Zanzibar Revolution

Zanzibar Revolution

The Zanzibar Revolution was the overthrow in 1964 of the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab government by 600-800 of the country's African majority, led by Ugandan John Okello. The revolutionaries were largely members of the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) who were frustrated by their party's lack of representation in parliament, despite winning 54% of the vote in the July 1963 election. The revolution occurred early on the morning of 12 January 1964 when the revolutionaries overran the country's police force and took their weaponry before proceeding to Zanzibar Town and overthrowing the Sultan and government. The revolutionaries then attacked the Arab and South Asian civilians in the country. The death toll is disputed, ranging from several hundred to 20,000. The ASP worked in collaboration with the left-wing Umma Party, which led to a poor reception from the Western Powers then engaged in the Cold War. Abeid Karume became the country's new president and head of state.

As Zanzibar lay within the British sphere of influence, several plans were drawn up for military intervention but these were not put into action. Instead the communist powers of China, East Germany and the USSR gained influence by recognising the country and sending advisors to its government. In an attempt to maintain stability in East Africa, which had seen several army riots sparked by the revolution, Karume entered Zanzibar into a merger with Tanganyika to form the new nation of Tanzania. The event ended 200 years of Arab dominance in Zanzibar and is commemorated on the island by anniversary celebrations.


Zanzibar was a country lying in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanganyika, it consisted of the main island Unguja, a smaller island known as Pemba to the north and numerous minor islands. Prior the revolution the country was governed as a constitutional monarchy under Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah who was liked by the majority of population. At the time of the revolution the country contained around 230,000 African and Persian people, the latter known locally as Shirazis.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=4] There was also a significant minority of 50,000 Arabs and 20,000 Asians who were prominent in business and trade. By 1964 these ethnic groups were becoming mixed and the distinctions between them blurred.Harvnb|Shillington|2005|p=1716] However the major political parties were still organised largely along ethnic lines with the Arab Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) and the African Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP). Despite this both parties contained some members of the opposite group.

The Arabs on the island were the major landowners and, on average, were paid more than the Africans.Harvnb|Parsons|2003|p=106] Zanzibar had been a part of the British Empire and during the process of decolonisation was allowed some self-governance. To this end constituencies were drawn up by the British authorities and elections held in 1961. Despite winning a majority of the vote the ASP, led by Abeid Amani Karume, did not win the majority of seats. The ZNP instead took power, governing as a coalition with the Zanzibar and Pemba People's Party (ZPPP). Once in power, facing growing anger at their election, the ZNP/ZPPP banned the more radical opposition parties, filled the civil service with their own supporters and politicised the police.

The Umma Party was formed in 1963 from disaffected radical Arab socialist supporters of the ZNP.Harvnb|Bakari|2001|p=204] The ZNP/ZPPP coalition won the next election in July 1963 again, despite the ASP gaining 54% of the vote, and set about strengthening their power still further.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=5] The ASP gained just 13 of the 31 seats in the parliament. The Umma Party, which had fielded no candidates, was banned completely and all policemen who were originally from the African mainland were fired.Harvnb|Sheriff|Ferguson|2001|p=239] This move removed a large portion of the only security force on the island and left an angry group of ex-policemen with paramilitary training and knowledge of police buildings, equipment and procedures.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=5-6]

The ZNP-led government requested a defence agreement from Britain and asked for a battalion of British troops to be stationed on the island for internal security duties.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=6] This was turned down by the British government as it was considered inappropriate for British troops to be involved in the maintenance of law and order so soon after independence. It was also known by the government that there a civil disturbance in the near future was likely and that the deployment of troops might enflame the situation further. Despite the transition to self rule many foreign nationals still worked on the island and 130 Britons were direct employees of the Zanzibar government.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=27-28]

The revolution

At around 3 am on the morning of the 12 January 1964 600-800 poorly armed revolutionaries, aided by some of the recently dismissed African police, attacked Unguja's police stations, both of the police armouries and the radio station.Harvnb|Parsons|2003|p=107] The new Arab police had received almost no training and, despite sending a mobile police force, were soon overcome.Harvnb|Clayton|1999|p=109] The revolutionaries armed themselves with captured police rifles and bren guns and captured the government buildings in Zanzibar Town.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=6-7] The Sultan and many of his senior officials fled the island onboard the royal yacht "Seyyid Khalifa".Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=7] The Prime Minister, Muhammad Shamte Hamadi, and his cabinet also were overthrown. [Citation | last = Conley | first = Robert | author-link = | title = African Revolt Overturns Arab Regime in Zanzibar | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.1 | year = | date = 13 January 1964 | url =]

The official Zanzibari history of the revolution claims that Karume was the leader of the revolution with support from the ASP, but this is incorrect. Abdulrahman Muhammad Babu, the leader of the Umma Party was also absent, being in Dar es Salaam at the time of the revolution. The leader was actually John Okello and his revolutionaries were mainly unemployed members of the Afro-Shirazi Youth League. Okello was a Ugandan who had arrived in Zanzibar from Kenya in 1959 and had served as a branch secretary for the ASP on Pemba. He claimed to have been a Field Marshal for the Kenyan rebels during the Mau Mau Uprising but actually had no military experience. He also claimed to have heard a voice that commanded him, as a Christian, to free the Zanzibari people from the Arabs. It was Okello that removed Karume to the mainland for safekeeping.

Following the revolution Okello's men began attacking Arab and Asian people on the island. These attacks took the form of beatings, rapes and attacks on properties and Okello claimed in radio speeches to have killed or imprisoned tens of thousands of his "enemies and stooges". Estimates for the number of deaths caused by this vary greatly from hundreds to 20,000Harvnb|Plekhanov|2004|p=91] , the higher estimates may be inflated by Okello's own radio broadcasts and the Western and Arab press.Harvnb|Sheriff|Ferguson|2001|p=241] The "New York Times" ran with a figure of 2,000–4,000 deaths.Citation | last = Conley | first = Robert | author-link = | title = Nationalism Is Viewed as Camouflage for Reds | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.1 | year = | date = 19 January 1964 | url =] The killings of Arab prisoners and their burial in mass graves was documented by an Italian film crew, filming from a helicopter, in the film "Africa Addio". [ [ "Africa Addio"] , Gualtiero Jacopetti, 1970] The victims of the attacks were mainly Arabs and, by Okello's order, no Europeans were attacked. Many surviving Arabs fled to safety in Oman. The post-revolution violence was confined to Unguja and there was no trouble on Pemba.


After the confused events of 12 January a temporary government was set up by the ASP and Umma Party. This took the name of the Revolutionary Council and Karume, the leader of the ASP, was named President with Babu, leader of the Umma Party, as his Minister of External Affairs. Karume was known as a moderate socialist but Babu was a more radical left wing politician.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=15] The country was then renamed the People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. One of its first acts was to permanently banish the ousted Sultan. [Citation | last = Conley | first = Robert | author-link = | title = Regime Banishes Sultan | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.4 | year = | date = 14 January 1964 | url = ] Okello appeared to be too unstable to play any role in government of the new country and was quietly sidelined from the political scene by Karume, who allowed him to retain his title of Field Marshal.

By 3 February Zanzibar was finally returning to normality and Karume had been accepted, almost unquestionably, as its president. [Citation | last = The Times (of London)| first = | author-link = | title = Zanzibar Quiet, With New Regime Firmly Seated | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.9 | year = | date = 4 February 1964 | url = ] Okello formed a paramilitary unit, known as the Freedom Military Force (FMF), from his own supporters which is known to have patrolled the streets and become involved with looting.Harvnb|Sheriff|Ferguson|2001|p=242] In addition Okello's violent rhetoric, Ugandan accent and Christian beliefs alienated many in the largely moderate, Zanzibari and Muslim ASP.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=17] By March many of his FMF had been disarmed by Karume's supporters and an Umma Party militia. Okello was denied access to the country when he tried to return from a trip to the mainland and deported to Tanganyika and then to Kenya before returning, destitute, to his native Uganda. He was officially removed from his post as Field Marshal on 11 March. [Citation | last = Conley| first =Robert | author-link = | title = Zanzibar Regime Expels Okello | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.11 | year = | date = 12 March 1964 | url = ]

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was formed by the government in April and completed the disarmament of Okello's remaining FMF troops. On 26 April Karume announced that he had negotiated to enter into a union with Tanganyika to form the new country of Tanzania.Citation | last = Conley| first =Robert | author-link = | title = Tanganyika gets new rule today | newspaper = New York Times | pages = p.11 | year = | date = 27 April 1964 | url =] Karume's reason for doing so may have been to prevent the radicals in the Umma Party from taking over the country or to reduce the possibility of increasing communist influence in East Africa.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=19] Despite this many of the Umma Party's socialist policies on health, education and social welfare were adopted by the government.

Foreign reaction

British military forces in Kenya were made aware of the revolution at 4.45 am on 12 January and were put on 15 minute standby to conduct an assault on Zanzibar's airfield in light of a request for assistance from the Sultan.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=8] However the British High Commissioner to Zanzibar, Timothy Crosthwait, reported no instances of British nationals being attacked and advised against intervention — as a result the troops in Kenya were reduced to to four hours readiness by the evening. Within hours of the revolution the US ambassador to Zanzibar had announced his intentions to evacuate the US citizens in the country. The British ambassador chose to wait as many of the British citizens held key government positions and a sudden evacuation would further damage the economy and government of Zanzibar. A timetable was agreed with Karume for an organised evacuation in order to avoid possible bloodshed. The USS "Manley" evacuated the US citizens on 13 January.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=8-9] Initially the evacuation was delayed by armed men as the Revolutionary Council's approval had not been sought, this was later granted and the evacuation proceeded without event. The British authorities considered that this confrontation caused much ill will against the Western powers in Zanzibar.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=9]

The Sultan also appealed to Kenya and Tanganyika for military assistance but was again turned down. The Western powers were concerned about the situation in Zanzibar as it was considered by their intelligence services that the revolution had been organised by communists supplied with weapons by the Warsaw Pact countries. Their suspicions were strengthened by the appointment of Babu as Minister for External Affairs and Abdullah Kassim Hanga as Prime Minister as both were known to be leftists with possible communist ties. Further to this Britain believed that Hanga and Babu were close associates of Oscar Kambona, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Tanganyika, and that former members of the Tanganyika Rifles had been made available to assist with the revolution. There was evidence that Zanzibar was aligning itself closely with the Communist powers in that it was the first African country to recognise the German Democratic Republic and also recognised North Korea. Some members of the Umma Party had been trained by Cuba and wore Cuban military fatigues and beards in the style of Fidel Castro. Just six days after the revolution the "New York Times" stated that Zanzibar was "on the verge of becoming the Cuba of Africa", but on 26 January denied that there was communist involvement. [Citation | last = Franck | first = Thomas M. | author-link = | title = Zanzibar Reassessed | newspaper = New York Times | pages = | year = | date = 26 January 1964 | url =] By February Zanzibar was known to be receiving advisers from the USSR, East Germany and China and by July 1964 just one Briton, a dentist, remained in the employ of the Zanzibari government.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=18]

Tanganyika responded to a request from the new government for support and sent 100 paramilitary police officers to Zanzibar to contain rioting. These, with the Tanganyika Rifles, were the only armed force in the country and the transfer of the police sparked a mutiny of the entire regiment on 20 January. This mutiny was caused by the soldiers' dissatisfaction with the slow process of replacing their British officers with Africans and a low rate of pay.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=10] The mutiny in Tanganyika spread though East Africa causing similar events in Uganda and Kenya. All three riots were quelled without serious incident by the British Army and Royal Marines.Harvnb|Parsons|2003|p=109-110]

The Western Powers were still concerned by the possibility of a communist state emerging. In February the British Defence and Overseas Policy Committee said that whilst British commercial interests in Zanzibar were "minute" and the revolution by itself was "not important" the possibility of intervention must be maintained as Zanzibar could as a centre for the promotion of communism in Africa much like Cuba in the Americas.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=12] Whilst much of the communist bloc had already recognised the country Britain, the US and most Commonwealth withheld recognition until 23 February.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=13] In Crosthwait's opinion this contributed to Zanzibar aligning itself with the USSR. Indeed Crosthwait and his staff were expelled from the country on 20 February and were only allowed to return once recognition had been agreed.

British military response

Following the evacuation of its citizens on 13 January the US government stated that it would recognise that Zanzibar lay within Britain's sphere of influence and that it would not intervene.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=13-14] The US did, however, urge that Britain cooperated with the other East African countries to restore order. The first British military vessel on the scene was HMS "Owen", a survey ship diverted from the Kenyan coast, which arrived on the evening of 12 January. "Owen" was joined on 15 January by the frigate HMS "Rhyl" and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship RFA "Hebe". The lightly armed "Owen" proved able to project the Royal Navy's power in the area without acting as a threat to the revolutionaries but the "Hebe" and "Rhyl" were different matters. The "Rhyl" carried a company of troops from the first battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment from Kenya due to inaccurate reports that the situation was deteriorating, whilst the Hebe had just finished removing stores from the naval depot at Mombassa and was loaded with weapons and explosives. The latter fact was not known to the revolutionary council but the Royal Navy's refusal to allow a search of the "Hebe" created suspicion ashore and there were rumours that she was an amphibious assault ship. The embarkation of the troops had, however, been widely reported in the Kenyan media and hindered negotiations with Zanzibar.

The British forces completed a partial evacuation of British citizens on 17 January.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=9-10] "Rhyl" was later dispatched to Tanzania with the company from the Staffordshire Regiment to help quell the army riots there, a company of the Gordon Highlanders was loaded aboard "Owen" to replace them.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=11] The aircraft carriers HMS "Centaur" and HMS "Victorious" were transferred to the region as part of Operation Parthenon.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=13] This operation would have been enacted if Okello or the Umma party radicals attempted to seize power from the ASP moderates.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=17] In addition to the two carriers the plan involved three destroyers, "Owen", 13 helicopters, 21 transport and reconnaissance aircraft, the second battalion of the Scots Guards, 45 Commando and one company of the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The forces were to land by parachute and helicopter and take first Unguja and then Pemba in the largest British airborne and amphibious operation since the Suez Crisis.

As the situation developed a new plan was designed, known as Operation Boris this would have involved a unit of paratroopers flying out from Kenyan airfields to land on the island.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=18-19] This plan was later abandoned due to poor security in Kenya and local opposition to the idea. To replace Boris Operation Finery was developed. This called a helicopter assault by Royal Marines from HMS "Bulwark", a commando carrier then stationed in the Middle East.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=19] "Bulwark" was not available until 23 April and so an interim plan, Operation Shed, was drawn up in case the Umma Party attempted a coup over the merger with Tanganyika. Shed would have required a battalion of troops, with scout cars, to be airlifted to the island to seize the airfield and protect Karume's government.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=20] The danger of a revolt over the merger soon passed and the troops required were stood down to 24 hours notice on 29 April, the same day that Finery was cancelled. Shed and Finery were never revived and Britain resolved that intervention was not required in Zanzibar.


The revolution was a turning point in Zanzibar's history that ended 200 years of Arab dominance in the country.Harvnb|Speller|2007|p=1] The event caused concern to the Western powers that communism might gain a foothold in East Africa and was one of the main causes of the army riots in Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda which saw the modernisation of their armed forces. The revolution is a firm part of Zanzibar's culture and has been marked by the release of 545 prisoners on its tenth anniversary and by a military parade on its 40th.Harvnb|Kalley|Schoeman|Andor|1999|p=611]

ee also

*History of Zanzibar



*citation|last=Bakari|first=Mohammed Ali|title=The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar|year=2001|publisher=GIGA-Hamburg|location=|url=|isbn=3928049712|oclc=.
*citation|last=Clayton|first=Anthony|title=Frontiersmen:Warfare in Africa since 1950|year=1999|publisher=Taylor & Francis|location=|url=|isbn=1857285255|oclc=.
*citation|last1=Kalley|first1=Jacqueline Audrey|last2=Schoeman|first2=Elna|last3=Andor|first3=Lydia Eve|title=Southern African Political History|year=1999|publisher=Greenwood Publishing Group|location=|url=|isbn=0313302472|oclc=.
*citation|last=Parsons|first=Timothy|title=The 1964 Army Mutinies and the Making of Modern East Africa|year=2003|publisher=Greenwood Publishing Group|location=|url=|isbn=0325070687|oclc=.
*citation|last=Plekhanov|first=Sergey|title=A Reformer on the Throne: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said|year=2004|publisher=Trident Press Ltd|location=|url=|isbn=1900724707|oclc=.
*citation|last1=Sheriff|first1=Abdul|last2=Ferguson|first2=Ed|title=Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule|year=1991|publisher=James Currey Publishers|location=|url=|isbn=0852550804|oclc=.
*citation|last=Shillington|first=Kevin|title=Encyclopedia of African History|year=2005|publisher=CRC Press|location=|url=|isbn=1579582451|oclc=.
*citation|last=Speller|first=Ian|title=An African Cuba? Britain and the Zanzibar Revolution, 1964.|journal=Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History|year=2007|volume=35|issue=2|pages=1–35|url=|issn=|oclc=|doi=.

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