Trouble in paradise as radical Islam grows in Zanzibar

The rising tide of radical Islamism has sparked growing unrest on the idyllic islands of Zanzibar. Daniel Howden reports from Stone Town


Workmen are raising the walls around the Assemblies of God Church on the outskirts of Zanzibar's Stone Town. Sweating in the heat and humidity, they have cemented row after row of concrete blocks to a height of some 10 feet. In May this year a violent mob stormed this compound and burned the 500-seater church inside. Six months on from the attack tell-tale licks of black smoke still darken the cross on its repaired walls.

Bishop Dickson Kaganga, who now has bars on the window of his office, says he and his fellow Christians are "living in fear". The Pentecostal priest, whose car was also torched in the assault, talks darkly of a rising tide of radicalism on the Indian Ocean archipelago once famed for its cosmopolitanism and religious tolerance.

After 16 years work as a missionary on the overwhelmingly Muslim archipelago, the bishop has little doubt who is to blame for the attacks that ruined his church and ransacked several others. He points to the rise of a group calling itself The Awakening, or Uamsho in the islands' native Swahili. A religious charity which historically confined itself to propagating Islam but has recently entered the political realm with its own brand of faith-based populism. The group's loud calls for independence from Tanzania and anti-mainlander rhetoric have proven hugely popular. Mr Kaganga insists that they are "advocating chaos".

The church burnings coincided with the arrest of Uamsho's leader, the cleric Farid Hadi Ahmed, in connection with an illegal demonstration.

The following day witnessed some of the worst riots seen on Zanzibar.

The leadership of the group has denied any involvement in the attacks and no arrests have been made. Since then a pattern of arrests, riots and unrest has dogged the islands culminating the deaths of several protesters and one policeman earlier this month.

With its population of one million people split between the two main islands of Unguja and Pemba, Zanzibar is no stranger to political violence. Shortly after independence from Britain in 1963 the black African islanders, many of them descendants of slaves traded through the archipelago, overthrew the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar. A year later its new leaders declared union with mainland Tanganyika – creating Tanzania. The islands' history as an African entry point for Christian missionaries, a transit centre for the slave trade and a hub for Islamic scholars have all left their mark.

Little of this rich, turbulent history sits comfortably with Zanzibar's modern fame as a tropical tourist destination with a spiced history of cloves and slaves. Beyond the glamorously dilapidated streets of Stone Town and sun loungers of the beachfront hotels more than one-third of the population lives in grinding poverty. The large underclass, living in rural villages or the crumbling concrete apartment blocks built by Soviet-era allies in the 1960s, face problems which don't appear in holiday brochures.

Dadi Kombo Maalim, the chairperson of Zanzibar's youth forum says that unemployment among under-30s could be running as high as 80 per cent. Heroin addiction has been rising slowly since the 1980s and has now reached epidemic proportions. The popular scapegoat for all the islands' ills has been a half-century of union with the mainland, which is blamed for both the economic doldrums and the perceived creeping moral decay.

"Uamsho says that in the name of the union many corrupt things have been brought from the mainland," says Mr Maalim, who lists prostitution, drugs theft and alcohol. It has left many Zanzibaris feeling that Uamsho "speaks for them", he says.

Elections used to mean murderous clashes between the ruling CCM party and the opposition CUF – stern critics of the union. But two years ago this came to an end with a unity government, which succeeded in ending party clashes but left a political vacuum now being filled by an Islamic movement.

"It's easy to recruit people in Zanzibar because of poverty," says Hothman Masoud, Zanzibar's Attorney General. "There are elements of Islamic radicalism here but they previously found it difficult to get more substantial support."

The government was taken "kind of by surprise" the lawyer says by Uamsho's entry into politics. Nevertheless, he denounces the leadership of The Awakening as "opportunists" interested in advancing their own status and wealth rather than the principled clerics they are depicted by their supporters as being. Much of the political establishment on Zanzibar insist in private that wealthy outsiders from the Gulf states or Iran are suspected of backing Uamsho.

There are few obvious trappings of wealth at a meeting of Uamsho's leaders in a poorly-lit spice shop on the rougher side of the island's capital, Ng'ambo, which literally means the "other side" from touristy Stone Town. Bags of cloves sit alongside herbal cures for malaria and a DVD about the freemasons. A short-bearded young information secretary, Said Amour, laments 48 years of failure and says that "political parties have failed so we are now taking over".

Uamsho will not run candidates at elections but it will use "people power" to advance its agenda. That agenda includes a new code of conduct for the tourists who account for 80 per cent of foreign currency earnings. The group is open to foreign visitors but they must abide by local restrictions, he says, giving the example of Saudi Arabia, which has strict observance of standards of decency. He proposes a dress code, draconian limitations on the consumption of alcohol and private hotel beaches to prevent Western visitors corrupting locals. Uamsho is not seeking a theocracy on Zanzibar, he insists, and will stick to non-violent tactics. But the spokesman warns that "wabara" – mainlanders – will have to leave in large numbers as they are illegal immigrants.

There are increasing signs that an unnerved government which has quietly banned many news outlets from covering Uamsho's activities, is preparing for a crackdown.

But support for the enigmatic Uamsho shows no signs of waning.

In the mosques supportive imams preach in favour of the "freedom fighters" of al-Shabaab, Islamic militants up the coast in Somalia. Uamsho's critics are telling lies designed to destroy its reputation, warns Mr Amour, who says the people will not allow that to happen. "Give a dog a bad name and then kill it," he repeats several times.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own