Conflict between Kambas and Taitas brewing

There’s growing tension between the Kamba and Taita ethnic groups following a dispute at the highway township of Mtito Andei. Politicians from Coast Province are exploiting the issue to whip up nationalist sentiment while threatening to secede from the rest of Kenya.

Image showing the source of the border conflict between Makueni and Taita Taveta County Councils. Satellite image by Google Maps

Image showing the source of the border conflict between Makueni and Taita Taveta County Councils. Satellite image by Google Maps

It began as nothing more than a storm in a tea cup, centred around a small highway township by the name of Mtito Andei. For many years, the County Councils of Makueni and Taita Taveta have quarrelled over the provincial border that runs either through or alongside the town.

Taita Taveta County Council puts the border at the Mtito Andei River, which means that Mtito Andei town should be under the jurisdiction of Taita District of Coast Province. On its part, Makueni County Council says the provincial border lies outside the township on the way to Mombasa. Makueni County Council therefore puts Mtito Andei township firmly in Eastern Province.

Taita leaders say that during President Jomo Kenyatta’s administration, they used to stand at the Mtito Andei River to welcome the presidential convoy as it drove from Nairobi to Mombasa (See above map). This, they say, is clear evidence that the border between Coast and Eastern lies at the river. The location of the Mtito Andei State Lodge has also added to the controversy.

The root of the dispute between Makueni and Taita Taveta is the collection of revenue from highway businesses at Mtito Andei. The township is located halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa, making it an ideal resting place for truck drivers, tourists and long distance buses. The town’s economy is based on restaurants, lodging houses, bars and petrol stations.

At the moment, control of Mtito Andei and its revenues lies with the Makueni County Council. Taita Taveta Council will find it very difficult to argue its case, considering that 95% of Mtito Andei’s inhabitants are Kamba and prefer living under Makueni County Council rather than Taita Taveta. Besides, the vast Tsavo National Park has created a huge barrier between Mtito Andei and the rest of Taita District, with the nearest Taita villages located at the Taita Hills almost 100km away.

Early this year, Makueni County Council officials worsened tensions by placing a border sign at the Tsavo River bridge, thereby pushing the provincial boundaries 50 kilometres deep into Coast Province. The border sign has since been defaced by persons believed to be allied to the Taita side.

The border dispute has attracted the attention of politicians at the national scene. Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka was at Mtito Andei recently and called for peace. He did not make any concrete statement over the issue but told the local people to await the government’s verdict.

Tourism Minister Najib Balala last week led other legislators from Coast in a scathing attack of the government over this and other issues. Balala claimed that Coast Province had deliberately been left poor and underdeveloped despite contributing to the national economy through the tourism industry and the Port of Mombasa. Balala and his allies accused the government of neglecting the Coastal tribes especially with regards to appointments to top government positions. They pointed at the Mtito Andei dispute as an example of “oppression of the Coast by up-country tribes.”

The group vowed to secede Coast Province from the rest of Kenya in order to keep tourism and port funds to develop the region. They said they will start a movement to that effect. Though these are treasonable words, there is little the government can do against Balala without whipping up ethnic animosity. The situation is complicated because Balala and his group are members of Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s ODM party.

Balala was close to Raila in the run-up to the 2007 elections, but of late, the two do not see eye-to-eye. Balala has maintained a low profile in the past year as he seethes with anger over what he sees as Raila’s betrayal. Balala believes that Raila is sponsoring opponents to challenge him for the Mvita Parliamentary seat in 2012. Balala sees himself as a senior player in Coast politics and has not been happy with Raila’s ties to East African Co-operation Minister Amason Kingi Jeffah (MP for Magarini) and Ali Hassan Joho of Kisauni.

Najib Balala is among those mentioned in the Waki Commission of Inquiry into Post Election Violence. He is accused of paying youths Shs300 per day (US$4) to engage in looting and ethnic clashes in Mombasa. It was Balala who made the infamous “we will confine them to Lesotho” remarks against the Kikuyu tribe. By threatening to confine the Kikuyu to a Lesotho-like enclave, Balala was seen as supporting the forceful eviction of the Kikuyu from wherever they had settled, including Coast Province.

The Mtito Andei issue has given Balala a fresh lifeline to revive his waning popularity by doing what he does best: inciting ethnic hatred.

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