Presidency didn’t come to Abeid Amani Karume on a silver platter. Before leading Zanzibar (which would eventually merge with Tanganyika to form Tanzania), the region had been under British control. And even when it finally gained independence on December 10, 1963, it was still under the control of the Omani Arabs, under the Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah.
In fact, Zanzibar’s Arab and South Asian minority held dominion over the majority African population by way of wealth. The natives, outnumbering the Arabs and serving as slaves under their control, despised this designation and decided to fight for their independence in what resulted in the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution led by Karume of the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) in which more than 20,000 people died.
Power then shifted from the Sultan of the nation to Karume who would become Zanzibar’s first president. Many are grateful to Karume for the first eight years of prosperity witnessed by Zanzibarians, though others accused him of human rights abuse. Before his painful assassination in April 1972, he was the first vice president of Tanzania, having agreed with Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere to unite Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania.
An “eloquent” Swahili orator who “spoke only halting English”, Karume had little formal education, becoming a seaman before entering politics in 1954 when he was appointed town councilor. A big and strong-minded Karume traveled wide growing up, meeting African personalities such as Kamuzu Banda of Malawi who broadened his knowledge on international affairs and geopolitics, according to popular accounts.
Karume later led the revolution in Zanzibar to oust the ruling government that was mostly made up of Arabs. These Arabs were smaller in number but they were able to seize rule after Zanzibar gained its independence from Britain. Historians attribute this to the fact that Zanzibar had been a former territory of the Arab country, Oman. Before the 1964 revolution, the ethnic groups in Zanzibar generally worked together, but the rise of Karume’s ASP sparked tensions and placed them against the mostly Arab Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP).
On the night of the revolution, Karume was not in Zanzibar; it was his colleague from the ASP John Okello who gathered men to oust the Sultan and his followers. When Karume assumed the role as the country’s new president and head of state, reports said he went to visit Tanzania’s Nyerere a mere 105 days after the revolution. Nyerere proposed the idea of a union. Karume, reportedly, immediately agreed and suggested that Nyerere become president of the union. Karume became the first vice president of the United Republic, renamed Tanzania in October.
He served in this role while bettering the lives of the people of Zanzibar for eight years until 1972 when he was assassinated. According to accounts, four gunmen shot Karume dead as he played bao (a board game) at the headquarters of the ASP in Zanzibar town.
The attackers were killed and people suspected to have been opposed to Karume’s regime, including Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, who was a minister under the union of Tanzania, was jailed for alleged involvement.
Despite a lack of evidence, they received death sentences three years later but were finally released following an international campaign.