Democracy comes to the isle of cloves

Tomorrow's vote could be a chance to rewrite history, reports David Orr
Zanzibar - It is given to few people to make history, to even fewer to rewrite it. But there are those in Zanzibar who believe that this weekend they will have a chance to do both. Tomorrow Zanzibaris vote in stage one of Tanzania's first multi-party elections.

Claims to a date with history might seem an absurdity for an island of fewer than 750,000people that is not even sovereign. But in the words of a High Court judge, Wolfango Dourado, "Zanzibaris, like all island people, have an exaggerated sense of their own importance."

Its glory days are over and it is budget travellers, not seafarers from the exotic past, who now wander the alleys of the old Stone Town. The only reminders of its mid-19th century pre-eminence as the world's largest producer of cloves and the largest slaving entrepot on Africa's east coast are the crumbling Arab buildings and the tours for which the backpackers sign up: the Spice Tour and the visit to the site of the old slave market.

However, it is not the distant past which Mr Justice Dourado talked of rewriting. Not the Middle Ages, when the Shirazi Persians settled, nor even the decades after 1890 when Zanzibar was ruled as a British protectorate under the Omani sultan. The crucial years for Mr Dourado are 1963-64. In December 1963, a year after Julius Nyerere became president of a newly independent Tanganyika, Zanzibar attained its own freedom. Mr Dourado became foreign secretary in a coalition government regarded by Zanzibari nationalists as pro-Arab. He held the post for five weeks: in January 1964 the government and monarchy were overthrown in an uprising instigated by the island's Afro-Shirazi Party. Some 17,000 Arabs and Indians were massacred and thousands driven abroad. Mr Dourado survived an assassination attempt and become attorney-general in 1964.

In April that year Zanzibar's fate was sealed. After talks between Mr Nyerere and President Abeid Karume of Zanzibar, Zanzibar and the neighbouring island of Pemba merged with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

"It was an unequal marriage from the start," said Mr Dourado in his office, the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean framed in the window behind him. "The union has always favoured Tanganyika. When foreign aid has been given it has gone to the mainland; it has not been shared with Zanzibar. It's been like that with everything. Nyerere did no good for this island. Now is our chance to rectify the mistake made more than three decades ago."

The main challenge to the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM - Party of the Revolution) comes from the Civic United Front (CUF). Both are holding large rallies today. In contrast to the CCM incumbent, Zanzibari President Salmin Amour, who shuns the press and public gatherings, the CUF candidate, Seif Sharif Hamad, has been leading a vigorous campaign. His main support comes from Zanzibar town and from his native Pemba. A former prime minister of Zanzibar, Mr Hamad is an ardent advocate of market forces and of Zanzibari autonomy.

"There's no question of us breaking away," Mr Hamad said. "We simply want to negotiate the terms of the union and resolve the issues not dealt with in 1964. We need more control of fiscal and monetary matters. The CCM is moving towards one government for everyone. What we want is three governments: one for the mainland, one for Zanzibar and a third, federal, government which would decide union issues. If we win in Zanzibar we will hold a referendum on the question of a third government." Mr Hamad's critics say he is funded by Oman and is encouraging the return of Arabs forced out in 1964.

If the CUF wins, Zanzibar will be headed for almost certain confrontation with the mainland, where the CCM is being tipped for victory when elections are held there next weekend. But as long as Mr Nyerere remains the power behind the CCM government, there is little chance of a loosening of ties: the ''father of the nation'' considers the union one of his greatest achievements. Zanzibari agitation has been fiercely resisted in the past. As yet, there is no sign of a change of heart from the mainland.