A Personal Tribute to Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad: A Political Icon and Reconciliation Giant

I first met Seif Sharif Hamad on 20 September 2015. I was conducting my research on the political reconciliation (Maridhiano) in Zanzibar. His party, the Civic United Front (CUF) was launching its manifesto at Park Hyatt Hotel, Zanzibar. He was wearing a black suit, blue shirt and a red tie. He was well shaven and his grey beard was well trimmed. Mr. Ismail Jussa, a high ranking party official in CUF, who I had known for a while now introduced me to Mr. Seif Sharif Hamad after the luncheon. Mr. Seif Sharif Hamad was fondly called Maalim Seif. I was excited to finally meet a man I had watched in the news and read so much about in books. He asked me my name and what I do. We discussed briefly about the coming election in October. He was very confident of a win this time around having ‘failed’ on four previous occasions. He had by then served for five years as Zanzibar’s First Vice President in the Government of National Unity (GNU).

With Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad, 2015.

As part of my research on Maridhiano and the GNU, I interacted with Maalim Seif on many occasions in the 2015 election cycle. Most interactions were during CUF’s political rallies in Unguja and Pemba. I was really impressed by his exuberance and passion for Zanzibar. When he stood at the podium to address the crowd, people would go wild. The people loved Maalim Seif. I remember one rally in Nungwi, northern Zanzibar just before the elections. He roused the crowd with his staccato intonation saying that “This time I will not stop anyone from demanding his right.

The youth are here and they are ready. I will be the president Inshallah!” This was greeted with cheer and adulation from the crowd. He would always want to reaffirm his statements with the now famous “Sawa Sawa” catch phrase. His supporters donning CUF branded T-shirts, caps and pins would rise and dance to the songTunataka Nchi Yetu”, which was always played before he addressed the crowd. The song, which is full of symbolisms aroused the nationalistic sentiments of Zanzibar. Maalim Seif would then begin with CUF’s political motto “Haki” and people would uniformly response “Haki Sawa kwa Wote”.

Maalim Seif at a press conference 1 November 2015 in Zanzibar

On 1 November 2015, I attended CUF press conference at their headquarters in Mtendeni. The room was crowded with journalists — local and foreign. I was seated a few meters from Maalim Seif as he read the party’s position regarding the annulment of the election results by Jecha Salim Jecha, the Chairman of Zanzibar Electoral Commission. He was poised and calm as read and took in questions. Besides him were Abubakar Khamis Bakari and Mansour Yusuf Himid. Even when it was evident that his 2015 election victory was stolen, Maalim Seif remained calm and dignified.

On 4 November 2015, he met and held talks with President Jakaya Kikwete in State House Dar es Salaam. He again met with the new President, John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam in December 2015. At this time, the political impasse in Zanzibar as a result of the ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ nullification of the election was fever pitch. He urged his supporters to remain calm. A new date for a rerun election was soon announced by Mr. Jecha. CUF resolved to boycott the election which were held in March 2016. The 2016 rerun election was a charade. The ruling CCM party won by 91% and took all the seats in the House of Representatives.

I visited Maalim Seif in his suite at Serena Hotel Dar es Salaam on 24 March 2016, the day Ali Mohammed Shein was being sworn in as president of Zanzibar. He looked frail and defeated. The smile and confidence he exuded during the campaigns was gone. He had spent almost a month at the hotel recuperating from an illness. My friend Ismail Jussa walked me in to his room. I greeted him and exchanged pleasantries. He was watching BBC News. Understandably so. Bundles of newspapers were on his table. I didn’t spend a lot of time there as there were other guests who were waiting to see him.

Last year around July, I was chatting with my friend Jussa about their party’s preparation for the general election in October. He told me they were ready and Maalim would be running again for the sixth time. We spoke of the political legacy of Maalim. He said I should think of writing a political biography for Maalim after my PhD studies. He asked whether I would need a grant for this work and promised that he would assist me if I decided to take up the task. Of course Thomas Burgess has already written a memoir on Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad — a dual memoir with Ali Sultan Issa. When Jussa was being treated in Nairobi after the brutal 2020 elections, we spoke nonchalantly about these prospects.

My last meeting with Maalim was during a rally at Mtoni, Zanzibar in October, 2020. I was in Zanzibar for my research fieldwork. I was following the elections and rallies were one of my research sites. He arrived in his black Toyota Prado. He used a walking stick. His arrival was greeted with adulation and cheer. Again, Jussa walked me to Maalim to greet him. I greeted him and wished him well ahead of the election that were in two days’ time.

With Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad in October 2020, Mtoni Zanzibar

A few days after the elections ZEC announced that Dr. Hussein Mwinyi of CCM had won the elections with 76% of the vote. Maalim Seif, the seasoned challenger only got a paltry 19% of the votes. These results just proved that the 2020 elections were a sham. Maalim Seif’s supporters were harassed, arrested, injured and killed during and after the elections. But Maalim maintained a spirit of reconciliation that saw him and President Amani Karume in 2009 agree to end the political enmity that had characterized Zanzibar for more than six decades. Even with the shenanigans of the 2020 elections, Maalim Seif still maintained calm and candor. After push and pull of whether his party should join the GNU, which is provided for constitutionally, he accepted and became the First Vice President. I was with Jussa at his hotel room in Nairobi after Maalim took oath of office on 8 December 2020. In his speech he reiterated on the need for grassroots reconciliation and unity — values that epitomized Maalim.

When it was announced that Maalim was hospitalized for COVID19, I was shocked but proud of his frankness. Tanzania has been living in a false reality that the country is COVID19 free after President Magufuli declared it as such. My journalist friend Salma Said wrote me a WhatsApp message on Wednesday afternoon at 13:40 saying “Habari, Maalim kafariki”. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was devastated! I loved and admired Maalim. There is a lot to say about the political life of Maalim. But one thing remains, Maalim was a political icon and a reconciliation giant.