Month: November 2015

What I would say if I were Obama’s speechwriter

Well, here it is. An exercise in political rhetoric as a means to think about what will happen if the United States and France choose to go to war again in the Middle East. Lots of political boilerplate. Some things may not be quite accurate. I don’t even agree with all of this. But this is how I would advise President Obama to approach a declaration of war against ISIS, if that is the policy that emerges.

The more thoughtful essay is the one that preceded this, but here goes:

My fellow Americans,

It is with a heavy heart that I speak to you today, one full of sorrow about recent events and apprehension about events to come. In the last two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has committed egregious assaults on human decency on multiple continents. They have killed, kidnapped, and raped innocent civilians, they have brutally beheaded journalists and others who question their methods, and then broadcast their savagery in gory videos on the internet. These are the acts of a group of people who have lost touch with their own culture, religion, and basic humanity. For a certain lost and alienated sub-set of young people, this fantasy world seems to have some attraction, and ISIL continues to recruit new adherents using deceptive tactics in online social forums.

They have caused untold horrors in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled the region, hoping to find refuge in neighboring countries like Lebanon and Turkey, as well as countries across Europe. All of these countries have made heroic efforts to settle these refugees and find ways to integrate them into their new homes as productive members of society.

In recent days ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has claimed responsibility for bombing a Russian airliner in Egypt, bombing a market in Lebanon, bombing a stadium in Paris while simultaneously shooting down scores of young people attending a rock concert in Paris. France has declared the coordinated attacks on Friday night an act of war, and has vowed to respond without mercy. France is our ally. Iraq is our ally. Egypt is our ally. Lebanon is our ally. ISIL threatens civilized society everywhere.

Tonight I am here to inform you that the United States has declared war on ISIL. Our intention is to destroy the ISIL leadership, as we have already been doing through targeted strikes, as well as their economic and military capacity. Our limited aim is to destroy the operational capacity of ISIL, and return areas that they have conquered to the existing administrations in Syria and Iraq. The ISIL reign of terror will end, and ISIL will be destroyed.

This is not a decision that I take lightly. I hate war. War is always a tragedy, and represents the failure of peaceful solutions. War is never a solution to long term problems, and the destruction of ISIL will not solve the long-term tensions and conflict in that region of the world. Long term solutions require ongoing diplomacy and negotiation. The United States has always been at the forefront of diplomatic solutions, and my administration has tirelessly pursued negotiations intended to bring stability, peace, and prosperity for all residents of the middle eastern region. And we will continue to do so. But we can make no progress towards stability in the region as long as ISIL remains active. ISIL is a threat to our national interests.

Going to war is like amputating a limb in order to save the body from a life-threatening infection. It is a last resort, and it results in permanent damage. ISIL is like a life-threating infection in the Middle East. No matter what the outcome of the war people will suffer, at home and abroad. That trauma will have lasting effects for at least a generation. ISIL is itself a direct result of the trauma created by the war in Iraq.

The United States did not create ISIL, nor did our policies abet its formation. But the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq led to a civil war that traumatized a generation of young Iraqis. Some of them became attracted to those who preached a violent vision of conquest using words and images from the Muslim religion. They have savagely distorted the Muslim religion, which is a theology that has been under development for centuries. The wars during the first century of Islam were typical of that medieval era. In the centuries since then Islamic scholars developed a sophisticated a wide-ranging theological and legal framework that is comparable to that of any other major religion in the world. It is not a religion of violent conquest. ISIL does not represent Islam, just as the KKK does not represent Christianity.

And we are not at war with Islam. Some of our closest allies in the world are Muslim countries. ISIL is attacking them as well. Most victims of ISIL atrocities are Muslim. We will work closely with our European allies. We will be on the front lines with France. We will also work strategically with other countries threatened by ISIL, including Russia, Iran, and Syria. We have major disagreements with each of these countries. We oppose Vladimir Putin’s short-sighted adventures in Ukraine, and we oppose Putin’s dictatorial government. We oppose Iran’s reckless support for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is part of the problem destabilizing the Middle East. We oppose Iran’s theocratic government which suppresses free speech. We oppose Bashir al Assad’s callous attacks on his own people, and his suppression of opposition political movements. But we can work with these countries in areas of mutual interest. We all have a mutual interest in defeating ISIL. And we will work together as those interests allow.

We will work closely with our friends in the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It is well-known that we often have disagreements with all of these countries. But friends can have disagreements. It is my policy to pursue justice and equity in the interest of peace in the Middle East. Our friends may disagree with some of our policies, we may protest some of theirs. But they understand that I believe firmly in all of our diplomatic efforts, and I am confident that these efforts will lead to greater security for all of our friends in the middle east.

The war to defeat ISIL will be a destructive one. We always try to minimize the impact of war on civilians. But, as in any war, we can expect that many people will flee the region seeking refuge in other countries. A responsible refugee policy is integral to the strategic vision of any war. As I said before, our European allies have already welcomed nearly a million people fleeing ISIL’s reign of terror. This is important work. The United States has promised to take in 60,000 new refugees this year. We will take in 100,000 more next year.

Settling refugees is important work. It is not just a matter of providing shelter. It is a matter of providing people with a means to survive and thrive in a new society. It is a matter of helping them to learn the language and work skills necessary to become productive members of society. It is a matter of welcoming them into the lives of our communities, so that they can feel at home in their new country. We want them to feel at home. We want them to become Americans. We want them raise their children in freedom, we want them to believe in our values. And we want to learn from them. We are a country of refugees and immigrants. That diversity is our strength. We do not fear refugees. We welcome them.

I hope that everyone of you watching tonight will support our effort. It will require sacrifices at home and abroad. It will require us to welcome newcomers into our communities. It will require us to dig deep to pay for the services and benefits that our troops deserve. Our troops, with their intensive training, discipline, and decency are our greatest asset in war. And we will honor them in word and deed. Caring for our veterans has been a key priority in my administration and will continue to be.

God bless our efforts, and God bless the United States of America.

Good night.

Reflections in preparation for what I would say if I were Obama’s speechwriter

This morning I attended church here in Iringa, at the always rock-solid Kihesa parish, full of joy and life. Their choirs performed songs with deep cultural resonance about planting seeds in the Lord’s farm, while dancing to an electronic beat. We sang a few old German Lutheran hymns from the hymnal, but again, with a modern African beat. I was with a group from the St. Paul Synod, who have built an extraordinary church-to-church relationship here over the course of 25 years. We know each other well now, even if we do not always quite understand each other. But we know each other’s sins and shortcomings, and we forgive. And we know each other’s joys and strengths, and we celebrate. Cultures interact, they clash and they harmonize, whether through religious affinities and animosities, or through economic and political transactions. We steal from each other; like children we destroy what another has so carefully built; like children we cry and then sit together and try to rebuild. When we rebuild, we rebuild it anew, it is not of the same design. Morose German hymns from the 17th century have an electronic African beat in the 21st. And we swing our hips and tilt our shoulders and dance. We begin to absorb the poly rhythmic beats and full-body dances that Christopher Ehret suggests have been part of Central African culture for millennia.

Guided by a St. Paul pastor and former liquor store owner, his wife, and a volunteer, we sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” A simple song, that we — who are so self-conscious about our faith, our joy, our voices and our bodies — could handle. It seems the song was written by a religious teacher in the 1920s, based on a quote from Jesus, but its author was quickly forgotten as it circulated among African Americans such that Alan Lomax recorded it in 1939 and thought it to be a southern folk song. It became popular during the civil rights movement, a humble little folk song that did nothing so pedestrian as to make a claim for legal rights. Like the signs (and the song) “I am a man”, “This Little Light of Mine” made a claim on a higher plane of existence. If we leave aside the Martin Luther Kings, the Malcolm Xs, the fearless Fannie Lou Hamers, the civil rights movement was made up of people who had been told over and over again that they were worthless, best left to clean houses and sit in the back of buses, and were tempted to believe those lies just to get by. They were told they weren’t worth educating because they had nothing to offer society. To sing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let it Shine” through their tears, in their fear and trembling, making a claim not just on their humanity, but on their invaluable contribution to American society, was to light the path that Jesus called them to. They were the light on the pathway that Hubert Humphrey pointed to at the 1948 Democratic Convention when he said that the time had arrived to “get out of the dark shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Who would light that path, other than the poor sharecropper who sang of, and believed in, his little light even as his human rights were violated daily?

Last night I attended a fund-raiser night at the Iringa International School, a very well-run little school that hosts a mix of kids from families of various backgrounds who happen to have the money to send their kids there. They served meals from various cultural backgrounds and people sat around and chatted well into the night, while the the kids in all shades of brown performed, and played, and flirted (we are all, after all, even us “white” people, shades of brown). I ran into old friends and met new ones. Some Christian, some Muslim, some atheist. We shook hands and embraced. Some are involved in charitable endeavors, some run businesses, and anyone with eyes to see knows that the line between these two is a fuzzy one indeed. In the small world of Iringa Tanzania, these are the luxurious elite: parents serving food in tents under a starry African sky, speakers blasting a children’s performance, people warming themselves around a small fire, guards and off duty police outside guarding the parade of parked Land Cruisers. These families all have housekeepers working in their homes, gardeners in their yards, guards at their doors. But we might recall that most families in this country, where washer-driers, food processors, and lawn mowers are in short supply, has someone in their home, an employee, a village relative, a child, who does housework. To have a housekeeper is just to be reminded that we all need help in life. Jesus said, somewhat ruefully, the poor will always be with you; and he might as well have said the rich. Inequality in human society is a fact of life, and I’m not going to dwell on it right now. The elite of Iringa are a humane bunch, decent people. They may harbor their sins, their prejudices, their privileges. But who doesn’t? Let them raise their children in peace, and let them find ways to ensure that the poor can do the same.

When I was 18 or so, I was attending an international school in New Mexico called the UWC. It was a great privilege to be there with such an inordinately sexy group of young people…not so much sexy in the physical sense, all these nerdy pimply late adolescents…sexy in the sense that each one of them rocked their style, most of them brimmed with confidence, carried along by the idea that they were there because they were uniquely smart and gifted. A few of us left, somewhat pathetically, still virgins; but our minds were well seeded. Of course, most of us must now admit that it was pure chance that we found ourselves in each other’s company in that beautiful and nurturing setting. If we rose to the occasion it was because we were surrounded by kids from forty or more different countries, and when you let their personalities shine through, they seem smarter than they are, they take more risks, they wear more hats, they celebrate their youth with more vigor. It is not so different from the message that a member of the Kihesa youth choir receives, and carries forward in every song. You tell a child to let her light shine, and shine she will.

A couple times a year we would have “national days”, where the students from one continent or another would organize a series of activities and a show to give the rest a taste of their cultural backgrounds. Again, if you can believe in your own potential, you can find your talents, and somehow these performances were uniformly fantastic…or at least so it seemed with such an encouraging audience of peers. Under these circumstances, I wrote a little song for our North American day performance, to capture the spirit of folk songs and protest songs that have been so powerful in American society, through labor strikes, civil rights marches, anti-war demonstrations. The first gulf war was about to begin, I had registered for the selective service, so taking the voice of a young recruit, the song went something like this:

Well I’m leavin’ today, yes I’m goin’ away
I’m goin’ to the desert to fight
Well they gave me my gun, and what needs to be done
And we’re goin’ to save Kuwait

Well there’s a war on my son, and it won’t change no one
I just hope you escape with your life.

Well they’re fightin’ over there in the Arabian world
Ma, I know all they want is oil
When their supply is assured, they will leave without their word Leavin’ Kuwait to die


There were a few more verses which I no longer remember, and then it ended like this:

Well I know there are wrongs in the place that I call home
Yet I don’t do nothing here
I just wish I could live the way that I should
Guess I’m stuck in the prison of my fear.

Refrain again.

Liza Malkoun sang the refrain, and you know, we didn’t even know each other all that well, other than that we loved the same music and the same people. But when I think of how sexy we all were back then, I think of her with her guitar and her bare feet, slightly pigeon-toed, the luxuriant heft of her breast and hips, her ungovernable Lebanese hair matched only by her profane and irrepressible energy to fix everything that was wrong with the world with a few well-chosen Woody Guthrie songs. Shine she did. She died in a car accident on a snowy evening a few years later. I visited with her heart-broken parents the next winter. I had taken a local train to her neighborhood during an ice storm in Philadelphia, and when it was time to leave, her father called for the schedule was told no trains were running that icy day. He drove me back to Swarthmore College where I was staying with friends, but I always imagined that Liza had driven the ghost train that brought me to her home that morning.

I went to school in New York City, and lived there for several years. I was a delivery boy and an afterschool volunteer, a prep and clean-up guy for God’s Love We Deliver, who were a bunch of New Yorkers — gay, straight, black, white, and puerto rican — who made meals for homebound AIDS patients in the basement of the dingy Harlem YMCA, in those years when that untreatable disease fell upon certain communities as if a punishment from a mad god. Their lusty jokes and the smooth sounds of Sade on the little transistor radio in the early morning seemed to keep the apocalypse at bay while they attended to the wounded. I was a messenger and rode a bike all over the city, climbing all its towers, none taller than the World Trade Center whose monolithic towers loomed over all of Manhattan from the Battery to Central Park like a modern Stonehenge, as if the rising sun flashing its shaft of light between them would somehow ensure another day of prosperity, seeding the fertile ground of capitalism with renewed hope each day. In that rambunctious city, plagues lay with profits each night and gave birth each day to that fearless crowd coursing through the veins of Manhattan.

Years later, after a stint in Tanzania as a St. Paul Synod volunteer, and a few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, a St. Paul pastor asked me what I thought. In a depressed state, I said nothing had changed. Osama bin Laden was not born that sunny September morning. It was a tragedy and a monumental crime, different only in scale from the shootings at Columbine high school a couple years before, or the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. But maybe something had changed. The people who rammed those planes into the World Trade Center were not suicidal loners carrying out a private little plot against their imagined enemies…or were they? In many ways they were like Timothy McVeigh and others, driven by jealous and hate-filled imagination. They concocted an ideology in service to a fantasy of heroic destruction. Terrorism, in most cases, is not an act of war, but a crime in the sense that it does not present an existential threat to a society. It is a crime in the sense that it tears at the fabric of society from within. It is a form of murder.

But maybe this was different. Osama bin Laden had declared war on the United States. A silly boast by an egotistical cunt perhaps (sorry to offend with that word, it just seems to work here), but even though he didn’t have a country, he had an organization in al Qaeda. People acting under his direction had attacked and killed Americans successfully on several occasions. He was already at war. By destroying American landmarks and killing thousands of people, he presented himself as an existential threat. We were at war. The Taliban government in Afghanistan harbored him, and there didn’t seem to be any good way to go to war with al Qaeda without also going to war with their allies in Afghanistan. So we were at war with Afghanistan, the vertiginous stone upon which empires since time immemorial have fallen. A hazardous fate and a tragedy, but I don’t really see any alternative to this course of events once it had been set in motion.

I remember feeling dejected, watching George W. Bush on TV, realizing just how woefully unprepared he was to face a national emergency. I thought that he should begin perhaps with a quote from Shakespeare. “When Macduff learns that Macbeth has brutally massacred his wife and children in their home, he falls to his knees to weep. ‘Answer it as a man’ his comrades-in-arms tell him, take the fight to the monster immediately. But Macduff responds, ‘Answer him I shall, but first I must feel it as a man.’ Answer Osama bin Laden we shall, but first we must feel this tragedy as a nation.” And from such an acknowledgement of psychological trauma, we might then have found a way to make decisions based on strategic interest rather than fear-induced panic. Where his privilege might have offered him some cultural resources, an education, that would help him comprehend the historical circumstance that he confronted, privilege had instead merely protected his folly. He was just a tool in the hands of merciless power brokers who operated in a private reality once-removed from the actual world. As in the mind of Osama bin Laden, personal grudges grew into existential conflicts, tragedies presented themselves as opportunities to bring private realities into the world.

Thus, somehow, a war with religious extremists in Afghanistan was derailed into a war with another merciless power broker who had once betrayed them. Saddam Hussein was a secularist, and an enemy of Osama bin Laden. A violent and ornery cus, but he had nothing to do with al Qaeda, and to go to war with him would be a favor to Osama bin Laden. This was evident to anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge about the politics of the modern Middle East, as was the stupidity of invading Iraq in the midst of a war with al Qaeda and the Taliban. It was a tactical mistake in the most minimal sense, spreading resources thin etc. In a strategic sense it was the worst decision in American history. It made everything that Osama bin Laden had said about the United States seem true. It was an act of imperial conquest premised on a bigoted misconception that equated the secular Saddam Hussein with the religious fanatic Osama bin Laden merely because they were both ostensibly Muslims. Whatever sympathy the world may have felt for the United States after 9/11 immediately dissipated, whatever doubt young Muslims harbored in regards to the message of extremist preachers became immediately thinner, whatever propagandistic advantage the US might have gained with quick defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda was immediately undermined by kaleidoscopic civil war that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow brought to Iraq. The targeted defeat of a present enemy became an ideological crusade that looked to many Muslim viewers like a religious crusade in the most literal and historical sense, because they saw the way that the word terrorist had merged in the American mind with Muslim, and fundamentalist Christians embraced the possibility of a religious war. Osama bin Laden had intended to instill fear as a tactic of his battle, and he succeeded. His enemy was filled fear and acting foolishly. The fear had a far greater impact than the lives lost on 9/11.

Out of Iraq’s civil war emerged the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (meaning here, the broader region of the Levant, the cradle of Western Civilization as we know it). ISIS. Living out a violent video game fantasy of the medieval Islamic conquests, amidst the trauma and hopelessness of post-war Iraq and war-torn Syria, they carved out a Caliphate. An Islamic state in the image of their Rated-M Mortal Kombat fantasy. Why this happened and who’s at fault is worth debating for historical analysis, political consensus, and future decision-making, but these questions are a little bit besides the point right now. France is at war with ISIS. Lebanon is at war with ISIS. The United States is already conducting a limited war with ISIS, and it will almost certainly expand now.

This war will entail all the trauma, the violence, the killing of innocents, the destruction of economies, societies, and families that were entailed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This war will cost the lives of American soldiers. This war will lead to bitter debates in this country about tactics, rationale, national interests, and humanitarian ideals. This war will lead to even more chaos in the Middle East in the short term, and will result in an even heavier flow of refugees into Europe, the United States, and Canada. Dealing with those refugees will be part-and-parcel of the entire war effort. Dealing with the bigotry and resentment that will emerge in host countries as a response to those refugees will also be part-and-parcel of this war. And therein lies the problem. If these refugees and migrants are going to assimilate into new societies effectively, they cannot be seen permanently as refugees, as outcasts of an angry war. They need to be seen as allies, family, and friends. We would never consider Timothy McVeigh to be anything but a homegrown terrorist, and we should not consider any refugee — afflicted by traumatic stress and cultural disorentation — who acts out violently as anything other than the sort of mass-shooter to whom we have become so accustomed here in the United States. ISIS may be a middle eastern problem, but mass shooters are an American problem. Refugees will be a by-product of this war, and for our own strategic interests, for the sake of our own national ideals, for the sake of our cultural richness, we will need to welcome them, preferably with a Woody Guthrie song…as, so improbably, they do at American citizen swearing-in ceremonies.

Then let them shine their lights.

After the Election in Tanzania, a Constitutional Crisis in Zanzibar

Maalim Seif, Photo via his campaign website (

(This post originally appeared in the excellent blog, Africa is a Country:

In April 1964, following a racially charged revolution in Zanzibar, its new leaders negotiated a union between the Zanzibari islands, with their 300,000 people, and the country of Tanganyika on the mainland with its 10 million people. The bond was bound to be unbalanced, Zanzibar would remain with its own government, president and vice president, and revolutionary council, while simultaneously being subsumed under the government of a new “united republic,” with its own president and parliament, to be known as Tanzania. Tanganyika no longer had its own government. The Zanzibari president became the First Vice President of Tanzania, while the Tanzanian president’s running mate became its Second Vice President.

The union’s lopsided ambiguity makes it hard to shake, but is also the source of its frustration. Zanzibaris never quite came to a consensus about what their constitutional relationship to the mainland should be, and the opposition makes the appealing case that it should have more autonomy. Many on the mainland agree: why not have a “three-government” system, with both Zanzibar and the mainland operating autonomous governmental structures under an umbrella government overseeing both?

This question was the central ideological issue at stake in the recent Tanzanian presidential elections. The opposition to the ruling CCM party was a coalition of parties allied by their fight against CCM attempts to railroad a constitutional reform process towards their interests.

The elections of October 25, 2015 were the most hotly contested in Tanzania’s independent history. Although the main opposition candidate today with great ceremony, and ceremonies mean a lot in this country. The national president is here to stay.

In Zanzibar, however, things got complicated. The candidate for CUF, a member of the opposition coalition, was Seif Sharif Hamad. “Maalim” Seif, as he is known, has run for Zanzibari president in every election since 1995. He has lost every time in elections widely panned as rigged in CCM’s favor. Many Zanzibaris have become intensely frustration with CCM domination and its racially charged propaganda. Throughout this period, Maalim Seif has struggled patiently against hope that one day there would be a clean and uncontroversial election in Zanzibar. He has repeatedly sought legal and electoral recourse, and has never advocated violence or rebellion…at least until last week.

On Monday afternoon, the day after the election, Seif called a press conference to announce that according to reported polling results, the trend looked as if he would be the winner by a thin margin. Further reported polling results over the next few days showed a strong, if dubious, CCM showing. The Zanzibari Electoral Commission (ZEC) was to announce a winner at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. No announcement came until that afternoon when the chair of the ZEC nullified the entire Zanzibar election. Dozens of legal and procedural questions arose, creating a constitutional crisis.

The ZEC chair cited irregularities and conflict within the ZEC, and claimed that more people voted in CUF strongholds than had been registered. Conceivably, he acted to prevent a CCM victory that would have been almost universally seen as fraudulent. But most Tanzanians assumed that he had acted to obscure the fact that CCM was trying to steal the election. Maalim Seif, opposition leaders, and major embassies all denounced the nullification, while two members of the ZEC said they had not been consulted and they disagreed with the decision. With the current Zanzibari president’s term officially ending, there was the possibility that the islands would be without a legally constituted government as of Monday, November 1.

Frustrated with the silence from the mainland government, who were busy celebrating their victory, Maalim Seif called another press conference last Friday evening. Pleading for CCM to sit down and talk, but unwilling to sit by passively while the electoral process was so blatantly ignored, Seif said that if positive steps towards a solution were not taken on Monday, then he would no longer restrain his followers from going to the streets to “pursue their rights.” It was an ultimatum.

It seems to have worked, because the current CCM government sent its top military commander to meet with the Zanzibari contestants, and yesterday the outgoing CCM president sat down for a conversation with Maalim Seif. These were positive steps, and between Seif’s calls for restraint and a large military police presence, Zanzibar has remained calm throughout the crisis.

While CCM still retains a lot of goodwill among rural and older voters in the mainland, many Tanzanians thirst for an opposition victory that would be a rebuke against corrupt governance and a sign that Tanzania’s democracy has truly come of age. With the new CCM president firmly in place, an opposition presidency in Zanzibar would not be a threat to its political dominance. CCM is unlikely to find a better negotiating partner in Zanzibar than Maalim Seif. He is a moderate who has consistently chosen compromise over confrontation. Whoever rises to the top of Zanzibari politics in his wake is unlikely to wield the same influence or the same willingness to forgo conflict for the wellbeing of the Zanzibari people.

CCM ostensibly opposes his candidacy because they fear that he would try to break up the union, even though CUF has never advocated Zanzibari independence. He would certainly bring pressure to revise the current structure, but that pressure is now coming from every direction and needs to be addressed regardless. More deeply, some in CCM might worry that without the united front of CCM government, extremist groups might take root in Zanzibar. But on this score, it is clear that CCM’s intransigence is only seeding the atmosphere with resentment that is already fueling more radical rhetoric: this week, Zanzibar’s first IEDs exploded (without injuries) in its historic Stone Town. Maalim Seif is probably the best placed politician in the country to lead the most frustrated elements of Zanzibari politics back towards the compromise and power-sharing necessary for democratic governance. If Maalim Seif legitimately won the election, CCM would be wise to let him represent the will of his electoral majority and begin to talk about how best to restructure the union to face future challenges.

The current Zanzibari president’s term has been temporarily extended, Maalim Seif is putting together a cabinet, and it remains to be seen whether this week’s discussions will resolve the impasse.

The Power of Ceremony

Photo copyright International Business Times (

The new Tanzanian president (whose name, John Pombe Magufuli, is now endlessly repeated in full in the press), was sworn in officially last Thursday, with Tanzania’s first female Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan. He a Christian from Kigoma in the West; she a Muslim from Zanzibar in the East. It was a powerful ceremony. In a country that puts much stock in ceremony, the event cemented Magufuli’s place in the presidency, and only the most flagrant of high crimes or a complete breakdown of the legal order will be able to undo that ceremony. It expressed the most fundamental virtues of Tanzanian national identity, and in that expression the ceremony took root in people’s own political consciousness and that is where it is ratified.

Questions about the election’s legitimacy continue to circulate, much amplified by the opposition party and its grumbling supporters. Rumors of malfeasance have some basis, but it will be impossible to track down the truth of them, especially now that the election has been decided. The ruling party arrested a few online rumormongers under a cybersecurity law putting a chill on commentary in a country where everyone believes that political reality lies in party secrets that are revealed through smart inference. As much as there may have been some vote-rigging, there is also much post-election litigation, some of which is almost certainly baseless. Losing politicians from both sides are trying to litigate the results of parliamentary races, and that seems to also be the strategy of the losing presidential candidate. But it is impossible to measure the basis of his case.

Zanzibar is still unresolved. There almost everyone believes that the opposition party won the election and the nullification of the election by the chair of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission was a crass intervention to ensure a ruling party victory. After much delay, the mainland authorities finally engaged the Zanzibari opposition in discussions and the streets have remained calm. Right now, the ruling party would prefer to let the nullification stand, and then re-run the elections in three months. The opposition party says they will not agree to a re-run of the election, and want the polling totals from October 25 released.

But Magufuli is saying all the right things.

Many of us dismiss ceremonies as mere window dressing…Yet we put great stock in planning every detail of a wedding, and all that it will communicate. Ceremonies are powerful. They are the punctuation marks of public life. They bind everyone who participates in them to their message.

The ceremony began and ended in a timely way, amidst well choreographed military pageantry. Former Tanzanian presidents and regional representatives were in abundance. Many of the regional presidents could not imagine the regular transition of presidential power that is taken for granted in Tanzania. The Burundian president, who just extended his own term amidst violent protest, was clearly not invited. Burundi was represented instead by a parliamentary speaker. The outgoing president circled the stadium and made his way to the stage, the radio announcers (in that CNN way of continual forced chatter) noting that this would be the last time he enters as president in that car, after this he would be just another citizen. And indeed he left in a different car. Jet fighters provided a roaring fly-over, and the flag was lowered to symbolize the end of one presidency, and raised to begin the new one. This last act echoes the lowering of the British flag at midnight on December 9, 1961, and the new flag of the independent country raised. In some sense the elaborate hand off from one president to the next has echoes of Steve Feierman’s description of the old Shambaa kingdom, that carefully kept the death of a chief secret until a new chief could be appointed and announced, so that the moment of chaos symbolized by the lack of the chief was as brief as possible.

The new president’s oath of office took on the tempo of a non-demoniational confirmation creed, punctuated by the phrase “Eeh Mungu unisaidie.” (Listen God, and help me), as he swore to take on his tasks with honesty and uphold the constitution. He signed a copy of the oath and was then presented with a traditional spear and shield.

Most impressive, however, was the articulation of Tanzania’s carefully cultivated ideology of multi-culturalism and unity. There was a dance group from Muslim Pemba, another from Lake Nyasa with their giant drums and whistles, there was a modern dance group with their looping Congolese guitar riffs. A Muslim cleric offered the first prayer, asking God to help the new president rule in the interests of the people, with wisdom to fight hatred and corruption, and that the outgoing president and vice president could lead fulfilling lives in retirement. The Catholic archbishop offered a similar prayer, and a protestant minister finally offered thanks that the election season passed peacefully and that the former president completed his term in office successfully. He prayed for forgiveness for all that happened during the election, and especially in regards to the incoming president.

Finally, the new president gave a brief acceptance speech, thanking the voters for their confidence, promising to work with all without regard to ethnicity religion, or political affiliation, despite all the election controversies. He said he has a great debt to the voters, and would fulfill it.

He said all the right things. The entire ceremony, communicating so effectively on an emotional and intellectual level with the most deeply held convictions of Tanzanian patriotism, not only cemented his place in the presidency, but reinforced the virtues that have helped multi-cultural Tanzania remain peaceful. He says he will resolve the Zanzibar crisis. He made a surprise visit on his first day of work to the Ministry of Finance to push them to close tax loopholes and unnecessary spending, and make a point about government officers who take Fridays off. The next day, presumably a result of conversations at the Ministry of Finance, he suspended all overseas trips for government officers. He is doing an excellent job, at least with the initial visuals, of publicizing his dedication to his motto: “Hapa kazi tu” (here to work). But it was the power of the inauguration that impressed me. And I only listened to it on the radio.

Constitutional Crisis in Zanzibar Ready to Explode

(Photo from London Guardian

THE new president-elect of Tanzania campaigned on the slogan “hapa kazi tu”, meaning “here there’s only work”. Now he’s got his work cut out for him.

The election held a week ago was not perfect. There were a number of incidents of various kinds, riot police dispersing crowds in several cities, lots of post-election positioning for legal action the re-visit results in various constituencies, and most disturbingly a couple incidents where police raided groups that were attempting to do an independent tally of the votes as they were being posted at the 65,000 polling stations across the country. In one case the police raided an opposition office full of young people doing this, in another case it was a local human rights organization doing the same thing. The human rights workers were released, but their computer equipment was confiscated. All of these incidents have given the opposition a lot of evidence to make their case that the elections were fatally flawed and do not represent the will of the people. The opposition has announced that in fact their presidential candidate was the winner of the election if one adds up the polling station results independently. But such a simplistic ploy, that would be so easily questioned by outside observers, seems unlikely to me, and if there was vote rigging it happened at the polling stations themselves before results were posted. Hopefully there are enough independent observers who collected the data (and preserved it from confiscation) and can verify the results.

The ruling party here, despite much deserved criticism for corruption and dysfunction, still carries a lot of goodwill especially among rural and older voters who still see it as a guarantor of peace, stability, and economic growth, if not altogether competent governmental administration. My hunch is that their candidate legitimately won the election, and most, if not quite all, of their parliamentary and local council seats were legitimately won. The reality is that they lost a lot of seats and lost control of several major cities. On that basis alone this election was a major success for the opposition, and by far the strongest opposition showing in a national election. Moreover, the basic procedures of this election were convincingly transparent, and in a country where lots of things never quite work right, it was impressively administered. There is no election in this world that is perfect, or free from monied influence. I don’t think we can honestly call our campaign finance system in the US anything but legally recognized corruption. In this sense, elections are a sort of ritual that deems an incoming administration to be legitimate based on a rough representation of the will of the people, filtered through a process that attempts to measure the majority’s choice at different levels of government. It is a process that needs to be constantly tweaked to work well, constantly contested to have any chance of being fair, constantly analyzed for its biases and prejudices. Tanzania is well along the path of creating an electoral tradition that can stand the test of time, and that can be constantly improved through citizen activism and legal reform. From my inexpert and uninformed point of view, the new president seems to be legitimately elected, and my guess is that most Tanzanians would agree. I don’t expect any major political disturbance on the mainland, even as peaceful protest and litigation continue.

But Zanzibar is another story, and is today on the verge of crisis. This is a very unfortunate turn of events in an otherwise very hopeful election, and threatens to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the well-run election on the mainland.

Zanzibar, with under a million people compared to around 50 million on the mainland, has a long history of vote rigging and low-level electoral violence. All the elections since the first multi-party election in 1995 have been highly dubious, and have been accompanied by varying levels of violence before and after the election. In some cases this has entailed police firing live ammunition at protesters, in other cases it has been unofficial thugs attacking members of other parties. In every case the main opposition party as been the Civic United Front (CUF), and the ruling party is the main party that has monopolized power since independence, the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM or Party of the Revolution). For the last four elections their candidate has been Maalim Seif Hamad, who was a member of CCM in the 1970s and rose as a smart political operator who attracted the notice of the first president, Julius Nyerere. When the era of multipartyism began, Hamad helped create CUF with the goal of improving human rights in Tanzania, especially Zanzibar, and pursuing more autonomy for Zanzibar within the union with the mainland that constitutes the republic of Tanzania. Despite repeatedly losing dubious elections to CCM, Hamad has proven a responsible and moderate opponent, always ready to resolve disputes through discussions and agreements rather than direct confrontation with a much stronger CCM-controlled government. After the 2010 election Hamad agreed to form a government of unity with the CCM candidate, where he served as a vice president for Zanzibar. He ran again for the Zanzibari presidency this year. But with the nullification of last week’s election, with such high expectations for its transparency, he may have reached the end of his patience.

People voted for local officials, parliamentary seats, the national president, and the Zanzibari president (who serves as one of two Vice Presidents in the national Tanzanian government). On Monday evening, after the initial results of the Zanzibar polls were posted, Hamad called a press conference to announce that according to initial results he expected to be the winner. This announcement skirted the boundaries of legality, as only the National Electoral Commission (NEC) or the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) are authorized to announce official results. The ZEC was due to announce official results at 10 a.m. last Wednesday. Further posted results suggested a strong CCM showing, which seemed dubious as most people expected a CUF victory. So it was already a dicey situation as people awaited the results, which were bound to be controversial. On Wednesday afternoon, the chairman of the ZEC, Jecha Salim Jecha, shockingly announced the nullification of the entire Zanzibar election. The election had been “erased” according to a direct translation from Swahili. Jecha listed twelve reasons for nullifying the elections, including disagreements (to the point of fisticuffs) within the ZEC, irregularities across the islands, voter intimidation, and more votes counted in some constituencies than registered voters. He said the problems appeared especially flagrant in Pemba, which is the northernmost of the two Zanzibari islands and by far the more isolated.

Pemba has long been a CUF stronghold. So any voting irregularities would be expected to favor CCM. On that count, it would seem that Jecha’s surprise announcement may have saved CUF from an embarrassing defeat in the face of a ballot-stuffing victory for CCM. Such a result would almost certainly have resulted in a crisis as CUF’s strong following in Zanzibar would have little patience for yet another dubious defeat. But it is hard to imagine any worse crisis than the constitutional crisis Zanzibar now faces. At first I thought that it was actually possible that the ZEC had acted in a neutral and legal manner to nullify a flawed election, and use its power to call for a new election within 90 days, according to constitutional procedures. His move may have prevented a CCM victory. But Hamad almost immediately denounced the move, then two CUF representatives on the ZEC said they were not consulted and did not agree with the nullification, which they claimed had been a unilateral, and thus illegal, announcement by Jecha himself. The international community came out firmly against the nullification, and now Zanzibar faces a constitutional crisis as neither CCM nor the government has made any announcement about a way forward. The nullification appears to be nullified if it was not an authorized decision of the ZEC, and if no solution appears before the end of the current president’s term on Monday, Zanzibar will be without a legally constituted government on Tuesday.

Yesterday evening, Hamad pronounced an ultimatum. Explaining that, after four stolen elections, his patience was at an end. He had been trying for several days to reach the Tanzanian and Zanzibari presidents to seek a negotiated solution to the crisis, and got no response. Explaining the legal situation, and his party’s efforts to restrain the anger of their followers, who had been quiet all of last week, he then stated “if, as of November 1, 2015, we have not seen any meaningful steps taken to conclude this election and respect the decision made by (the people of) Zanzibar on October 25, 2015, then myself and my fellow leaders of CUF will put down our hand and leave the citizens of Zanzibar to pursue their rights. I repeat, if November 1 arrives, and if there are no steps taken to find a solution to this crisis that was caused by Jecha, then I think we will have fulfilled our responsibilities, we have calmed the citizens enough.” He was giving a green light to his followers to riot in the streets if no meaningful steps were taken to resolve the crisis by Monday. A constitutional crisis is about to turn into a national security crisis, which could get very ugly if Tanzanian riot police clash with angry protesters.

CCM seems to have tied up the national presidency pretty well. The mainland is peaceful, the new president has already been officially declared the winner and will be sworn in on Monday. Theoretically the cancelled votes in Zanzibar could effect the national election, but they are too few to make a difference when the CCM candidate won by nearly 2 million votes according to the official tally. But the entire crisis in Zanzibar seems to highlight the theme of CCM vote rigging and collusion with electoral authorities, and gives credence to opposition claims that the national election was illegitimate. If CCM were smart, they would realize that this election, with their strong and widely accepted win nationally, would present a good opportunity to come clean in Zanzibar and allow for a transparent election. Hamad is a moderate who is oriented towards negotiation, stability, and peace. He was once a CCM member himself, and has been a principled opponent for two decades. CCM is unlikely to find a better negotiating partner. A clean election in Zanzibar this year, even at the cost of an opposition victory, would have added legitimacy to their convincing triumph nationally. They have now thrown away that possibility, and have reinforced all of the most negative perceptions about their rule. It is a tragically lost opportunity to make a dramatic step towards being a credible democracy.

Now CCM will have to negotiate under the threat of street violence in Zanzibar, and it will be hard to save face. If they can’t come to an agreement with CUF, then the government will feel compelled to use a great deal of force, if necessary, to put down protests. This will only make the crisis worse, but doing nothing will not be an option. CCM’s new president-elect, John Magufuli has been celebrating his win, and announcing that he will fight graft and increase economic development. But the Zanzibar crisis now looms in front of him, and whatever comes of it will be left on his plate. If he does not take leadership on this issue, then old CCM hands will, but they will not face the consequences. And five years from now will be too late. The consequences of this crisis will only add to the poison present in Zanzibari politics, and in five year Hamad will be 76 years old, and it is not certain that he would run again. CCM should not expect his successor to be as wise and moderate as Maalim Seif Hamad, indeed it is much more likely that a rabble-rousing populist will capture the attention of young Zanzibari voters, and that will make for an even more intractable situation.

CUF has announced that if it emerged as the victor of the elections, it would be willing to lead a unity government that would include CCM representation, just as the current CCM government has CUF representation. This is a very reasonable position. We can only hope CCM will find a way to act productively in this crisis and avoid a violent confrontation in the streets of Zanzibar.