Zanzibar is best known by holidaymakers for its sandy white beaches and winding medieval passageways.
But where once there were tourists, tanks and soldiers now line the cobbled streets in the iconic district of Stone Town as the East African nation lurches towards a general election on Wednesday that could spell the end of what's left of democracy on the mainland of Tanzania.
The archipelago has been a hotbed of government opposition ever since it joined the adjacent territory of Tanganyika in 1964, creating Tanzania.
Tanzania’s strongman John Magufuli, who is running for national re-election on Wednesday, is the greatest barrier to free and fair elections that Zanzibar has ever faced, opposition leaders claim. According to his critics, he is leading Tanzania away from one of Africa’s most inclusive and peaceful democracies towards a totalitarian state.
Opponents accuse him of shooting opposition figures, muzzling the independent press and replacing the judiciary with government stooges. His announcement in June that Tanzania is “Covid-19 free” and a goat, pawpaw and papaya had tested positive for the virus raised eyebrows around the world.
At the last election, opposition figures accused the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party of forcing Zanzibar’s electoral body to nullify unfavourable results. In recent days, the government has sent an estimated 10,000 security forces to patrol the spice islands and intimidate the local population.
From the mainland perspective, Zanzibar is an important source of revenue. However, it wasn’t until this election that the spice islands became central to ruling party plans. Observers fear that Mr Magufuli is looking to plant enough ruling party candidates in Zanzibari seats so that he can extend term limits in his second term.
Tanzania’s constitution can only be amended by an absolute majority in both the mainland and Zanzibar. Without an outright win in Zanzibar, Mr Magufuli will be unable to continue as Tanzania’s president past his second term.
The ruling party has already been accused of tampering with voter registration, banning opposition candidates from standing in key constituencies, and outlawing opposition rallies. In the past week, sources told The Telegraph that the electoral commission has fabricated 120,000 “ghost voters”.
“CCM will win the election by hook or crook,” said Muhammad Yussuf, a ruling party member who ran for Zanzibar’s presidency in 2010. “They [CCM] do not want to relinquish power because they are afraid that they will be prosecuted for human rights abuses and corruption."
Zanzibar was once the capital of the Omani Sultanate – a vast empire trading, slaves, spices and ivory throughout the Indian Ocean. The islanders trace their ancestry to various groups including Arabs, Indians and Africans.
Zanzibar-based opposition groups have previously been accused of advancing calls for secession.
Zanzibaris complain about paying taxes to the mainland but receiving little investment in return. They also accuse the government of manipulating laws so that the mainland will disproportionately benefit from natural resources like offshore gas.
“For them [CCM] Zanzibar is like a colony which they want to keep on controlling,” said Ismail Jussa, a politician for Zanzibar’s leading opposition party ACT-Wazalendo.“The only way they can achieve that is to put a puppet in Zanzibar.”
With much more at stake than just the next five years, Mr Jussa said: “We are not going to tolerate another stolen election and therefore if we emerge victorious, we will ask our people to go and defend their votes, to go and defend their victory.”
Mr Magufuli's government denies wrongdoing.
This article was published by The Telegraph.