Zanzibar consists of several islands the three largest being Unguja, Pemba and Tumbatu. These islands are in the Indian Ocean off the coast of the mainland of Tanganyika. (Tanzania is the combined name of Zanzibar and Tanganyika.) Unguja some 36 km off the coast, is the larger island and commonly referred to as "Zanzibar." This island is home to the world famous "Stone Town" and encompasses about 1, 464 sq km. Pemba is somewhat smaller with some 868 sq km. Overall, Zanzibari history was shaped by the traders from Arabia, Asia, and Europe intermingling with the local Bantu tribes. Thus, over the centuries the trade in spices, metals and slaves left its mark on the island. In 2012, the prospect of hydrocarbon deposits may continue this trend.
Ancient Persian traders (around 606 BC) are noted as being the first to settle along the coast for good. The Persian immigrants mixed with the local Bantu creating the Wahadimu, Wahtumbatu and Washirazi tribes. The Persian influx left a long lasting cultural mark. Until today the festival of Newruz (New Year, Mwaka Kogwa) is celebrated on the Islands. Subsequently, Arabs settled on the Island. Today some 95 percent of Zanzibaris are Muslims of various denominations. In particular the Omani settlers found a new home. The Omani-Bantu settlements were the first to be called Swahili. Later Asians from modern day India, and Chinese traders also took residence in Zanzibar. Around 1503, Portugal controlled the waters of the Indian Ocean, and collected taxes on the Islands. By 1652, the Portuguese were ousted, and by 1830 both Islands belonged to a larger Arab/Omani state under the leadership of a Sultan. Around 1890 Zanzibar became a British Protectorate. (The Zanzibari scholar Amir A. Mohammad wrote in detail about his homeland´s past in: A Guide to the History of Zanzibar.)
Mohammad also outlines the challenges Zanzibar faces today. He worries about the growing mistrust between resident ethnic groups, and religious antagonism. He also sees corruption, dictatorship, and power plays by elected leaders creating discontent. Discontent is further fueled by high unemployment and lack of higher education. Poverty trends do not improve. In his view, these trends have stopped the Zanzibaris process of democratization. More importantly, Zanzibaris feel the political union with the mainland has been imposed on them.
The potential for hydrocarbon wealth also creates political disagreement. Some 17 hydrocarbon exploration companies are carrying out work in the waters around the islands. The Antrim Energy Cooperation of Canada reports proven hydrocarbon reserves around Pemba Island, Tanzania (not to be confused with Pemba, Mozambique.) These hydrocarbons mean wealth. The potential of wealth has contributed to conflicts with the Union. The main questions are: Who will profit most? Will Zanzibar share with the mainland or seek separation? Will the Zanzibari population at large profit or will the wealth vanish in unknown pockets? Will the possibility of wealth and the sharing disagreements unleash the conflict now brewing underground? One can only wish the best for the Zanzibaris; hopefully, they are able to utilize democratic processes to overcome their challenges.