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Remembering Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad

Mr Hamad, who today, October 22, 2021, would have been 79, was the epitome of Zanzibari nationalism and whose legacy Zanzibaris have a duty to honour.

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Anniversaries give us opportunities to make sense of history. They help us to reflect on the past, debate the present and ponder the future. When historic figures die, we are left to debate their legacies. Oftentimes, their legacies are contested. The contested legacies of great leaders help to punctuate national narratives of the past. 

Seif Sharif Hamad, fondly known as Maalim, which in Swahili means a teacher, was one such national figure whose legacy remains at the heart of contemporary contested Zanzibari politics. 

Maalim would have turned 79 years old today. Maalim was born on October 22, 1943, in Nyali, Mtambwe village in Pemba island. He died on February 17, 2021, less than three months after being sworn in as Zanzibar’s First Vice President. 

Seif Sharif Hamad political autobiographer, G. Thomas Burgess described him as a pragmatic individual and who throughout his political life became the antidote of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi’s (CCM)’s dominant narrative of the past in Zanzibar. 

His contestation of narratives of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution and the Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar made him the epitome of modern Zanzibari nationalism. 

All the elections that Maalim Seif contested between 1995 and 2020 were a contest of Zanzibari political history and, by extension, the production of Zanzibari nationalism.

Politics of remembering in Tanzania

Tanzania’s founding leader Mwalimu Julius Nyerere has dominated the domestic debate about his legacy. Since Mwalimu’s death in 1999, every October 14th, Tanzania commemorates Nyerere Day – a statutory national public holiday. 

Zanzibar’s first President Abeid Amani Karume is also commemorated every April 7th, the day he was assassinated. 

These two national holidays are celebrated in varying degrees in the two entities that make Tanzania – the isles (Zanzibar) and Tanzania Mainland (Tanganyika). 

It is evident that Nyerere Day is celebrated more in the Mainland with little fanfare in the isles. For Tanzanians in the Mainland, Karume Day is just another day of rest. 

These contradictions represent the contested narratives of the Union and the pronounced identities in the two Union-sub level entities. 

Maalim Seif and Zanzibari politics

Seif Sharif Hamad on the other hand represented the political contests within the isles. He manifested the competing narratives of Zanzibari political history. 

He was expelled from CCM in 1988, subsequently arrested and jailed for sedition. After his release from prison, he was part of the group that founded the Civic United Front (CUF) in 1992. 

There have been varying forms of Zanzibari nationalism since British colonialism that was rooted in race and class politics. 

The contemporary form of Zanzibari nationalism is also informed by the class-race, the Unguja-Pemba divide and the perennial Union question. 

With the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Tanzania in 1992, CUF became the vehicle for post-multiparty Zanzibari demands. Seif Sharif became, as G. Thomas Burgess puts it, the “spiritual leader and organizational genius of CUF.” 

The 1995 elections in Zanzibar, which CCM won controversially, set a bad precedent for the subsequent elections. The political blustery between CCM and CUF in the elections led to violence in all but the 2010 elections. 

Reconciliatory figure

Hamad was the main challenger of CCM in all the elections since 1995. His candidature was symbolic in that it embodied a collective counter narrative of what the ruling party CCM represented. Hamad remained true to the reformist ideals that saw him expelled from CCM. 

As a politician, Hamad reinvented himself in every election cycle. In all the elections, he faced CCM candidates who were fronted by the Union. In the 1995 elections, he faced Salmin Amour. 

In 2000, he faced Amani Karume, son of Zanzibar’s first president. In the 2010 elections, he faced Ali Mohammed Shein and in 2020 he faced Hussein Mwinyi, son of Tanzania’s second president. 

In all these elections, Hamad remained reconciliatory and nationalistic.

After periods of failed reconciliation efforts (Muafaka 1, II and III), Hamad’s continued commitment to Zanzibar’s stability and prosperity was seen when he met President Amani Karume on November 5, 2009, and agreed to the Maridhiano (Reconciliation) Agreement. 

This set the stage for the referendum on the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU). Among the key reform issues was that Zanzibar Constitution (2010 edition) declared that Zanzibar ni nchi ( that is, Zanzibar is a state/nation). After the 2010 elections, Hamad became the First Vice President in the GNU. 

In the 2015 elections, he was headed for an outright win. However, the elections were controversially annulled by the Chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) Jecha Salim Jecha. 

Out of principle, CUF boycotted the rerun election. Due to the GNU constitutional arrangements, CUF was not part of the government between 2016 and 2020. Hamad’s last political act was the 2020 elections. 

Zanzibar should honour Maalim

Persistent internal party wrangles within CUF resulted in a foray of defections of the Hamad faction to the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT- Wazalendo) party in 2019. 

The 2020 elections were marred with massive irregularities and Hamad got the lowest ever tally since the readvent of multiparty politics. ACT-Wazalendo joined the GNU despite calls against such a move. 

In his address after being sworn in as First Vice President, Hamad said that the decision to join the GNU was to build a new Zanzibar through continued reconciliation. 

Maalim Seif died weeks after contracting COVID-19. While he never went to become president, Hamad will remain a towering figure in Zanzibar politics. 

Zanzibar should find ways to honour Hamad for his contributions in the reconciliation processes and unfettered commitments to Zanzibari politics.

Nicodemus Minde holds a PhD in International Relations from the United States International University- Africa,  Nairobi. He researches on the contradictions of memory of the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union, Zanzibari nationalism and the reconciliation processes in Zanzibar. He can be reached on Twitter @decolanga. These are the writer’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries. 

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