By Abdulrahman Kinana
In 2013 two British volunteer teachers, Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup – both at the time teenagers – suffered a horrific attack while in Zanzibar, part of Tanzania in East Africa, when two men on motorbikes threw sulphuric acid in their faces. Flown back to London, surgeons removed from Katie Gee, the worst affected of the two, burnt skin from 30 per cent of her body. One year later, she was still required to wear a plastic mask to reduce the scarring covering her face.
Assisted by investigators from the British police at New Scotland Yard and Interpol, the Tanzanian authorities later arrested for the crime members of Uamsho or “Awakening”, an Islamic terrorist group with known links to Boko Haram. They have now been charged in court. Uamsho has a history of targeting foreigners and even Muslim and Christian religious leaders who do not support their aim of tearing apart the union of Tanzania through terrorism and converting Zanzibar into an extremist state.
Even after the attacks on Gee and Trup, who were only in Zanzibar to help and others who have meant no harm to anyone, as we learnt in the first few weeks of election campaigns in Tanzania, Edward Lowassa, an opposition candidate, has clear sympathies to the aims of these extremists. For some years the status of Zanzibar within the United Republic of Tanzania has been an important question for the people of that island. A tiny minority advocates separation from the mainland with which it was united in the same year it overthrew the Arab regime. There is nothing wrong in holding perfectly legitimate political debates so long as they are pursued through peaceful, democratic means.
But the question is, how long it would be possible for such discussion to remain peaceful if the opposition were to succeed in the upcoming Tanzanian General Election? Lowassa, who, after only 18 months as Prime Minister, was forced by the Parliament to resign from the post after a corruption scandal has promised the release of those who committed the acid attack. Allowing the suspected terrorists to walk free and, without doubt, resume their violent campaign would threaten the safety of ordinary Zanzibarians, mainland Tanzanians – most of whom are moderate whether they follow Islam or Christianity – and foreign visitors, many of whom hail from the UK.
Lowassa is proposing this purely as part of his breathtakingly cynical bid for the presidency. Rejected by voters in his attempt to win the nomination to be the candidate for the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party he immediately decamped to the opposition to become theirs. Moderate opposition leaders, including Professor Ibrahim Lipumba, the chairman of the predominantly Zanzibarian Civic United Front have resigned, in protest, to support the government. We can only assume that Lowassa’s outreach to these extremists was a desperate response to the fact the majority of Zanzibarians in that long-standing stronghold for the opposition have been refusing to support his presidential bid.
It is hardly surprising they do not. This move has angered many Christian bishops who had called for government to swiftly prosecute extremists who are widely believed to have burnt churches and targeted Christians with violence, including acid attacks. It is clear that Lowassa’s interests do not lie with helping the people of Tanzania, but by helping himself to power, and the spoils he believes await him there. After all, the character of Lowassa is well known not just to Tanzanians but also to the West. Wikileaks revealed through one of many U.S. diplomatic cables that concern Lowassa exactly what the Americans think about him, when then U.S. Ambassador Mark Green stated: “Lowassa's corrupt activities have been an open secret throughout Tanzania for many years.”
Neither Tanzania nor the West can afford to have Tanzania as the new frontier of terrorism in Africa through Lowassa’s actions. Despite the terrifying attacks they have conducted over the years, they have not yet demonstrated they have the strength of other jihadist groups such as Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram. Indeed, by comparison, Tanzania has been mercifully peaceful and safe from the violence committed against our neighbours such as Kenya.
While who governs Tanzania is only a question the citizens of my country have the right to answer, it is right that Britain and its allies in the struggle against Islamic terrorism should be extremely concerned were Lowassa to win and action his promise to the extremists. When Al-Shabaab attacked Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013, the UK and US government issued travel advisories to its citizens against visiting many parts of Kenya. This has seriously affected their crucial tourism industry: it is without doubt that a revival of terror in Zanzibar would devastate the tourism industry of Tanzania and, in particular, that of Zanzibar on which the island is heavily dependent.
So the choice facing Tanzania at this coming election has ramifications both at home but also far beyond our own borders. If Lowassa and his opposition supporters win, a slim possibility as things stand today, then the country stands to become a new front for terrorists, just at the very time when they are facing defeat in other countries across Africa.
Kinana has served as the first Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly, and Deputy Defence and Deputy Foreign Minister of Tanzania. He now serves as Secretary-General for the governing CCM party.