“Colonialism, Ethnicity, And Rural Political Protest”
M. Catharine Newbury 1983
Rwanda and Zanzibar in Comparative Politics
This article stresses the structural variables that contributed to ethnic violence
in two African states, Rwanda and Zanzibar.
The reassessment proposed here explores the relationship between the
colonial state-building process and the emergence of a collective “ethnic”
consciousness among subordinate groups in each state.
On the eve of independence Rwanda and Zanzibar shared man apparent
similarities. The political elites constituted highly privileged minorities
favored by European colonial policy; in both states the end of colonial rule
brought with it a period of violent social revolution.
In this article ethnicity is seen as a dependent variable. The argument will be
made that political centralization and changes in land tenure arrangements
under colonial rule altered class relations and created new forms of ethnic
cleavage in Rwanda and Zanzibar. The perspective reflected in this essay is
based on the conclusion that ethnic groups are not “primordial” categories but
groups based on cultural affinities that become self-conscious communities as
a result of social and political changes. But unlike instrumentalist analyses in
which leaders or elite groups are portrayed as the critical factors in the
politicization of ethnicity, the discussion stresses the important role of non-
elites in forging new forms of political identity.
Colonialism and Political Centralization
European colonialism in both Rwanda and Zanzibar introduced a system of
dual colonialism. Through superior force, prestige, and wealth, the colonial
powers persuaded and often coerced the incumbent elite (Arabs in Zanzibar,
Tutsis in Rwanda) to serve as intermediaries for colonial administration. The
Arab rulers of Zanzibar and the Tutsi rulers of Rwanda lost much of their
autonomy; but they obtained new and more effective forms of power, which
1could be used to consolidate a position of superiority vis-à-vis the populations
The former sultanate of Zanzibar consists principally of two islands, Zanzibar
and Pemba, lying off the coast of East Africa. During the 19 century, large
numbers of mainland African people were brought to Zanzibar as slaves. After
the departure of the Portuguese in the 17 century, Zanzibar and Pemba were
for many years under the nominal control of Arab governors. During the 19 th
century, the sultan and his Arab followers gradually imposed control over the
local rulers in Zanzibar and Pemba. The policy of appointment by the sultan
became fully operative only during the time of formal British overrule (after
During the colonial period, Rwanda was a centralized kingdom incorporating
three major groups: the Tutsi (16%), the Hutu (83%), and the Twa (1%). Tutsi
tended to be pastoralists, Hutu were more commonly agriculturists, and Twa
were often hunters or potters. Unlike
Unlike Zanzibar, which had experienced continuous European influence from
the early 19 century, Rwanda entered into contact with Europeans only at the
very end of the century. In 1916, Rwanda subsequently came under Belgian
rule. Under European rule, the process of hierarchialization was intensified to
serve the interests of colonial administration. It was a basic tenet of Belgian
policy in Rwanda that Europeans should instruct local elites in how to govern
effectively (actually to administer effectively) through a form of indirect rule.
The impact of administrative changes in these two states was twofold. On the
one hand, colonial rule placed new power resources of great magnitude in the
hands of the administrative elite. On the other hand, the centralization of
power greatly increased differentiation among social groups.
In the rural areas of Rwanda and Zanzibar control over land is an important
indicator of wealth and also of power. In the Zanzibar economy, cloves
assumed increasing importance during the 19 century.
In both Rwanda and Zanzibar demographic growth during the European
colonial period exacerbated competition for land resources. But even more
2important was the commercialization of economic life that occurred as each
state became more closely integrated into the world economy.
Zanzibar’s economy as well as government revenues came to depend
increasingly on clove production. The development of clove cultivation
significantly transformed land tenure arrangements. On Zanzibar Island the
less fertile regions had preserved apparently long-standing form of land
tenure: rights of habitation and cultivation were based on membership in
corporate kin groups. The other major form of landholding on Zanzibar Island
consisted mainly of clove plantations held by individual tenure. During the 19 th
century, the Hamidu who held rights over this land were progressively
dispossessed; Arabs forcibly acquired the land, using slave labor to plant clove
trees. Most of the non-Arabs who lived in the clove plantation region of
Zanzibar were squatters. In the clove areas of Zanzibar Island, then, the
political-economic elite had acquired control over land in a way that gave rise
to patron-client linkages between the Arab (or Asian) landowners and their
non-Arab subordinates, most of whom owned no land.
During the 20 century the development of the Zanzibar economy had led to
significant changes in the status of squatters. Squatters suffered an abrupt
reduction in status and security that threatened their very subsistence. This
trend and the efforts by Arab and Asian landowners to abolish the squatter
system altogether in the 1957-1963 period were important factors catalyzing
the rebellious potential of the rural areas of Zanzibar Island.
Landholding patterns on Pemba differed from those on Zanzibar in three
principal ways. Unlike the fertile areas of Zanzibar, those of Pemba are more
evenly distributed. Second, there was a much greater proportion of smaller
plantations there than there was on Zanzibar. Finally, the observable tensions
between landowners and squatters in Zanzibar during the late 1950s had not
arisen. These factors led to a greater intermingling of groups; a separate
landowning aristocracy defined exclusively as Arabs did not develop in Pemba
as it did in Zanzibar.
Perhaps the most significant contrast between administrative officials in
Rwanda and in Za