The arrest of three men in Kwale, for links with the Republican Council of Mombasa, demonstrates that the fire of Coast nationalism simmers amidst the humid flatlands and beaches of the Indian ocean. However, Coast nationalism has numerously been hijacked by politicians causing even greater frustration for a people who feel at the periphery of Kenya’s social and economic development.
Local police say the three men, all from the Mijikenda tribe indigenous to the Coast, were inciting youth in Kwale District to raid police stations. This brings back memories of the Likoni clashes of August 1997, where a police station was raided, at least five officers killed, prisoners freed and weapons looted. The raid on the Likoni Police Station sparked off an orgy of ethnic killings targetting mostly people from the interior of Kenya, or upcountry people.
It is because of those memories that Kenya’s Police are anxious to act now. Once again though, the hand of politics is making itself felt through former Kisauni legislator Anania Mwaboza, who has come out to represent the three men. Mwaboza, who is from the same ethnic group as his clients, has challenged the police to either present tangible evidence or release the men without charge.
The Republican Council of Mombasa first made the news last year, when dozens of youth from the Mijikenda tribe were found receiving military training in forests just south of the coastal city of Mombasa. Though the group later fizzled into obscurity, its re-emergence this year goes to show that there still exists certain factors that give such groups ample recruits. That factor has been dubbed, Coast nationalism.
Since Kenya’s independence, the people inhabiting Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast have felt left out in the country’s political and economic decisions. Renowned writer, V. Shiva Naipaul visited Kenya just before the death of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In his book, “North of South,” Naipaul narrates a visit to the coast, where he felt as though the area, which has a history stretching 1,000 years was under occupation by upcountry people.
The Justice Akiwumi Report on the Likoni clashes provides a comprehensive account of the history of Coast nationalism. Here, the Nairobi Chronicle presents excerpts:
“Even though the Likoni and Kwale area is multi-cultural, it can be described as dichotomous in terms of the regional and religious background of its inhabitants. The inhabitants are split between the predominantly Muslim coastal majority and the predominantly Christian upcountry minority. Because of low education levels, the Muslim coastal majority constitute most of the unemployed at the coast, whilst the Christian upcountry minority form the more economically developed inhabitants. In turn, the upcountry people prefer to employ their own people rather than the coastal people. Mijikenda youth were on the whole, unemployed, idle and hungry. This constituted a fertile ground which was waiting to be exploited to wreck vengeance upon the perceived oppressors from upcountry.”
The Justice Akiwumi Report mentioned prominent persons at the Coast who used Coast nationalism to their advantage. In 1997, there was a General Election and KANU capitalized on Coast nationalism to popularize itself through the likes of the late Shariff Nassir and late Karisa Maitha.
Before 1997, Karisa Maitha made a name for himself by presenting the radical face of Coast nationalism. When former President Daniel arap Moi was fighting the Islamic Party of Kenya of Sheikh Balala, it was Karisa Maitha’s United Muslim Association (UMA) that mobilized Mijikenda youth to support Moi using violence. Going back to the 1970s, Karisa Maitha got into national politics through former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who thought he could use Maitha’s influence among Mijikenda youths in his national power schemes.
In the 1990s, calls for federalism – or Majimbo – gained popularity at the coast. It was felt that an autonomous Coast province would provide jobs, business opportunities and development funds for indigenous people and at the local level. During campaigns for the 2007 General Election, the Orange Democratic Party Kenya (ODM-K) of Kalonzo Musyoka, Raila Odinga, Najib Balala, Musalia Mudavadi and William Ruto promised to enact a Majimbo constitution once in office. The announcement of Majimbo was the biggest reason why the Orange side gained massive popularity at the coast.
Well, we all remember that Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka eventually parted ways.
When it became clear that Majimbo was increasing inter-ethnic tensions in Kenya, Kalonzo, who is now Vice President, changed his mantra to “economic federalism.” Raila, who was running on the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), promised that he would implement the original version of Majimbo. Raila won majority votes at the coast mostly because of Majimbo. Today, Raila is Kenya’s Prime Minister and he will have to negotiate with President Mwai Kibaki’s PNU which is completely opposed to any form of federalism in Kenya. Nevertheless, President Mwai Kibaki was not averse to using Coast nationalism for his political survival during the 2007 campaigns.
After the 1997 Likoni clashes, there arose the Shirikisho Party, founded by radicals in Coast nationalism. During the 2002 elections, Shirikisho had candidates in all constituencies of Coast Province, from Lamu to Taveta and from Tana River to Kwale. However, the party did not fare well and only managed to win the Likoni constituency seat through Mr Rashid Shakombo, whose name featured prominently during investigations into the 1997 Likoni clashes.
In 2002, with the ODM making a rallying call for Majimbo, the Shirikisho Party appeared to Kibaki strategists as likely to achieve wide popularity. Kibaki’s pointmen at the coast, such as Chirau Ali Mwakwere of Kwale and Morris Dzoro quickly jumped ship to Shirikisho. In party elections, Mwakwere was declared the party leader then promptly entered into an alliance with President Kibaki. Coast people were outraged by the move and abandoned Shirikisho in droves. By December 2007, Shirikisho was nothing more than an empty shell that could not win a single seat in the entire province. As far as coast people are concerned, Shirikisho became synonymous with traitors to the common cause with Mwakwere as the agent of the oppressors.
Mwakwere himself got re-elected on the PNU ticket. Not only was he anointed as a Mijikenda elder/spokesman, but Mwakwere used combative slogans in his campaigns. He would sing about sharks attacking enemies, leaving little doubt on the true meaning of his message. Of course, while in Nairobi, he professed full support for the concept of national unity.
From these trends, it is clear that Coast nationalism has been hijacked by Kenya’s national leadership to achieve political ends that, unfortunately, have not done much to address the plight of coastal peoples. Well, perhaps the people of the coast province are misguided for blaming outsiders for their problems but it does not discount the fact that the poorest people in Kenya are to be found here. Isn’t the poorest constituency in Kenya in Coast province?
In spite of hundreds of people killed across the past twenty years and massive destruction of property, the lot of the coastals is yet to change. Poverty is endemic, illiteracy is growing while young people succumb to early marriages and beach prostitution. Belief in witchcraft can be cited as a major culprit in the poverty of the coastal region. Suspicion of other Kenyan tribes as well as inward-looking attitudes make coast people afraid to venture into the interior of Kenya. For instance, it is easy to find a Kikuyu waiter in Lamu, or a Kisii matatu driver in Mombasa, or a Kamba tour guide in Ukunda. But what are the odds of finding a Giriama fisherman in Kisumu? What are the chances of encountering a Pokomo shopkeeper in Kitale? Absolutely nil! Zero!
Coast people can be just as hardworking as any body else but they need – we need – to realize that politicians are empty vessels full of noise that cannot feed the stomach. Its good to be proud of your heritage and therefore there’s nothing wrong with Coast nationalism. But cultural pride should not be used to hurt other Kenyans who are here because they are looking for a living. If they can come here, you are free to go from wherever they came from.
Perhaps the best gift that politicians can give Coast people is to turn Coast nationalism into an impetus for positive action that will result in the prosperity of all: Arab, Mijikenda, European and upcountry people.
Written by Stanley M. Mjomba, Coast affairs correspondent for the Nairobi Chronicle.
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