Sunday, 10 October 2010


Ali Sultan Issa in 1970 (from Burgess 2009)
I've lost count of the number of times I travelled on the overnight train between Mombasa and Nairobi in the second half of the 1980s and the early '90s.When I could afford it, and tickets were available, I booked first class, which meant sharing with just one other passenger, or, if I was lucky, having a compartment all to myself. I met some interesting people on these journeys, not to mention one or two with unendearing habits (I tried to avoid second class travel because it increased the chances of having to share with a group of late-night boozers and/or early-morning throat-clearers). The most memorable of my companions was Ali Sultan Issa, who drank and smoked freely on our journey out of Nairobi while entertaining me with the abridged story of his life as a revolutionary, Zanzibar government minister, long-term detainee, and investor in the fledgling tourist industry. I'd never been to Zanzibar or read up on its history, and took less note of his beery boasts and confessions than I might have done if I'd known that in a few years time I'd be living and working there myself. He left me with a copy of his business card, advertising one of his business ventures and inviting me to visit. But I didn't look him up when I arrived in Zanzibar in 1994, and haven't seen him since the night we spent together on the train to Mombasa.

This week I've been dipping into Thomas Burgess' Race, Revolution, and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar (2009), which twins the memoirs of Ali Sultan Issa, revolutionary-turned-capitalist, with those of Seif Sharif Hamad (Maalim Seif), also a former government minister, and now leader of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF). It's a fascinating contrast, and there are many aspects of their accounts that invite further comment. It was clear when we met that Ali Sultan relished his self-image as a likeable rogue, and the edited memoir captures this perfectly. Despite eventually becoming a victim of the regime that he served, he looks back fondly at his radical past and role in the events that preceded and followed the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. We must be grateful, I suppose, for his candid discussion of particular episodes in his political career, while wondering what grisly details he has omitted in his description of the Terror that he was complicit in. Here he is, for example, talking about the brief period he spent as area commissioner in Chake Chake on Pemba island in the early days of the Revolution:

     There was a breakdown of law and order; people would not take their cases to court, only to administrators like me from the revolutionary government. At the time, a decision came from Zanzibar Town that was sent to the regional commissioner in Pemba, Rashid Abdalla. Instead of putting people in jail, all offenders were to be flogged and then released. That was the decision. I thought it better than sending them to prison because if you send a bread earner to prison, you ruin the whole family. When he is gone, the family invariably disintegrates. When the man is inside, people can do anything to his family, like rape his wife and plunder his goods.
    So I sat in a chair in the marketplace, and I dispensed punishments. We did the caning openly, for people to see, so they would behave themselves. Any offense would lead to flogging. I prescribed a maximum of twenty-one strokes, mostly for thieving, not for political reasons. I never caned a woman, but I did order seven strokes for a homosexual who dressed like a woman and even wore beads around his waist. This was an open violation of our customs. We have a saying here: Ukifanya kwa siri, Mungu atakuhukumu kwa siri. If you do something in secret, God will judge you in secret. He was openly dressing like a woman, so I ordered him to be publicly caned.
    I tried in most cases to reconcile those who came to report offenses... (Burgess 2009: 91)

Despite this conciliatory impulse, he also describes using the cane elsewhere:

    Sometime I would even take a cane through the streets and chase away anyone not working, not building the nation. So many people in Pemba just sit under their clove trees and wait for the harvest time to come. I would first speak to them and try to mobilize them through words; but after that, I did not hesitate to cane people if I found them sitting around when it was time to work. (Burgess 2009: 95)

Contrast this with Maalim Seif's recollection of the terror on Pemba, including its origins in the unpredictable behaviour of 'Field Marshal' John Okello and a different take on Ali Sultan's role:

    When Okello arrived in Pemba, he moved with a contingent of heavily armed followers in about three land rovers. They were a mixed group of mainlanders and Shirazi but mostly ASP [Afro-Shirazi Party] supporters from Unguja. Okello started the punishment of caning and whipping people; he would give orders, and his proteges would obey. Okello liked, in particular, to humiliate Arabs from Oman, called Manga Arabs. The sultans and the ruling class were of mostly Omani origins, so Okello believed it was their turn to be humiliated. Okello rounded up Arabs and ordered them to sing words like uhuru na jamhuri, meaning freedom and the republic, over and over again. They were forced to praise Karume, and then he would order their beards to be shaved without water, just dry. I personally saw this take place in Wete in February 1964.
    Even when Okello passed by on the road, all the people had to come out and wave, and often when he saw an Arab with a beard, he would immediately stop his car and start to abuse him. For Arabs from Oman, their beards were a status symbol and a sign of respect; if they were shaved dry and in public, it was a great humiliation. Under normal circumstances, they would have fought to defend their honor, but at the time they were subdued and forced just to take it.
    Karume's government soon appointed new government officers in Pemba. They began to announce public floggings, encouraging people to attend. These were always political floggings: for not standing up when an official passed, for not showing up for nation-building projects, or for not attending public rallies. But if you cannot flog your own child, how can you flog someone older than you? It was especially wrong for a young guy like Ahmed Hassan Diria, district commissioner in Wete, to order the flogging of his elders. Ali Sultan Issa, the district commissioner in Chake Chake, was there for only two months, but in those days, he also really abused his power. His successor, Issa Shariff Musa, never flogged anybody. (Burgess 2009: 187-188)

Ali Sultan also refers to Okello's capriciousness ("...there was even a point when he threatened to have all us area commissioners flogged") while denying, like official government sources, his importance to the Revolution (Burgess 2009: 87, 93). And he further downplays his own part in the Terror by emphasising that the rot didn't really set in until after his departure:

After I left, I heard that, in Pemba over the years, the political die-hards suffered hardships depending on their status in the society. The higher they were before the revolution, the lower they were brought, even, say, to sweep the streets. Men had their beards shaved, just to humiliate them. It was rather excessive, and had I been there, I would have protested. (Burgess 2009: 97).

But as Maalim Seif makes clear (and Burgess in a footnote), these excesses were already taking place, and Ali Sultan was not an innocent bystander. Here is the CUF leader's account of the continuing Terror on Pemba:  

Maalim Seif (source: Zanzibar Daima blog)
    Although more people died in Unguja than in Pemba during the revolution, in the years afterward, the people of Pemba suffered more. We called Rashid Abdalla, our regional commissioner during those years, Mamba, meaning crocodile in Swahili. When a mamba eats you, tears come to his eyes, showing his pity as he kills you. Sometimes Mamba would call for a public rally, and if anybody did not attend, the whole village would be punished. Such punishments took place only in Pemba, not in Unguja. The authorities instituted public floggings for the most trivial offenses, for example, if the regional commissioner passed in his car and you did not stand up. After a while, the students in Pemba learned by reflex to stand at attention whenever they saw any car, assuming a party dignitary was passing.
    All the colonial sheha were terminated, including my father. ASP branch chairmen assumed their administrative duties, and sometimes they would put an entire village under curfew and require every male to go to the marketplace to be flogged, especially if that community formerly supported the ZNP [Zanzibar Nationalist Party] or ZPPP [Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party]. My own village [Mtambwe] was once put under curfew, and the police came there and dragged all the men from their homes, including my father. They were led to the school where the police stood in two lines facing each other. Each man was told to pass through the lines, and every policeman beat him with a club or anything that was handy. My father was beaten in this way and afterward was bleeding seriously. Nobody was allowed in or out of the village, so all the beaten men were denied medical treatment. My own brother had to come secretly by canoe to smuggle medicine to my father. Unfortunately, my father never fully recovered from that experience; for him, that was the beginning of years of poor health and sickness. (Burgess 2009: 197-198)

Pembans still refer to the period from the Revolution to around 1968 as 'siku za bakora', 'the days of the cane', describing this as a systematic campaign of humiliation by a government that was bent on disciplining the island's population and quelling perceived resistance to the Revolution (Arnold 2003: 292-297). Ali Sultan was a willing participant in the early days of this campaign, which he justifies with reference to the need to restore social discipline and establish the new socialist paradise. As a minister in Karume's government he was both unwilling and unable to resist its perpetuation, except by undertaking individual acts of leniency, one of which Maalim Seif describes (Burgess 2009: 200). And although he correctly identifies some of the disastrous political and economic decisions that the dictatorial Karume made, his understanding of their causes and consequences remains questionable. This is particularly evident in his account of the policies that led to recurrent food shortages, when he says that "I believe that Karume had the right intentions, but the results were negative. There was widespread hunger, although no one actually died because in the rural areas people had cassava and bananas" (Burgess 2009: 127). This is not how Pembans remember the suffering that culminated in the island-wide famine of 1971-72, and Maalim Seif's description of their resort to famine foods and smuggling is echoed in other accounts (Arnold 2003: 332-337; Walsh 2009b; Burgess 2009: 195-196). Memories of these and other insults are integral components of contemporary traumas (cf. Walsh 2009a) and the anger that sustains the political opposition in Pemba. As Lord Acton's (corrupted) saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And, I might add, its corrosive effects can't be shrugged off in a memoir or drunk away on an overnight train.


Arnold, Nathalie 2003. Wazee Wakijua Mambo / Elders Used to Know Things! Occult Powers and Revolutionary History in Pemba, Zanzibar. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Burgess, Thomas G. 2009. Race, Revolution, and the Struggle for Human Rights in Zanzibar: The Memoirs of Ali Sultan Issa and Seif Sharif Hamad. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Walsh, Martin 2009a. The politicisation of Popobawa: changing explanations of a collective panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities 1 (1): 23-33.

Walsh, Martin 2009b. The use of wild and cultivated plants as famine foods on Pemba island, Zanzibar. Études Océan Indien (Special issue: Plantes et sociétés dans l’océan Indien occidental) 42/43: 217-241.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like Ali Sultan Issa was a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde sort of fellow, changing his stripes depending on the situation he found himself in.
    Strutting about like the master of the socialist plantation---neither a purely capitalist society, nor one that worships the State and Marxist ideology, offers a path towards "True Enlightenment", from a Baha'i perspective.
    Just my opinion.