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The Meaning and Usage of Union Day Celebrations

Union Day should be an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the type of Union the country aspires to have.

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Every 26th of April, Tanzanians commemorate Union Day. On April 26, 1964, then independent states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar agreed to merge and form a political union. The merger created the United Republic of Tanzania.

This Union has for over five decades withstood challenges that other unification attempts in the African continent failed. As such, the Union has become an embodiment of Africa’s independent dream of African unity. Pragmatic as it may be, the Union has been cited as a model of the Pan African dream.

Other than the niceties of the Pan-African banner, the idealization of the Union came as a result of many push and pull factors. The Cold War atmosphere at the time is said to have been a factor that necessitated the Union.

After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that saw the world at the precipice of a nuclear disaster, there was fear that Zanzibar could become another Cuba. It is also thought that security was Mwalimu Nyerere’s biggest fear when it came to Zanzibar.

Nyerere said that Zanzibar was his headache and that his wish was to have Zanzibar towed far into the middle of the Indian Ocean. Other sentimental factors that justified the Union were the long historical, economic, and cultural ties between the two entities. Over the years, more justifications have been given.

Constructing Tanzania’s identity

Post-1964, the Union became the rallying point for constructing Tanzania’s identity. This began with the new name for the country – the United Republic of Tanzania. Mwalimu Nyerere’s national building project was to imbue a sense of national identity into the new nation.

Despite this noble act and symbolism of a Pan-African unity dream, Nyerere swallowed up Zanzibar from the onset. Tanganyika’s national symbols such as the court of arms, and national anthem became the new symbols of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Upon the ratification of the Articles of Union, the grundnorm of the Union, Zanzibar’s sovereignty began to wane. The transfer of Zanzibar’s sovereignty and autonomy to the new entity (United Republic of Tanzania) became the source of disgruntlement and dissatisfaction among Zanzibaris.

Detractors of the Union argue that the original framework of the Union has been abrogated. They argue that two one-time independent sovereign entities come together meaning that the Union should be an equal one. But as it stands there is an apparent bigger brother in the Union.

Zanzibar’s withering autonomy

Zanzibar’s first President Abeid Amani Karume tried to fight for Zanzibar’s withering autonomy within the Union until his death on April 7, 1972. His successor Aboud Jumbe also tried to speak about the faltering autonomy of Zanzibar.

He, however, paid the ultimate political prize over his quest to demand a balanced Union. He was forced to resign as President and relinquished all his positions within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

The trial of Jumbe as it was known quintessentially demonstrated the faults within the Union. Jumbe was demanding a balanced Union through the three-government Union format.

Even after the return of multiparty politics in Tanzania in 1992, Zanzibar’s grievances over the Union increased. Zanzibar’s President then, Salmin Amour applied for membership at the Organization of Islamic Conference (IOC).

The move was seen as Zanzibar’s desire to chat its own international relations path. Zanzibar’s demands for a balanced Union have been consistent over the years.

A site of a collective retelling

In the midst of these contestations, the Union Day became a site of a collective retelling of the reason d’être of the founding fathers. Through speeches and performances every 26th of April, the government neutralizes dissenting voices of the Union.

The government through the Ministry of State Vice-President’s Office (Union and Environment) organizes events that hegemonically explain the origins and foundations of the Union.

The spectacle of the events creates a sense of collective identity that is important in national building.  According to census data of 2012, 90.2 per cent of the 45 million Tanzanians (90.5 per cent in Tanzania Mainland and 90.9 per cent in Zanzibar) were born after the Union.

The government often uses these figures to consolidate the narrative of the Union.

On many occasions, especially on Union Day, the government retells a particular interpretation of the Union to collective public memory. Governments world over use memorials and commemorations to engage the past, debate the current, and forecast the future.

Deliberate construction of a narrative

This constant repetition and ritualization of the past consolidates a deliberately constructed narrative. The United States, for example, uses the anniversary of September 11, 2001, as a political act as well as to reproduce American hegemony.

In Rwanda, the three-month-long Kwibuka (remembrance) is used to create a ‘collective memory’ of the 1994 genocide. It was thus rather surprising when President John Magufuli cancelled the Union Day celebrations in 2016.

Previously, in November 2015, he cancelled the Independence Day celebrations and redirected the money that would be used in the celebration to other more pressing development issues.

The Union Day celebrations just like many other national commemorations serve as a period to reevaluate the national aspirations and goals.

At a time when there are reverberations around demands for a New Constitution, Union Day should be an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the type of Union the country aspires to have.

State officials will give cosmetic speeches on why the Union is important, but until there is a serious national dialogue on the status of the Union, the 26th of April celebrations will always be just a day when people don’t go to work.

Nicodemus Minde holds a PhD in International Relations from the United States International University- Africa,  Nairobi. He researches the contradictions of memory of the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union, Zanzibari nationalism and the reconciliation processes in Zanzibar. He can be reached on Twitter at @decolanga. These are the writer’s own opinions 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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