Founding a Democracy


Colonial Past

Like so much of Africa, Tanzania was formerly a colonial outpost, passed back and forth between various western nations during the “Scramble for Africa” of the 1880s.

Even before that, though, Tanzania had outside rulers. Since 1832, the Sultans of Oman had directly ruled Zanzibar, just off the coast of Tanzania, and an important point of departure for trade in expensive spices, ivory, and slaves. Though Tanzania was still a land of often-warring tribes at the time, the interior was ruled from this seat on Zanzibar, whose influence was especially strong along the coast. 

But western nations couldn’t let such a rich prize just sit there, and over the years, the British insinuated themselves into Zanzibar, becoming the effective “rulers behind the ruler,” while the Germans snatched up lands in the interior of modern-day Tanzania

The British and Germans squabbled over East Africa for a time, but after World War I, the British emerged as the mostly-absent colonial rulers of Tanganyika, the country’s name at the time.

A Modern Democracy

In 1954, Julius Nyerere helped form the Tanganyika African National Union, an organization whose main goal was to achieve independence for the country. He became minister of British-ruled Tanzania in 1960, and oversaw the peaceful transition to independence in 1961, after which Nyerere continued as the first, much-beloved President of the country.

The fledgling democracy opted to adopt Swahili as the official national language, a way to bind together the 120+ different cultural groups that called the country home. The knowledge that so many disparate peoples and ways of life had to live in harmony led to a spirit of tolerance that has persisted to this day, and helped Tanzania maintain peaceful democracy even while other African countries were ravaged by civil war.

So how did Tanganyika become Tanzania? Simple: at the time of independence, Zanzibar decided to join with Tanganyika; the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar was commemorated in the name of the new country they were forming: Tanzania.