Will Zanzibar become Kikwete’s Northern Ireland?

In his column this week in The East African, Jenerali Ulimwengu reflects on what happened at the recently concluded CCM’s national convention in Dodoma. Here he is on the nomination of Mohammed Gharib Bilal to be President Kikwete’s running mate in the upcoming general election in October:

Many Bilal supporters […] believe that this nuclear scientist — one wonders what he’s doing in all this — has been cheated.

Although Bilal has found himself a slot — Kikwete picked him as his running mate — few of his people are dancing with joy, because they recognise that the office of the vice president is largely ceremonial and the person holding it wields little power, a far cry from what the president of Zanzibar can do.

And therein lies the brilliance of this move. Here is why.

As I wrote before, by all accounts, Shein was seen to be the only CCM candidate who could be trusted to provide continuity on the Karume-Hamad ‘Maridhiano’ deal reached in November 2009. More importantly CUF believed so too. However, the same could not be said for Bilal.

But the former Chief Minister had a real shot at winning the nomination. After all in both the 2000 and 2005 presidential primaries in Zanzibar, Mr. Bilal defeated the then establishment candidate Amani Abeid Karume only to have his victory rescinded by CCM’s National Executive Committee (NEC) both times. And since many within CUF did not trust him – they felt he was an ally of former Zanzibar President Salmin Amour who they perceive to be obstructionist – that possible eventuality would have dealt a serious dent to the future of the reconciliation process currently in progress in Zanzibar.

So it seems that President Kikwete and his party were confronted with quite a conundrum. How were they going to negotiate an outcome that on the one hand will guarantee that they get Shein in Zanzibar but at the same time work to placate the potentially destabilizing grumblings from Bilal and his camp? And what the President and CCM did, one has to admit, was political genius. By offering the Vice Presidential spot to Bilal – a position that is ‘largely ceremonial and the person holding it wields little power – they gave up essentially nothing but in the process, may have hopefully found a way  of ending one of the most intractable problems facing our young democracy: the political impasse in Zanzibar. And if the rapturous welcome Shein and Bilal received in Zanzibar is anything to go by, then it is already proving to be a huge success.

There are a great many things that this President falls short on. And we should hold him accountable for that and always challenge him to do better. However, we have to acknowledge what he and his party have accomplished here. This could very well turn out to be President Kikwete’s Northern Ireland moment. To paraphrase what Tony Blair said at the time, of the Good Friday Agreement one hopes that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from the shoulders of our Zanzibari brothers and sisters.

(Photo: President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete greeting school children in Dodoma recently. By Michuzi Jr)


2 thoughts on “Will Zanzibar become Kikwete’s Northern Ireland?

  1. You are right to give credit for what has been happening in Zanzibar. It is a truly positive development. Hopefully, we’ll see the fruits of it as znz goes through the referendum and election. But I haven’t seen anything to link President Kikwete with the Maridhiano breakthrough in any meaningful or central way. Where are the parallels with the very active and deep engagement of Blair and Ahern in NI, and Reynolds and Major before them? I can’t see them. Outside involvement was crucial to getting the parties together in NI. That doesn’t appear to have been the case in the Isles.

    And it would interesting to know if there is a parallel and hidden pay off for Billal and his camp? As you point out, the vice presidency doesn’t amount to much.

  2. To begin with, my understanding is that the breakthrough came about because the Zanzibaris themselves decided that enough was enough and made the agreement that has led to the current dispensation. However, it was never clear that those figures within CCM who preferred the status quo were going to be so easily brought along. It is suggested that one of those was Bilal. And this is where I think Kikwete’s role is not to be underestimated. What I am postulating is this: It was the President who convinced Shein to run (the only person other than Karume that CUF felt could be a partner). Furthermore, I also believe that it was Kikwete who engineered Shein’s victory in Dodoma and the quid pro quo part may have been achieved through the offering of the VP slot to Bilal.

    Though, I should say that this all speculation. But informed speculation nonetheless.

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