The “spice island” of Zanzibar would seem to have little in common with Somalia, torn by Islamist rebellion, and with Kenya, where a storm is brewing over demands for the touristic coastal strip to secede.
But in this historic town, a World Heritage site and perhaps the oldest functioning urban area in east Africa, clouds of teargas have hung over ornate alleyways in recent days as riot police clashed with supporters of an Islamic separatist group.
“We want our government to have supremacy. We want a supreme Zanzibar,” Sheikh Mselem Ali Mselem, leader of the Uamsho group, told Reuters in the run-up to the violence, Reuters reports.
Mselem denounced the political leaders of Tanzania and semi-autonomous Zanzibar as “liars, unjust, corrupt” and said Uamsho sought peace – but independence from Tanzanian rule.
While few expect Zanzibar to become an autonomous Islamic state or for Kenya’s coastal strip to secede, the simmering anger, particularly among coastal Muslims, is an increasingly painful headache for the secular governments in Nairobi and Dodoma.
Deep social, political and economic divides are a rallying cry for disenchanted and often unemployed youngsters, raising fears of escalating religious and political tensions that could threaten growth in the region’s top two economies.
“Uamsho have a lot of power. I think they are similar to Boko Haram as they hate Christians. It’s a big problem for us,” said Emmanuel Seron, a street trader, who pointed to where his church was burnt in May. Boko Haram is fighting to create an Islamic state across the continent in Nigeria and its fighters have killed hundreds in bomb and gun attacks since 2009.
LURE OF MILITANT ISLAM
Muslims were long the predominant religious group along the coast, where the local Swahili culture was influenced for centuries by Indian Ocean trade links with the Middle East.
Benson Bana of the University of Dar es Salaam said Uamsho is showing an increasingly hardline religious leaning, marked by a surge in violence, unlike the separatist Mombasa Republican Council movement in Kenya. Where the two share common ground is what provides their groundswell of support.
“You cannot divorce what is happening from social discontent. These young men and women with no jobs, they are desperate. They are easy to mobilise,” Bana told Reuters.
Asked why Uamsho was becoming increasingly militant, Bana said: “Whoever is financing this movement is demanding results, to deliver violence.”
Poor Muslim coastal areas in Kenya and Tanzania have proved fertile recruitment ground for Somalia’s al Shabaab militants, a trend some Western officials have said could threaten stability along the east African seaboard.
East Africans have taken part in al Qaeda attacks before, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the suicide bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa in 2002.
A few have risen high in al Qaeda: Indian Ocean-islander Fazul Harun Mohamed once worked as Osama bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan.
While political analysts say there is no link seen between al Shabaab and Uamsho, militant Islam has a growing appeal along the Swahili coast.
The rise of Uamsho, which means ‘Awakening’ in Swahili, has driven a wedge across the Indian Ocean island.
“We know who supports Uamsho and who doesn’t. Everyone knows. It causes friction and tensions,” fishmonger Suleman Mwalim said, standing behind a pile of eels and crabs.
The latest clashes in Zanzibar erupted when Sheikh Farid Hadi, a spiritual leader of Uamsho, disappeared for three days.
Hadi said the police had blindfolded and interrogated him.
“They wanted to know what we are trying to do now and (about) my frequent trips to Oman and other Arab countries,” Hadi said.
Zanzibar’s police said Uamsho’s leadership had tricked people with Hadi’s disappearance.
Many Zanzibar youngsters feel alienated by mainstream politicians who have not tackled rampant unemployment, lack of opportunity and poor infrastructure in the tourist haven.
“This void became very attractive to non-mainstream organisations … who are saying what young people want to hear,” Mansoor Yussuf Himid, a former government minister, said.
Police allege Uamsho leaders have gotten rich, most probably from foreign donations rather than their local supporters.
“We suspect that Arab countries are funding them … mostly individuals and organisations,” police Commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa said.
While a note on Uamsho’s office wall lauds the Lebanese militants Hezbollah. Mselem denied links to the group and says its funding is local.
There are, however, clear sympathies with Muslims along the Swahili coast. “In Kenya the Muslims are not getting their rights,” Sheikh Azzan Hamdan, a senior Uamsho leader, told worshippers at the Mbuyuni Mosque.
Zanzibar is a tourist magnet but there’s a broad sense locals lose out on jobs to mainlanders.
“There is a lot of (tourism) development here in Zanzibar but we are not benefitting from this as a lot of workers are from the mainland,” said Khalid Ibrahim Aman, 27, a used-car salesman who supports Uamsho and wants independence.
“Uamsho are a threat to everything. It’s a delicate business,” said Zanzibar state minister Mohamed Aboud Mohamed.