The death of Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, Zanzibar’s first vice-president in its government of national unity, has robbed the isles of a historic leader, a peace builder and a great unifier. Hamad, 78, died on Wednesday morning as he was undergoing treatment for Covid-19 at the Muhimbili national hospital in Dar es Salaam.
His death has brought into sharp relief the prevalence of the Covid pandemic in the country whose leader, President John Magufuli, is still in denial. This, despite an unusual spike in the number of Covid-related deaths, including that of the government’s most senior civil servant, chief secretary John Kijazi, who also died on Wednesday.
Zanzibar is at a critical juncture with the loss of Hamad, a major architect, with former president Amani Karume of “Maridhiano” (Reconciliation). His presence in the government of national unity after last October’s disputed elections was crucial in preventing the islands from falling into an abyss. Political violence has been a defining aspect of the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party since Tanzania’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.
It was largely, if not solely, due to his restraining voice that his followers never took to the streets to claim their victory. They have claimed that they were the legitimate winners in all the six elections that have been held since 1995, but that the CCM had usurped their victory by using chicanery.
The situation was farcical in the 2015 elections when the chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC), Jecha Salim Jecha, stopped the announcement of electoral results when it was evident that Hamad and his then political party, the Civic United Front (CUF), were winning. Eventually the ZEC annulled the entire exercise. The elections were re-run in March 2016 but Hamad and CUF boycotted them.
Results for last October’s elections were unashamedly, blatantly rigged: the CCM won almost all the parliamentary seats, almost all the house of representatives seats and almost all the local council seats. Hamad,who stood for the presidency, garnered 19% of the votes. In the previous five elections, on average his results were shy of 50% by about 1 percentage point.
It was to Hamad’s credit that he was among the very first of the few Tanzanian leaders who went public about coronavirus when it first reared its head in 2020. At the time, he warned the population to take the necessary precautionary steps. Lately, he had the audacity to announce publicly that he had contracted the virus. In so doing he contravened Magufuli’s dubious protocol on the Covid pandemic.
Hamad’s chutzpah was not surprising. Telling truth to power has always been his hallmark, ever since he became politically active in his secondary school days in the early 1960s. His activism led him to be elected chairman of the Unguja and Pemba Students Council in about 1962-1963. After the Zanzibar Revolution in January 1964, the new authorities forced Hamad to become a teacher. That is when he began to be known as “Maalim” (Swahili for teacher).
Zanzibar had no university at the time and the revolutionary government had stopped, as a matter of policy, sending students for further education abroad. That policy was reversed when Aboud Jumbe, a graduate of Makerere University and Hamad’s secondary school teacher, became Zanzibar’s president after the assassination of its first president, Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume, in April 1972.
Jumbe assiduously arranged for teachers to be sent for further studies at the University of Dar es Salaam on the mainland. Hamad, who was in the first batch of these students, graduated with a first class honours degree in political science, public administration and international relations.
When he returned home in 1975, Jumbe appointed him as his special assistant. Two years later, he catapulted him to national politics when he appointed him education minister and a member of the house of the representatives, the isles’ legislature. At the same time, he was appointed as a member of the Tanzanian parliament, as well as a member of the national executive committee and the central committee of the then sole political party, CCM, whose economic and planning department he headed between 1982 and 1987.
Hamad worked diligently within the CCM hierarchy and was, for most of the time, a darling of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding president. A few within the political establishment accused Hamad of ingratiating himself with the elder statesman. The accusations became more strident in 1984, when he enabled Nyerere to expel Jumbe from the party. The purge led to Jumbe’s political demise as Nyerere forced him to resign as Zanzibar’s president and Tanzanian vice-president. In his stead, he handpicked Ali Hassan Mwinyi, a former minister and ambassador.
Mwinyi on his part appointed Hamad as his chief minister, in charge of the day-to-day running of government affairs. Mwinyi and Hamad liberalised Zanzibar, particularly on the economic front. The honeymoon lasted only a year. Mwinyi succeeded Nyerere as Tanzania’s president and Hamad eventually fell out with Mwinyi’s successor in Zanzibar, Idris Abdul Wakil. Crucially, he also fell out with CCM chairman Nyerere as he increasingly dared to confront him in defending Zanzibar’s interests.
Hamad proved to be a thorn in Nyerere’s flesh. In the end, in January 1988, he was sacked as chief minister and in May he was expelled from the party together with six supporters, all CCM stalwarts.
From then on, Hamad dominated Zanzibari politics until his death. He proved his mettle in the fight for democratic rights in Tanzania and as a defender of Zanzibar’s interests. It was not an easy task. He was vilified and detained for nearly three years on trumped-up charges of allegedly being found with confidential government documents and later, in 2000, of allegedly attacking the police and robbing them with a gun. The charges were finally dropped in 2003.
Instead of being in political wilderness after his expulsion from CCM, Hamad and his supporters remained active by forming a pressure group for democratisation in Zanzibar, which they called Kamahuru. In May 1992, Kamahuru merged with the Civic Movement, a mainland human-rights group, to form the Civic United Front (CUF). The party was officially recognised the following January and grew to become a major opposition force, particularly in Zanzibar.
After the 2015 botched elections in Zanzibar, all manner of intrigues were employed by hardliners within the CCM to sabotage, emasculate and finally kill CUF. But in 2019, Hamad, always a step ahead of them, resigned from CUF and joined another political party, the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT)-Wazalendo. The bulk of the CUF membership moved with him: when he died he was ACT-Wazalendo’s national chairman.