HC Deb 03 February 1956 vol 548 cc1303-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Barber.]

4.1 p.m.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

I had hoped we might have had a debate before Christmas on the subject of the political position in Zanzibar, but the luck of the draw does not always favour one, and we have had to wait until February to discuss a subject which has been causing a good deal of concern in that small island for many months past.

This topic has not been discussed in the House for a considerable time, so perhaps I might remind hon. Members that there are in Zanzibar rather more than a quarter of a million people of mixed racial origin. The latest figures that I have been able to obtain show that about three-quarters of the population is African, but of those a very large number have lived on the island for many centuries and are known as the indigenous African population, and have intermingled with some of the invading Persian and Arabic peoples of earlier centuries. Included also is a smaller number of those who have come more recently from the mainland territories.

About 17 per cent. are Arabs, roughly 6 per cent. are Indians or persons of Pakistan origin and there is a very, very small number indeed of other communities—with a European population of 0.1 per cent. In other words, in Zanzibar we have not, as in some of the eastern African territories, a settler population.

The members of the European community are there mainly as missionaries, traders, etc., who will return to their home country at the end of their career.

For a long time past Zanzibar has been a particularly happy community where people of different races have lived side by side without any strong social or political difficulties. From the last official Report on Zanzibar it is clear that in the schools people of different races sit side by side. All Government-assisted schools are open to children of all races and creeds; that is to say, all post-primary schools and a number of primary schools as well. To give another example, in the City of Zanzibar the civic centre is in Ngambo, which is primarily an African area, and while it remains the principal centre of communal activity for the African population of the town, it is much used by people of all races. Again, in broadcasting, the chief language used is Kiswahili, a language which is understood by the great majority of the population. There is no discrimination in sport, and all sections of the community compete and play together.

One therefore has the unusually happy position that while there are certainly differences there are also many factors which make for a population living on a friendly and happy basis under the beneficent rule of His Highness the Sultan, which has its social value, too, in making those who live in Zanzibar feel that they are part of one society. There is also a greatly predominant Moslem following, although there are some Christians there. So far as I can understand the position, one does not find very strong differences on religious grounds either.

I have said all this because I think it is necessary to have this background in mind in discussing the immediate problem. The present disputes in Zanzibar centre upon proposals for constitutional reform. I think it is right to say that discussions have been going on since about 1947 on this matter. I have a document here which is unfortunately undated, which is most reprehensible, but which appears from internal evidence to be pre-Rankine. It is a long memorandum upon constitutional reform in which it is suggested that only the Arabs and the Asians should have elected members. It sets out a rather complicated explanation of what the single transferable vote might mean.

However, since then there have been published in Zanzibar the proposals known as the Rankine proposals, from the name of the former British Resident, and it is those which have been accepted by the present official Legislature, but which are being very strongly disputed by various bodies of persons in Zanzibar itself. In fact, they are being disputed so strongly that the Arab Association has boycotted both the Legislature, for the last eighteen months or so, and also, as I am informed in a cable which I received yesterday from Zanzibar, has so far refused to meet Mr. Coutts, who is there to consider the particular suggestions as to how the members of the proposed reformed Legislature should be selected.

In addition to the objections from the Arab Association, there has emerged within the last few months another political association which is primarily African in composition and which, as I understand it, has very much the same objects as the Arab Association. I am told that the name of this new party is the Zanzibar Nationalist Party of His Highness's Subjects, but in short it is called the Nationalist Party. Its representatives have in fact been prepared to see Mr. Coutts but they have made demands on him which go very much wider than his own terms of reference. In other words, they are not satisfied with the Rankine proposals. They are demanding universal franchise on a common roll, a predominantly elected legislature and responsible Ministers.

The Rankine proposals do go a little further than the present Legislature. It is proposed that there should be in the first place a Privy Council to advise the Sultan and that he should no longer preside over the Executive Council. That seems to be a very suitable arrangement to safeguard the prerogative and dignity of the Sultan, while keeping him above the day-to-day difficulties of politics. With that I have no quarrel at all.

It is also suggested that there should be nominated unofficial members of the Executive Council in addition to the ex officio and official members as at present. That there should be some unofficial members is again an advance and all to the good. It is proposed to increase the membership of the Legislative Council itself from seventeen to twenty-five members. It is suggested that there should be twelve representative members, all nominated, for the time being at any rate, but while fixed numbers from the different communities should not be laid down by Statute, in practice four Arabs, four Africans, three Asians and probably one European should be nominated.

One might ask why this step, which is certainly some advance, is not found satisfactory by the bodies which are protesting so vehemently against it. I think the most important reason is that they feel that something more specific should be done to give expression to the sentiment which is widely held. I am told, in Zanzibar that Zanzibar is not a community in which matters should be arranged on a communal basis if that can possibly be avoided, whether formal or informal.

In addition to the discussions on the central government, in the past eighteen months or so we have had a Report on the municipal government of Zanzibar Town Council prepared by Mr. Vasey, who is now Finance Minister in Kenya and was formerly Mayor of Nairobi. In his Report he makes a suggestion which would, with proper safeguards, make no discrimination in the membership of the municipal body between persons of different communities. He suggests that there should be elections upon a common electoral roll; that there would be some restrictions on those who were qualified for that roll, but that would apply equally to all persons. Then he makes suggestions whereby one could reassure the communities in the meantime, until they see how this proposal would work out, by providing three reserved seats for nominated members. They could be used, and should be used, to keep a balance if one community were under-represented. He also recommends six aldermanic seats, which might have the same effect.

I believe that some comparable safeguards might very well have been devised for the legislature, and that it is not impossible, in such a community as Zanzibar, to envisage the position in which one might have an electoral system without distinction of the communities to which the electors belonged, provided that one was also prepared to have some kind of safeguards, certainly in the interim period, until one felt that the machine was working smoothly.

Can the Minister tell me precisely which of the Vasey recommendations have been accepted? The Secretary of State did not make it clear in his Answer in December. I should also like to know why there has been some delay in implementing this Report, which Mr. Vasey hoped might come into operation last July and which it is now hoped might come into operation next July. Would it not have been more statesmanlike to have pressed ahead with this smaller experiment and to have obtained agreement on it?

One would then have been in a stronger position to say to those who are now opposing the Rankine reforms, "At least we have gone all this way in municipal affairs. Would you not be prepared to wait a year or two to see how that works out and in the meantime co-operate with the proposals for the central legislature?" That could have been done.

There is another point of criticism in which I have a good deal of sympathy with those who are in opposition to the proposals. I do not say that I support boycotts, because I always think such a negative attitude is not helpful and that at least one should discuss matters— although I must recognise that where there is no electoral system it is not easy for people to make their opinions felt without resorting to that kind of negative action.

I must say that I feel a good deal of sympathy with those who object to the nature of the Coutts inquiry, claiming that it is too restricted. Without casting any kind of aspersion on Mr. Coutts personally, I think it is a pity to have brought into Zanzibar someone without experience of Zanzibar, but with experience of Kenya, where conditions are quite different. He was asked to undertake the inquiry in Kenya for very good reasons, but conditions in Zanzibar, with a very strong Arab influence, are entirely different.

I am also inclined to think that it would have been more statesmanlike to have done what was asked for by the Arab Association and brought in someone who is known to have considerable constitutional knowledge—which I do not think Mr. Coutts would pretend to have—someone of standing, who could have considered these matters more widely.

I want to leave the Minister time to reply and will not go into very much more detail, but I think it unfortunate that one should in any way associate conditions in Zanzibar with those in either Kenya or Tanganyika. Again and again, from correspondence that I have had, I have found objection taken to references to either Kenya or Tanganyika. There is a reference to Tanganyika in the dispatch from the present British Resident. The disparities of the societies are not comparable in range with those in Tanganyika, with a small settler population, and in Kenya, with a large settler population. They are quite different from the range of difference in population in Zanzibar.

It is most unfortunate that there should be this failure to win the co-operation of those who oppose the proposals, even if the people concerned are being rather difficult. There is strong feeling on this matter, and it is a great pity not to win their co-operation. They have some connection with the Arab world. A great many of the young Arabs have been to Khartoum and some to Cairo. They hear Cairo radio. It would be a great pity if they were to adopt an indifferent, negative and unco-operative attitude because a rather wider view is not taken of their problems and because of their feeling that the matter should be dealt with at a higher level.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say something which will show that he appreciates that Zanzibar is different from other East African territories, that there is a better opportunity for doing something there on a non-communal basis, and that those asking for a wider inquiry have some justification for so doing.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. John Hare)

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) for raising the subject of Zanzibar on the Adjournment because, as she said quite rightly, it is a long time since we had an opportunity of discussing the problems which affect that territory.

I am grateful because it gives me this opportunity of explaining to the House and to the outside world the difficulties which Her Majesty's Government are having and—I wish to be quite frank about them—in putting into practice proposals for a greater measure of self-government in Zanzibar and Pemba. I should like to answer the questions of the hon. Lady in the course of my remarks, and I hope that she will forgive me if I do not pick them up at once at the beginning of my speech as I should like to give the background to the problem.

Quite bluntly, the main problem we have had to face is the refusal of the leaders of the Zanzibar Arab Association to co-operate. That is the main factor which has rather bedevilled the whole situation. I should like to give the facts as clearly and fairly as I can. The hon. Lady explained in her opening remarks that the Arab community represents rather less than a quarter of the population and the population is rather more than a quarter of a million. Although they do not represent in any way a majority, I would be the first to say that the Arabs have made a most important contribution to the history, economy and leadership of the Protectorate. I agree, also, that the co-operation of the Arabs is essential if we are to get peaceful advancement in Zanzibar and Pemba.

I should like to tell the House how it is that after so many years of harmonious progress, which the hon. Lady outlined in her speech, these Arab leaders should now be withholding their co-operation and support from the Sultan's Government and from Her Majesty's representative. The hon. Lady mentioned the fact that representations were also being put forward by the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, but I assure her that the main source of obstruction to these proposals has come from the Arab Nationalist organisation.

As long ago as 1951, the British Resident made it known that he was anxious to promote measures of constitutional reform. He consulted the leading members of the community on the shape which those reforms should take. I think that the approach he made was generally welcomed but he was not able at that time to reconcile the conflicting views which were expressed, on the one hand, by the Asians and on the other hand, by the Arab communities.

In 1952 and 1953, Sir John Rankine put forward his proposals after a great deal of quiet and determined consultation on his part. Therefore, it was in April, 1954, that he was able to inform Her Majesty's Government that he had secured the agreement of the representatives of all communities on the Legislative Council to the really important measures of reform which he had put to them. I stress that among those who agreed to these proposals was Sheik Ali Muhsin, who at the moment is perhaps the leader of those who oppose our proposals.

I shall not describe these measures in detail because they were set out fully in an exchange of despatches, published last October, between the British Resident and my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary. Briefly, they provided for the appointment of local people to the Executive Council, for their increased representation in an enlarged legislature and for the formation of a Privy Council of official and unofficial members to advise His Highness the Sultan. As the hon. Lady said, these proposals did not provide for the introduction of elections to the Legislative Council as the next immediate step. I emphasise, however, that my right hon. Friend by no means closed the door to this development, nor was it his wish that elections should be long delayed.

My right hon. Friend made ft clear— and what has happened since has emphasised that he was right in doing so—that he was not yet satisfied that the people of Zanzibar as a whole were ready or willing to embark on an electoral system. He pointed out that the communities varied very greatly, both with reference to each other and within their own membership, in the understanding of political problems which elections would require. He thought they wanted more time to think it over. He therefore welcomed the appointment of Mr. Coutts to investigate the most suitable method of choosing the unofficial members of the Legislative Council. Incidentally, Mr. Coutts' experience is not only confined to Kenya. He had considerable experience of smaller, complex communities in the West Indies. In fact, he was the administrator of the Virgin Islands. I think the hon. Lady would agree that he has just done a fine job of work in Kenya. I put it to the House and to the people in Zanzibar that there was nothing unreasonable or illiberal about these proposals or the way in which we presented them.

I now have the less happy task of recounting the difficulties which had already arisen when they were put forward and the way in which they were received by certain of the Arab leaders. I have said that in April, 1954, the British Resident had obtained the agreement of the representatives of the Arabs as well as the other communities to his proposals; but in the summer of that year, the same Arabs said that they no longer supported the proposals and that, in fact, they were totally unacceptable to them. Without affording any opportunity for discussion, the Arabs withdrew their cooperation from the Sultan's Government. I wholeheartedly agree with what the hon. Lady said in that neither of us supports this idea of boycott. Two of the Arab leaders, in fact, resigned from the Legislative Council and the third ceased to attend its meetings.

What was the reason for all this? I think it was due to the fact that the Sultan's Government, after a number of warnings, prosecuted the executive of the Arab Association in their capacity as publishers of a newspaper which was publishing seditious articles. I do not want to make a great deal of this incident, but the editor paid a fine of £550 and the others were bound over. I cannot accept the suggestion that has been made, not by the hon. Lady but in other circles, that this development warranted a sudden change on the part of these Arab leaders in their political views or justified the very drastic action which they took.

I think that there is no doubt that the present Resident has gone out of his way to try to get the Arabs to renew their co-operation. It has been his endeavour to secure that co-operation that has caused the delay in the publication and discussion of the constitutional proposals. It was the Resident's idea to ask Mr. Coutts to carry out this further inquiry. Mr. Coutts has now finished his inquiry, but he has not yet submitted his report, so I cannot say what it contains, but I shall be very surprised—I think the hon. Lady would like to know this—if it did not contain constructive proposals for further consideration in Zanzibar.

I can find very little to substantiate the claims of these Arab leaders that in their demands for a common roll they are representing the majority of the Sultan's subjects. My latest information is that large numbers of the Shirazi Africans from all over Pemba Island have said that while they accept the new constitution they are not yet ready for a common roll elections because the necessary trust does not exist between the various communities.

What should be done now? I think that the people of Zanzibar should carefully consider the proposals which Mr. Coutts will shortly put forward. As far as Mr. Vasey's proposals are concerned, I think that the vast majority of the ones which are of significant importance have been adopted and recognised.

Mrs. White

Including his proposals for an electoral system based on rates?

Mr. Hare

They do include that. The electoral roll will be based on the liability to pay rates, and, based on that, people will vote.

I have not very much time left, so I will end by repeating what I said at the beginning, that I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for having raised this subject, and I would add that intimidation and sullen hostility do not provide a background that makes for a happy and successful settlement of constitutional problems. I would appeal to the Arab community and to all who have influence over them to play a proper part in the constitutional development of these islands. We can, of course, proceed with-out them, but it would be a thousand pities if we had to do so. The rest of the community, who are a large majority, must not be sacrificed because of the Arab recalcitrance.

I think that the majority have undoubtedly made it clear that they wish to participate in the proposals we have in mind. It is the wish of the Government that the Arab population should play their part in working out these proposals. I hope that good sense and responsibility will prevail and that the Arab community will grasp the hand of friendship that the Government have never ceased to hold out to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.