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Tanzania - History

Tanzania History

Although a Tanzanian gorge recently yielded a few bits of our old mate, Homo erectus, little is known about the country's really early history. Recorded history begins around 1800, when the Maasai warrior tribes were migrating from Kenya to Tanzania. While the country's coastal area had long witnessed maritime squabbles between Portuguese and Arabic traders, it wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that Arab traders and slaves dared venture into Maasai territory in the country's wild interior. European explorers began arriving in earnest in the mid-19th century, the most famous being Stanley and Livingstone. The famous phrase 'Dr Livingstone, I presume', stems from the duo's meeting at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika.

As the 20th century loomed, Germany got busy colonising Tanganyika - as the mainland was then known - by building railways and going commerce crazy. If not for the pesky little tsetse fly, the area could have become one vast grazing paddock for the fatherland. But losing the war didn't help the German cause much either, and the League of Nations soon mandated the territory to the British. The Brits had already grabbed the offshore island of Zanzibar, which for centuries had been the domain of Arab traders.

Nationalist organisations sprang up after WWII, but it wasn't until Julius Nyerere founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in 1954 that they became effective. Tanganyika won independence in 1961 with Nyerere as the country's first president. Zanzibar was stuck with its British stiff upper lip for another two years, after which the mainland forged a union comprising Zanzibar and the nearby island of Pemba. Thus Tanzania was born.

But unity and a charismatic first president weren't enough to overcome the country's basic lack of resources. Nyerere's secret ingredient was radical socialism, a brave concept considering the communist paranoia of potential aid donors such as the USA. Under the leader's Chinese-backed reforms, the economy was nationalised, as were great swathes of rental properties, and the better-off were taxed heavily in an attempt to redistribute wealth. The early 1960s saw Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda linked in an unlikely economic threesome, sharing a common airline, telecommunication facilities, transportation and customs. Their currencies became freely convertible and there was free and easy movement across borders. But predictable political differences brought such cosiness to a halt in 1977, leaving the Tanzanians worse off than ever.

Many factors have contributed to the woes of modern Tanzania, and not all have been self-inflicted - it is, after all, one of the world's poorest countries. Even the incorporation of Zanzibar, once one of Africa's richest countries, has only created new problems. Adopting a multi-party political system doesn't seem to have helped much either. Zanzibar and the neighbouring island of Pemba have experienced violent unrest and political scare-mongering ever since an election stalemate on Zanzibar divided the islands. Meanwhile, the mainland - under President Benjamin Mkapa - has had to cope with a flood of Rwandan refugees fleeing fighting in their homeland. In late 1996 the Mkapa government issued a statement backed by the United Nations declaring that Rwandan refugees were to leave Tanzania. Amid reports of excessive force and rape, thousands still remain in Tanzania.

In August 1998, terrorists bombed the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, killing over 250 people and injuring more than 5000. Such tensions have not helped a country already destabilised by long-standing tribal friction, particularly among the Chagga (Mt Kilimanjaro region). It's unlikely Tanzania will dissolve into the tribal conflicts which have haunted neighbouring Rwanda and Kenya over the last few years - certainly not if Mkapa, who was re-elected president in October 2000, has anything to say about it - but political paralysis and deep rifts between minorities look set to stay with Tanzania for a long time yet.

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