In a welcome step, in January 2002, Tanzania's President Benjamin Mkapa announced the creation of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations committed by Tanzanian security forces in Zanzibar a year before. In January 2001, the government security forces violently suppressed political demonstrations in Zanzibar that had been called to protest irregularities in the national elections of October 2000. Security forces - primarily the police, aided by the coastguard and the army - opened fire and assaulted thousands of unarmed demonstrators and others. In the following days, the security forces, joined by ruling party officials and militia, went on a rampage, indiscriminately arresting, beating, and sexually abusing island residents. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least thirty-five people were killed, and over 600 injured. Some two thousand Zanzibaris fled to nearby Kenya. The January 2001 abuses were the most egregious event to date in a pattern of repression by the Tanzanian national authorities, including the local Zanzibar government, against legitimate political opposition on the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar.
The United Republic of Tanzania was formed in 1964 as a union between mainland Tanganyika and the Indian Ocean islands of Unguja and Pemba, which together comprise Zanzibar. Longstanding political tensions have become more overtly exacerbated since Tanzania underwent a transition to multi-party politics in 1992. Following widespread, internationally condemned election fraud in Zanzibar during the October 2000 national elections, Tanzania's major opposition party, the Civic United Front (CUF), called for countrywide protests to take place on January 27, 2001. The CUF also demanded constitutional reform. Broadly supported by other opposition parties, these protests - the largest in the nation's history - were generally peaceful, although there were several incidents of police harassment.