United Republic of Tanzania

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United Republic of Tanzania

Type of Government

Tanzania, a constitutional, multiparty republic on Africa’s eastern coast, was founded in 1964 when two newly independent nations united: Tanganyika, an enormous region on the mainland, and Zanzibar, a collection of small islands just offshore. The terms of the union guarantee Zanzibar considerable autonomy, with an entirely separate executive and legislative structure.


Arab traders had been paying regular visits to Zanzibar and the mainland coast for at least seven hundred years by the time a Portuguese expedition arrived in 1498. Portuguese rule was never firmly established, however, and other, more profitable colonies soon diverted administrators and resources from the region. So Arab traders from Oman, on the southeastern coast of the Arabian peninsula, met little resistance as they gradually increased their political authority in the region; their commercial dominance, which the Portuguese had never seriously challenged, increased as they encouraged trade with Persians (whose descendants in Tanzania are known as Shirazis) and the Indian subcontinent. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Omani sultan, Seyyid Said (1791–1856), had established a wealthy and influential court at Zanzibar, where he received foreign dignitaries and oversaw much of the world’s spice market.

European interest in the region had revived by the 1880s, however, and within a decade the German government had deprived the Zanzibar sultanate of its mainland properties. The Germans incorporated the territory into a new colony called German East Africa, which soon extended from the coast to the mountain highlands of what are now Rwanda and Burundi, hundreds of miles away. In return for British acquiescence during this expansion, the Germans agreed to recognize Zanzibar’s status as a British protectorate; the sultan was allowed to remain in office to mediate relations between the islanders and the new mainland administration.

German East Africa, meanwhile, proved short-lived, as Germany lost all of its overseas possessions following its defeat in World War I. The League of Nations, the predecessor of today’s United Nations, divided the colony and distributed the pieces to the victors as trust territories. The British won Tanganyika and retained control of Zanzibar.

The geopolitical shifts that followed World War II encouraged the development of nationalist, pro-independence movements in colonies across Africa, including Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The leader of Tanganyika’s movement was Julius K. Nyerere (1922–1999), who founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in 1954. The movement in Zanzibar was more diffuse, with two ethnically based parties, the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) and the Arab-dominated Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) competing for the leadership role. In both colonies incremental increases in autonomy led relatively quickly to full independence. Tanganyika became an independent nation on December 9, 1961, and a constitutional republic under Nyerere the following year. Zanzibar achieved independence in 1963, when the sultanate was transformed into a constitutional monarchy.

As the new nations struggled to establish themselves, the advantages of a union became immediately apparent: Tanganyika had available land and an eager workforce, but lacked a well-developed economic infrastructure; Zanzibar had extensive port facilities and most other necessities for economic growth, but was too small for regional influence. The prospect of a union was especially attractive to the islands’ African majority, who resented the Arabist overtones of the new administration and longed to be part of greater Africa. Less than a month after independence, ASP led a successful revolt against the new king. ASP’s leader, Abeid Karume (1905–1972), took office as president and quickly moved to unite the islands with the mainland. On April 26, 1964, the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was established; several months later, its name was shortened to the United Republic of Tanzania.

Tanzania today is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation of 40 million. Sharing the mainland are the members of at least one hundred and thirty tribes, dozens of linguistic groups, and three major religious traditions (Islam, Christianity, and native belief). There is some correspondence between these affiliations; certain tribes, for example, are predominately Muslim, others predominately Christian. The social and cultural situation on the mainland is so complicated, however, that few such generalizations are possible. The addition of Zanzibar only adds to the complexity, for it offers a marked contrast to the mainland in a number of ways. While Tanganyika’s major faiths were roughly equal in popularity, for example, Zanzibar was almost entirely Muslim. Its ethnic divisions, moreover, were not based on tribal affiliation but on cultural affinities and skin tone, with most islanders classifying themselves as Arab, mixed Arab-African, Shirazi, Indian, or African. Despite these differences, the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar has remained intact for more than forty years, largely because of an unusual administrative framework.

Government Structure

The basic structure of Tanzanian government is set out in the 1964 union agreement and the 1977 constitution (which was amended in 1984 and 1992). Executive powers are vested in the president and vice president, who are elected together by direct, popular vote for a maximum of two terms of five years. The president is both chief of state and head of government. A prime minister and cabinet assist in setting policy and overseeing its implementation. The president is solely responsible for cabinet appointments, including the position of prime minister, but his choices are limited to current members of the National Assembly. That unicameral body, also known as the Bunge, is the nation’s primary legislature. It has 274 seats. Two hundred and thirty-two are elected by direct, popular vote for five-year terms; thirty-seven are women nominated by the president; and five are chosen by another legislative assembly, Zanzibar’s House of Representatives. The relationship between the two legislatures is complex. In general, the National Assembly makes two kinds of laws: some that apply to the nation as a whole and some only to what was Tanganyika. The Zanzibar House is a much smaller body, with fifty members elected by direct, popular vote for five-year terms; its laws apply only to the islands and are implemented by Zanzibar’s president, whose authority does not extend to the mainland. Zanzibar’s president serves a five-year term.

Judicial powers are vested in a hierarchy of courts. At the top is the Court of Appeal, with five judges appointed by the president. One of the five serves as chief justice. Lower in the hierarchy are the High Court, whose justices are presidential appointees; and the district and primary courts, whose judges are appointed by the chief justice. The nation’s legal code is a mixture of British common law, local and tribal tradition, and Islamic law, or sharia. While special Islamic courts are available throughout the country for cases involving inheritance, divorce, and other aspects of family law, the influence of sharia is especially strong in Zanzibar, which has its own High Court, district courts, and primary courts. The jurisdiction of the national Court of Appeal, however, covers Zanzibar as well as the mainland.

Local government is organized on the basis of twenty-six regional districts. A variety of district councils—city, municipal, town, and rural—have broad authority under a longstanding decentralization initiative.

Political Parties and Factions

Nyerere’s TANU dominated the country for more than a decade following independence, particularly after the constitution of 1965 formally established Tanzania as a one-party state. That formulation was slightly misleading, however, as the union agreement that remained in force guaranteed Zanzibar a party of its own, ASP. The result was the curious coexistence of two legal parties in an avowedly one-party state. In 1977 Nyerere used the occasion of the new constitution to merge TANU and ASP into a new organization, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (the Revolutionary Party of Tanzania), or CCM. The one-party limitation remained until 1992, when the constitution was amended to allow opposition parties.

In the 2005 National Assembly elections, two major opposition groups won seats: Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party of Democracy and Development), or CHADEMA, took five seats and the Civic United Front (CUF) won nineteen. In a clear indication of its continuing dominance, the CCM controlled 206 seats; fringe parties won the last two. Results in the Zanzibar House of Representatives were more balanced, with the CCM taking thirty of the fifty seats and the CUF nineteen. One seat remained vacant pending a new vote, after the returns from that constituency were voided amid allegations of electoral irregularities and fraud.

Major Events

Increasing resentment toward German rule led in 1905 to one of the first anticolonial rebellions in Africa. Now largely forgotten outside Tanzania, the Maji Maji uprising continued until German troops overwhelmed the last bands of rebels in 1907. Though brutality existed on both sides, the Germans were clearly responsible for most of the atrocities. While the death toll directly attributable to the conflict remains controversial, a minimum number of one hundred thousand is widely accepted. Nearly all of the casualties were Africans. Fifty years later, lingering memories of the rebellion encouraged the growth of Nyerere’s independence movement.

On August 7, 1998, car bombs exploded simultaneously outside the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and in Nairobi, Kenya. While the Tanzanian blast, which killed about a dozen people, was not as lethal as the one in Kenya, which killed more than two hundred, both nations lost the sense of security they had previously enjoyed. When investigations revealed the bombings to be the work of foreign nationals with ties to the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda, many Tanzanians, mindful of their nation’s deep religious divisions, worried that the incident would spark sectarian violence. While those fears proved mostly groundless in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities have increased in the years since, and analysts fear the growing influence of fundamentalist preachers in both camps may signal the rise of local extremist movements.

Twenty-First Century

Tanzania continues to make impressive economic gains at the national level, including nearly 6 percent annual growth in its gross domestic product. Concern is widespread, however, that these gains are not improving the living standards of most citizens. Nearly 40 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line, and 80 percent remain dependent upon subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. Diseases such as AIDS and malaria, meanwhile, have overwhelmed an aging and ill-equipped health-care system. While substantial foreign aid has arrived, a cultural reluctance to discuss private matters of health and sexuality continues to obstruct the public health initiatives that aid is intended to fund. Because relatively few Tanzanians are willing to be tested for the AIDS virus, for example, it is difficult to know how and where to allocate antiretroviral drugs and other limited resources. While these problems are not limited to Tanzania, they have been exacerbated by the administration’s failure to adopt a more open and transparent style.

Unfortunate legacies of the one-party state are evident throughout the administration, notably its sensitivity to criticism, its reluctance to publicize unpleasant or unfavorable news, and its use of strong-arm tactics. One of the most shocking events in this century occurred in January 2001, when police killed twenty-two civilians during an antigovernment protest on the island of Pemba (part of Zanzibar). Such incidents impede the administration’s ability to move the nation forward politically, socially, and economically.

Mbogoni, Lawrence E. Y. The Cross vs. the Crescent: Religion and Politics in Tanzania From the 1890s to the 1990s. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2005.

Shayo, Rose. Parties and Political Development in Tanzania. Johannesburg: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, 2005.

United Republic of Tanzania. Official Web site. [accessed July 8, 2007].

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United Republic of Tanzania