Land tenure system and land reform in Zanzibar (1830s-1970)

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University of Dar es Salaam
In Zanzibar before the coming of the Arabs, land was communally owned but there were elements of feudalism articulated in the communal mode of production. As a result, there was appropriation of surplus product of labour taking place by the Mwinyi Mkuu, Masheha, Waviale and other ruling individuals. When the Arabs came the communal made disintegrated into the slave mode but remained articulated and subordinated to the former. It is when the Arabs came that land was alienated for production of cloves and coconuts. Sultan Seyyid Said encouraged Arabs to come to Zanzibar and acquire as much land as possible for cultivation of cloves. The Zanzibar economy began t o depend entirely on the revenue that accrued from the sale of cloves. When the slave economy was faced with crisis due to merchant capital, the landlords began to be indebted and a good number of them were impoverished. This was due to contradiction between the landlords and the commercial bourgeoisie but on a wider plane it was a contradictions the British had t defend the landlord class otherwise a social revolution would have been precipitated. The British then took over Zanzibar as a colony in 1890 and instituted different measures which could keep imperialism going on reaping super profits and therefore sustain and maintain the bourgeoisie in the metropole. The pre-capitalist modes had to be in part destroyed and preserved. They had to be articulated and subordinated to the capitalist mode of production. The impoverishment of the landlords resulted in the rise of small landholders and capitalist farmers. This rise was encouraged by the British colonial government in an attempt to revive the clove economy which was facing a crisis. But all the same merchant capital impoverished these landowners and capitalist farmers as well. Hence the long process of transfer of land through mortgage, sales, purchase and lease which took place between world war two and the 194 revolution. Land alienation generated a sharp class struggle, which was escalated when squatters were evicted in 1957, and the years after. This eviction had resulted from the fact that between 1957 and 1958 a world economic crisis depressed the clove prices. It also led to the drop of import of food stuffs, rise of prices of food stuffs and fall of wages. As a result the absentee landlords began to drift from town to the rural areas where land was the only “Mesiah”. In order to prevent the Zanzibar people from seeing imperialism as their principle enemy the British colonial government imposed a racial ideology which made the struggle appear not as one of labour against capital but as one of Africans against Arabs. This made all the political parties and trade unions be formed on racial lines. But in actual fact all these were due to class struggle. The British colonial government realised that independence could not be delayed anymore and so they handed over the government t the landed aristocracy under the ZNP, in 1963. With ZNP in power it was possible for imperialism to reap super profits from Zanzibar. A new struggle emerged between the new ruling class and ASP. The result of this struggle was the 12th January 1964 revolution which brought ASP into power. After the revolution land was distributed to the landless and those who had less than three acres. The distributing land there occurred many discrepancies which led t some people getting more than three acres and others getting less than three acres. The discrepancies were bound t occur because the class nature of the government that was involved in the land distribution was understood. This meant that the complete anticipation of the peasants was not possible. Distribution of land and the agrarian reform developed capitalism in the countryside. The peasantry is differentiated. But since this is the epoch of imperialism the movement towards capitalism is being fettered. We still have migrant labour, landlords and squatting system prevailing in Zanzibar today. Imperialism has penetrated Zanzibar countryside through marketing, transport, wages etc., and hence the development of productive forces in the countryside is hindered. To make the country self-sufficient I food, the government encourages individual peasants to expand rice acreage. Tractors are given out for hire at a cheap price. Coupled with this, the government has introduced co-operatives, state farms and farm units. The Government got a lot of aid from different bodies in order to run the state farms and farm units and to get money to buy and run the tractors. Since all these movements have not been formed on a socialist basis but on a petty-bourgeois line, they have not been able to transform the countryside socialistically and so the peasants have not been liberated completely. The foreign aid that is flowing into Zanzibar is being channeled to the agricultural sector and other light industries and as a result the base for heavy industries cannot be developed. The agrarian reforms were carried out by the petty-bourgeois state and so the peasants could not be made to fully appreciate the move. This could not be otherwise.
Land tenure, Zanzibar
Shao, I. F. (1978) Land tenure system and land reform in Zanzibar (1830s-1970), Masters dissertation, University of Dar es Salaam. Available at