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Confederation or Not? Lessons From the Fall of Senegambia on Tanzania’s Union Future

If Tanzania were to become a confederation between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, it would likely face most of the same challenges that led to the fall of Senegambia.

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First, I must disclose my position: I fervently advocate for the Union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, firmly believing that our collective unity should be safeguarded at all costs. 

Regardless of its specific configuration or structure, the Union should be revered and upheld. I am against any politician or political party that preaches the decimation of our Union, whether directly or indirectly.

We should be debating on improving the Union rather than on whether it should exist.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge valid apprehensions concerning our Union, predominantly rooted in structural considerations. The primary source of contention stems from our system of governance. Some advocate for a unitary government, while others argue for preserving the dual government system. 

Additionally, there are proponents of a tripartite arrangement, entailing distinct administrations for Tanganyika and Zanzibar alongside a centralised Union government.

A unitary government would have represented the optimal outcome. 

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It has been suggested that the first president of Zanzibar, Abeid Amani Karume, was inclined towards a unitary government. He envisaged himself as Vice President, with Julius Nyerere assuming the role of head of state. 

Conversely, figures from Tanzania Mainland, including Pius Msekwa and Juma Mwapachu, advocated for a three-tiered government structure. However, Mwalimu Nyerere remained steadfast in his advocacy for a two-tiered system, which he believed would address the political challenges arising from the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika. Consequently, our governmental model was fashioned after that of the United Kingdom.

However, a unitary government is not currently feasible in practical terms. The opportune moment to implement such a system was during the Union’s nascent stages, a task that perhaps only Nyerere and Karume could have undertaken. 

Advocating for a unitary government without authoritarian or dictatorial powers is politically unviable. Zanzibaris would vehemently resist the dissolution of their government and the autonomy it affords them. Any attempt to do so would likely be construed as a hostile takeover by Tanganyikans against Zanzibaris.

That leaves us with alternative options: a three-tiered government system and the existing two-tiered system. Let me emphasise that I vehemently oppose any course of action that imperils the survival of the Union, and I firmly believe that a three-tiered system would pose such a threat. 

Lessons from Senegambia

To illustrate this point, I want to draw upon the example of Senegambia, a confederation between Senegal and Gambia which implemented a three-tiered government structure.

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The Senegambia Confederation, formed in 1982, was an attempt by Senegal and The Gambia to create a political union. However, several factors contributed to its failure.

First, Senegal and The Gambia had different national interests, economies, and political structures. Senegal had a much larger population and economy than The Gambia. This asymmetry in power dynamics could have led to unequal representation and decision-making within the confederation.

Second, there were differences in leadership styles and political ambitions between the leaders of Senegal and The Gambia at the time. While Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf supported the confederation, The Gambia’s President Dawda Jawara was reportedly more cautious.

Thirdly, despite being neighbouring countries, Senegal and The Gambia have distinct ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities. These differences hindered the development of a shared national identity necessary for a successful confederation.

Fourthly, the economies of Senegal and The Gambia had different structures and levels of development. Integrating these economies into a single confederation would have required significant economic restructuring and cooperation, which might have been difficult to achieve.

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Also, both countries were wary of relinquishing too much sovereignty to the confederation. Concerns about losing autonomy over key policy areas such as defence, foreign affairs, and economic management might have hindered deeper integration.

Moreover, the idea of the confederation received little support from Senegal and The Gambia populations. Without strong public backing, implementing and sustaining the confederation effectively would have been challenging.

These factors, among others, ultimately led to the collapse of the Senegambia Confederation in 1989, just seven years after its formation. 

If Tanzania were to become a confederation between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, I would say it would likely face most of the same challenges. The biggest factor is that the confederation government would likely be ceremonial and hold no real power.

Freedom to debate

However, regardless of my sentiments toward the Union and my perspectives on its structure, I firmly advocate for the freedom of individuals to express their concerns and grievances regarding the Union. 

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Politicians and government officials must confront these challenges directly rather than disregard them. Regrettably, discussing the Union has almost become a taboo subject. However, I wholeheartedly embrace engaging in informed discussions about the Union with individuals holding diverse opinions and ideas. 

Although these discussions may not always yield definitive conclusions, they contribute significantly to fostering a deeper comprehension of the challenges that must be addressed for the Union to endure and flourish.

Thomas Joel Kibwana is an international relations and business development expert. He can be reached at or on X (Twitter) as @thomasjkibwana. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at

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