public dimension to it, almost as if they are saying that the events were a direct result of the will of the people.

However, this could never be so, because the term revolution basically refers to a movement or organisation of people, having a set of justified demands that emanate from a feeling of suppression by the authorities and where those suppressed or aggrieved people have no other means of achieving their objectives, having their fair demands met or liberating themselves from the yoke of oppression and corruption other than through imposing their collective will on the authorities, normally in the form of deposing the government.

This was not the case in Zanzibar where the elected government had ruled for just 32 days, thereby rendering utterly groundless any claims of suppression, tyranny, corruption or public injustice. So, could we say that Zanzibar was a subject to a coup d’état then? To answer is absolutely no, as the movement wasn’t led by an internal armed force.

Based on the above assumptions, it is fair to conclude that what happened in Zanzibar was neither a coup d’état nor a revolution.

Moreover, since history has revealed that foreign quarters were at work in Zanzibar; it would therefore be a misnomer to describe the events by either name. The “Invasion Theory” would be more appropriate and logical here.

To be continued next week.

Translated by Ali bin Rashid al Abri

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