Exactly 56 years ago today, Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah of the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar was overthrown, rooting out the 266-year-old oppressive Arab regime.
The uprising that lasted nine hours was carried out by about 600 men led by a 25-year-old Ugandan and a self-proclaimed Field Marshal, John Okello, a Langi from the present-day Alebtong District in northern Uganda. He had gone to the island four years earlier.
According to Don Petterson in his book The Revolution in Zanzibar, the news of that revolution caught the world by surprise, forcing the United States to dispatch spy ships to rule out speculation that in the wake of then on-going Cold War, it was communist Russia or Cuban president Fidel Castro who had taken over the strategic Indian Ocean island.
Okello’s liberation of the island became the central pillar in the process of unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, then two separate countries, to give birth to the United Republic of Tanzania in March the same year.
Born around 1939 to a peasant only identified as Onyok and an undocumented mother in present-day Alebtong District, Okello spent most of his childhood in the grasslands of Lango looking after his father’s cattle.
Okello aged nine and inspired by the story of World War II veterans, escaped from home and ran several miles to catch up with the colonial army recruitment drive in Lira Town. The colonial commissioner for Lango District, however, turned him away.
According to Okello’s book also titled The Revolution in Zanzibar – the publication, distribution and sales of this book were banned by East African governments of the day on account of its sensitivity – his parents were not amused by his action.
“My mother quarrelled with me and wept bitterly. She said one day I would die by the roadside if I went on behaving like that,” he writes. However, his parents did not live to witness their son’s radical accomplishments as they died the years to follow.
Zanzibar before Okello
Prior to the 1964 Zanzibar, no Black person had ever ruled Zanzibar. The island had started millennia earlier as a Black population settlement before 1000AD.
Between 1000-1500AD, the Indian Ocean trade ushered in Arabs, Persians and Asians who settled at the cost and soon established their rule in 37 coastal towns, including Zanzibar, Mogadishu, Mombasa, Malindi, Sofala, Kilwa, Lamu, etc. and ruled the entire coastal areas up to 1497.
However, between 1497 and 1510, Portuguese commanders, including Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alveres, Ray Lourenco and Francisco D’Almeida, on their trade and exploration voyages to Gao, India, bombarded the Arabs and captured the coastal towns and brought them under Portuguese rule. They would exploit the area for the next 200 years.
However, the Arabs did not give up the spirit of regaining their glory at the coast. They made constant attacks on the Portuguese rule which eventually crumbled in 1698.
That same year, Zanzibar fell to Omani Arabs from Muscat led by Sultan Majid bin Said and they would rule the Island with an iron fist for the next 266 years until 1964 when Okello led the revolution that ousted the last Sultanate rule of Jamshid bin Abdullah.
Okello records that at this time, Zanzibar and its northern island of Pemba, had an estimated population of about 300,000 people, out of which only about 40,000 were Arabs but dominated every political, social and economic sphere on the island.
Although only about 30kms from African mainland, the Sultanate regime had declared Zanzibar part of the Arab world and Africans on the island were forced to embrace Arab traditions.
Okello felt that there was a need for a violent revolution if the much needed African liberation on the island was to come. He started moving around the island with a secret message to the masses. “God gave Zanzibar to Africans,” he would say. “Some people stole it from us. It’s time to reclaim what is ours, but not when the British are still around, when they leave, then we strike for we cannot match their power.”
Early in 1963, as the British prepared to grant independence to Zanzibar, elections were held. Although the Afro-Shirazi Party of Abeid Karume won twice, the colonialists who favoured Arabs used “constitutional tricks” to prevent Africans from obtaining power.
Independence was granted to Zanzibar on the December 10, 1963, with Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah as the ruler of the island, but the African fate remained unchanged. Okello writes that by this time, he had mobilised and trained four battalions of about 150 men each and had them stationed in different forests in Zanzibar.
He says in order to submit entirely to the revolution thinking, he spent several days alone in the forest figuring out the best strategic approaches. Okello resolved not to involve prominent political leaders like Karume and the UM party leader Abdulharam Muhamad Babu.
“They are great people and would be a shame if they were killed in the event that we lose,” he wrote. The two had been exiled to Dar es Salaam by the Sultan regime and were undoubtedly shocked upon receiving the news of the revolution which they never expected.
The D-Day, which he had kept secret, came one month after independence on the evening of January 11, 1964, when he led his 600 men to Stone Town where the Sultan lived.
He briefed his men outside the town and armed them with sticks, stones, pangas, axes, as well as bows and arrows.
His first target was the Ziwani armoury where the government weapons were kept. At exactly 3am on January 12, 1964, Okello writes that he ordered his fighters to begin cutting the fencing wire.
He, however, says at this point he realised that the majority of his fighters feared to move on, except about 40 with whom he crawled and stormed the armoury guards who were deep asleep, except one.
Within minutes, the Ziwani armoury was overran by the revolutionaries as the guards fled by the narrow stairway up the building from where they lowered themselves through the window with ropes. Okello lost three fighters.
With the armoury in their hand, Okello’s group obtained the most needed weapons which they used to confront the national troops who had been alerted and were waiting outside.
Within minutes, the battle had left heaps of dead bodies, especially on the side of the government. Survivors fled inside Stone Town.
When the Sultan got the shocking news, he arranged for his escape and fled with his family by boat to Dar se Salam, but the Tanganyika authorities turned him away and he diverted to Mombasa, Kenya, from where he continued to the UK.
By 6am, Okello and his fighters had gained control of the national radio station. In the early morning broadcast, the Zanzibaris were surprised to hear a strange voice with a foreign accent.
“This is John Okello, the Field Marshal of Pemba and Zanzibar. Wake up you imperialists, there is no more imperialist government. Wake up you Blacks, pick the weapons and clear out the remnant of the imperialist government... I am giving the Sultan about 20 minutes to kill his children and wives and later himself, or else Okello will do it.”
This statement set the already grievous Zanzibaris in a sudden state of rampage. They attacked their Arab bosses and neighbours as the war raged on in the countryside.
By evening, more than 13,000 people had been killed, more than 12,000 being Arabs. Meanwhile all government officials, including some of the Sultan’s ministers who did not manage to flee the island, surrendered and pledged total submission to Okello.
Formation of new government
After securing full control of Zanzibar, Okello formed a paramilitary unit named Freedom Military Force that were answerable to him. He also instituted the Revolutionary Council of Zanzibar and when the fighters nominated him, he declined to be president.
Instead he invited the exiled opposition leader Abeid Karume and appointed him president. He also appointed Muhamad Babu prime minister. The two returned from Tanganyika and during the radio talk show that evening, after a brief introduction by Okello, Karume recognised Okello with the following words:
“I am glad to say that under a wise leadership of Field Marshal John Okello we have reached the goal which we alone could not have achieved. I want you to work in unity and to obey Field Marshal Okello like any other person born in this island without discrimination.”
Fall of Okello
By March of that same year, Okello seemed to have outlived his usefulness on the island. Both Babu and Karume feared Okello. They soon started undermining him as a Christian not desirable in the predominantly Muslim island.
Okello says he also suspected the leaders of East Africa at the time – Milton Obote of Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika – got scared of his mobilising abilities. He says the three considered him a dangerous young man whose future threatened their position and together they plotted to get rid of him.
He singled out Nyerere whom he says wanted to unite Zanzibar and Tanganyika and feared that Okello would either want to keep it independent or unite it with Kenya since he was closer to Kenyatta.
In March that same year, Nyerere invited Okello for a meeting in Dar es Salam. As if it had been planned, Karume took advantage of Okello’s absence to accuse him of being an enemy of the state and an unwanted immigrant and was blocked from returning to Zanzibar.
Nyerere also sent his police to Zanzibar to guard the airport against Okello’s return. Okello says his plane later tried to return to the island but was prevented from landing and he returned to Dar es Salaam.
Return to Uganda and death
After several futile attempts to travel to join the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, Okello crossed to Kenya where he was arrested several times. He later crossed to Uganda, but even there Milton Obote wanted nothing to do with him. He later retired to his home village in Alebtong and settled down.
In an interview with this newspaper in 2016, Okello’s widow Erin Akao said he returned to Alebtong in the mid-1960s from where they met and got married. She says on the evening of September 9, 1973, during Idi Amin’s rule, some people came to their home and followed her husband who had travel to Amugo Sub-county to inform his brother about his planned journey to Kampala to buy a car and building materials. He was arrested at Amugo at around 4pm and has never been seen again.
Born around 1939 to a peasant only identified as Onyok and an undocumented mother in present-day Alebtong District, in northern Uganda, Okello spent most of his childhood in the grasslands of Lango looking after his father’s cattle.
Okello aged nine and inspired by the story of World War II veterans, escaped from home and ran several miles to catch up with the colonial army recruitment drive in Lira Town.