The United States held the shotgun at the wedding of the British Trust Territory of Tanganyika and the British Protectorate of Zanzibar in April 1964. The resulting United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar would soon rename itself Tanzania. Today, Zanzibar—an archipelago with two main islands—is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania with a succession movement that wants a complete divorce from the Cold War union.
“There is virtually no publicly available information in the Tanzanian National Archive about the origin of the union treaty in April 1964,” writes scholar Paul Bjerk. There is some “contentious oral history,” but the “documentary evidence for the union’s birth is available mainly in American and British diplomatic records laden with their own obsessions.”
Those obsessions were the fraught combination of the Cold War and the decolonization movement. This was a volatile mixture in Africa in the early 1960s. The US and the USSR jockeyed for influence among newly formed countries created in the wake of the retreat of France, Britain, and Belgium from their empires.
On the Tanzanian players’ minds was what had happened to the newly independent Congo’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. The US believed he threatened a “Sovietization of the Congo,” to quote President Eisenhower’s briefing. The US and Belgium, Congo’s former colonial overlord, plotted with pro-Western Congolese allies to assassinate Lumumba. In January 1961, he and two colleagues were murdered.
“The Congolese quagmire loomed as a a fearful precedent for East African leaders,” writes Bjerk. They were worried about being given the same treatment as Lumumba, whose body was dissolved in acid after being buried for ten days. (Belgium returned one of Lumumba’s teeth, evidently the sole remains, to Lumumba’s children in 2022.)
Tanganyika had been a part of German East Africa since the late 1880s. With Germany’s defeat in World War I, it was given to British administration under a League of Nations mandate. Independence came in December 1961. Economic underdevelopment and unstable neighbors like the Congo made for a rocky start for the government of Prime Minister Julius Nyerere.
Zanzibar had been a British Protectorate since 1890. Nominal rule was in the hands of a vizier or sultan—the succession crisis of 1896 led to the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which lasted no more than 45 minutes before a cease fire was called. In December 1963, Britain terminated the Protectorate. In January 1964, the sitting sultan was overthrown in a populist, socialist revolution that saw at least 20,000 islanders killed, many of them from the islands’ Arab elite.
The US was not about to let the People’s Republic of Zanzibar become an “African Cuba.” With Congo, Iran, Guatemala, and the Bay of Pigs as precedent, regional Africans worried that intervention was a strong possibility. On the mainland, Nyerere tried to bring the leaders of newly independent Kenya and Uganda into a regional federation. Those talks led nowhere, but discussions between Tanganyika and Zanzibar were more fruitful. The US promised aid instead of intervention if the two entities merged.
“With intervention imminent, the East African leaders were able to subsume Zanzibari sovereignty under the more reputable sovereignty of Tanganyika and retain local control and short-circuit the machinations of superpower agents,” write Bjerk.
On April 26, 1964, barely three months after the revolution on Zanzibar, the Union was announced. Suddenly, all the talk of another Cuba was transformed into the “miracle” of unification, the creation of a “viable” state resistant to overt intervention. However, a lot of Zanzibaris were skeptical of the deal, not least because the islands were majority Muslim and the mainland majority Christian.
The resulting state has been viable for almost sixty years. Nyerere’s avowedly—and sometimes heavy-handed—nationalist efforts to unite a territory where more than 100 languages were spoken resulted in one of the more stable African states. But continuing divisions, especially over religion, suggest a new version of sovereignty may be in the offing for the mainland and the islands.