Impending disaster at Likoni Ferry

Frequent breakdown of ferries at the Likoni Channel in raising fears of a major disaster in the making as hundreds of thousands of people put their lives at risk with each crossing.

Passengers and vehicles in one of the Likoni ferries. Picture by the Nairobi Chronicle.

Passengers and vehicles in one of the Likoni ferries. Picture by the Nairobi Chronicle.

In the past six months, the fleet of dilapidated ferries that link Mombasa Island to the southern mainland of Likoni has broken down with alarming frequency. A ferry will stall in the middle of the Kilindini Channel and passengers get stranded for hours before a rescue vessel is sent.

What makes the situation dangerous is that the ferries are often overloaded with people and vehicles and panic could easily tilt a ferry leading to its sinking.

This is exactly what happened on 27th April 1994, when the Mtongwe ferry capsized not far from Likoni and killed 272 of the 400 people on board. Fearful passengers had rushed to one side of the ferry leading to the disaster. Afterwards, it was reported that the legal capacity of the vessel was 300.

The Mombasa economy is in danger of slowing down due to the constant breakdowns. When ferries stall, motorists and travellers on both the island and mainland sides must wait several hours for whatever fault to be rectified. With Likoni being the only link between Mombasa Airport and the tourist hotels of Tiwi and Diani, hoteliers say that they are incurring heavy losses as visitors opt for more accessible locations such as the North coast.

Just last week, a tourist hotel at Tiwi in the South Coast was burnt to ashes because fire fighting engines were delayed at the ferry crossing.

Regional traffic has been adversely hampered by problems with the ferry since the Likoni route is a major link between Mombasa Island and the Tanzanian towns of Tanga, Lunga Lunga and Dar es Salaam.

On its part, the Kenya Ferry Services says it has ordered two new vessels due for delivery in June this year. Mombasa residents are however used to these kind of promises, and are taking the announcement with a pinch of salt. They will only believe it when the ferries finally appear on the horizon east of Mombasa.

The Likoni Channel suffers strong currents from the Indian Ocean. It is feared that a stalled ferry could be carried by powerful waves and dashed onto the rocks with disastrous consequences. Passengers are expressing fear that the aging ferries will one day collide with one of the many cargo ships entering or leaving Kilindini Harbour. Should such an accident involve an oil tanker, there could be a huge explosion at worst or a massive oil spill at the least.

There is currently no viable road transport alternative between Mombasa and the southern mainland. The land route through Kinango is reportedly so bad that motorists would rather wait several hours for the ferry to resume service.

In the past, the Kenyan government has promised to construct a road linking Mombasa’s Moi International Airport with hotels in Likoni, Tiwi, Diani and Shimba Hills but nothing has happened so far. The proposed road will totally be on the mainland, unlike the current situation where travelers from the airport first cross to Mombasa Island via Makupa Causeway then proceed to the Likoni Ferry to reach South Coast hotels. Since the 1980s, the government has also proposed building either a bridge or an undersea tunnel across Likoni but nothing has been done.

This spate of broken promises is the reason why coast people feel that Kenya’s powerful central government is neglecting them. Federalism, or Majimbo, is very popular because Coast people believe they will direct infrastructure development accordingly.

To rub salt water to injury, the Kenyan leadership has announced a 231 billion Kenya Shillings (US$3 billion) plan to build a new port at Lamu, a remote archipelago located close to the border with Somalia. Lamu lacks roads, a railway and an electricity grid. Incidentally, political leaders from Lamu say they were never consulted on the plans.

From the days when the East African coast was ruled by Arab sultans, Lamu and Mombasa have been rivals. The decision by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to relocate the port to Lamu has not gone down well in Mombasa.

If the plans become reality, Mombasa port will lose business as the main entry point for Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Mombasa’s anxiety about Lamu plans

There’s growing worry in Mombasa about the plans to transform Lamu island into a mega-port serving Sudan and Ethiopia.


Diversion of shipping and transport from Mombasa will mark the death of this 1,000 year old city whose ideallic location on East Africa’s coast has been its economic mainstay.

The construction of new roads and railways linking Lamu with the interior is viewed as an example of misplaced priorities considering the dilapidated state of the existing railway line after decades of neglect.

If the Lamu plan becomes a reality, highway towns such as Mariakani, Maungu, Voi, Mtito Andei, Makindu, Mlolongo and Athi River will wither as vehicles get diverted into the bushlands of northern Kenya. Nairobi will also suffer from the loss of business generated by transit traffic.

Meanwhile, transportation experts argue that its cheaper to rehabilitate the Mombasa port, roads and railway links than building new ones in remote areas. In any case, the experts argue, new infrastructure will still have to be maintained.

The economy of Mombasa is completely dependent on both the old and new harbours. The Old Port of Mombasa is the original Arab port. It still handles small vessels plying traditional routes to Zanzibar, Pemba, Somalia and the Middle East.

Kilindini harbour was developed by British colonial authorities in the 19th century to handle large steamships. This is the point where the first plates of the Kenya – Uganda Railway were laid in 1895. The railway was meant to link Mombasa with the Buganda Kingdom, which had allied itself with the British.

Since then, the Kenya – Uganda Railway contributed to the building of the modern Kenya and Uganda states. It opened the interior to trade and settlement. By the 1950s, Kenya had the largest number of European settlers outside Southern Africa. Growing trade resulted in the railway spreading out to Nyeri, Nyahururu, Rongai, Magadi, Eldoret and Butere.

A parallel road transport industry developed over the years, especially after the highway from Mombasa was tarmacked in the 1960s by the government of President Jomo Kenyatta. Today, road transport handles at least 90% of the cargo between Mombasa and the interior due to corruption and mismanagement of the railway.

Regardless of the means of transport in use, the people of Mombasa have turned the port into their honey well. More than 70% of employment in Mombasa is totally dependent on the port. This includes transport companies, clearing agents, travel agents, hotels, manufacturing industries, the service sector, electricity and water supply, the oil industry and local government tax collections.

The tourism industry, which makes up the remaining portion of Mombasa’s economy, is also dependent on the port of Mombasa. Numerous cruise liners and naval vessels that arrive at Kilindini bring into Mombasa thousands of visitors willing to spend wads of foreign currency. The extensive road and railway links from the interior also feeds into this traffic, resulting in the flow of tourists from the Maasai Mara, Mount Kilimanjaro and Nairobi.

There’s no doubt that the port of Kilindini is in urgent need of expansion. Congestion causes delays, which pushes up costs and makes imported goods more expensive. Sometimes, there is so much congestion at Kilindini that ships have to drop anchor in the high seas while waiting for space to become available. Congestion at Kilindini has been attributed to poor management.

Since the early 1980s, there have been plans to expand the port into neighbouring areas. Unfortunately, the plans have never been implemented even as the Kenya Ports Authority makes billions in profits. Instead, the government has tried to de-congest the port through administrative measures that have only worsened the problem and created channels of corruption.

The enactment of container freight stations (CFS) is shrouded in mystery as prominent personalities monopolize the lucrative business. The chances of an ordinary person being awarded a CFS contract is next to impossible.

As political influences paralyze the port, Kilindini harbour is rapidly being overtaken by trends in ship construction. Kilindini cannot handle modern-day giant ships. The sea bed at Kilindini was last dug up by the British in the early 1960s. Since then, the flow of garbage from Mombasa Island and Likoni are filling up the harbour, making it difficult for ships to navigate through the coral reef.

Mombasa only requires dedicated management to reclaim its lost glory as the leading port of East Africa. Mombasa residents are therefore surprised to hear that the government wants to spend colossal amounts of money in building another port hundreds of kilometres away.

If the Lamu project comes into fruition, there will be massive business losses in Mombasa. Employment opportunities will decline and the city’s economy will collapse. Many of the thriving industries that contribute to the coastal economy will cease funtioning.

In short, the port of Mombasa will die out. People will leave in droves seeking better opportunities elsewhere, perhaps at the new Lamu port. What will become of Mombasa? It will be left as a ghost town of deserted buildings, rotting factories and empty hotels. Drugs and crime will be the natural consequence to this sad state of affairs.

Mombasa has survived 1,000 years of Arab, Swahili, Portuguese and British rule. Mombasa has survived floods and droughts, opulence and poverty. Mombasa has risen from the ashes after invasions from both land and sea.

Marauding African tribes, Arab swords and Portuguese cannons have all contributed into what Mombasa has become today: a thriving, multi-cultural phenomenon that has won the admiration of the entire world. Its no wonder that people from across the world want to settle in Mombasa.

It will be unfortunate if an independent African government kills Mombasa. Let us hope that common sense prevails.

Moi lacks moral authority on ethnic clashes

According to the Daily Nation, former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has asked Rift Valley residents who attacked and killed their neighbours during post election violence to apologize.

Daniel arap Moi. Picture by CNN.

Daniel arap Moi. Picture by CNN.

Moi said an apology would lead to true reconciliation between them and the neighbours whose property they destroyed in the violence that followed disputed elections in December 2007. The violence left close to 1,000 people dead and half a million homeless.

However, the former president conveniently forgets that ethnic clashes in Kenya were institutionalized during his tenure of office. Government documents, such as the Akiwumu Inquiry on tribal clashes reveal deep involvement by Moi’s allies in fanning the fires of hatred.

The return to multi party politics prior to the 1992 General Elections created ethnic tension in the country, setting the stage for the chaos of 2008. The genesis of modern ethnic clashes in Kenya lies in the Rift Valley province, home to Moi’s Kalenjin ethnic group.

Kenya has eight provinces. According to electoral law, a winning presidential candidate must get at least 25% of votes in not less than five provinces in addition to a simple majority of national votes. As campaigns for the 1992 elections gained momentum, it was obvious that Kenneth Matiba would get a majority of votes in Central, Nairobi and possibly, Eastern Provinces. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had a chance of getting at least 25% in his native Nyanza, in Western and Nairobi.

Matiba, a Kikuyu, also had strong possibilities of getting 25% in the Rift Valley thanks to the significant Kikuyu settler population. Moi, fearing that he could lose the presidency, began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Rift Valley to ensure that he won the province. Huge chunks of the Rift Valley were declared KANU zones, in reference to Moi’s political party. Moi and his cronies went back to parliament unopposed.

Ethnic wars in 1992 pitted the Kalenjin – Moi’s tribe – with almost all settler communities in the Rift Valley. It was not only the Kikuyu who were affected but large numbers of Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kisii. Non-Kalenjin tribes in the Rift Valley were refered to as, “madoa doa,” meaning, “specks of dirt.” The Rift Valley is also home to the Pokot and Maasai tribes whose politicians were drawn into the Moi alliance, called KAMATUSA. Consequently, Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya settlers were evicted from Pokot and Maasai areas especially around Narok, Enoosupukia and Kapenguria.

The pro-Moi ethnic alliance began calling for Majimbo, a form of federalism. According to such personalities as the late Kipkalya Kones, late Shariff Nassir, William Ntimama and late Paul Chepkok, a federal system of government would ensure that each ethnic group governed itself and had monopoly over jobs, land and commerce within its enclave.

The comments were targetted at the Kikuyu, who have emigrated and settled across the country mostly for economic reasons. Since Kikuyu settlers had a relatively higher standard of living due to commercial activities, the calls for ethnic federalism proved quite popular in the Rift Valley and Coast province.

With the Luo tribe facing persecution due to its oppositionist leanings, both Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his son, Raila Odinga, condemned Moi’s tactics. 30 years earlier, it was Jaramogi and founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, who had turned Kenya into a unitary republic after rejecting Majimbo federalism.

As a result of the ethnic chaos, Moi won the 1992 elections with 36% of the vote.

Five years later, there were politically motivated ethnic clashes prior to and after the 1997 General Elections. This time, the flash points were not only the Rift Valley, but also the Coast. In Mombasa, Sharif Nassir, a Moi ally, led KANU campaigns in the city.

Mombasa was founded by Arab traders almost a thousand years ago. The population of Mombasa and the Coastal strip consists of the Swahili, who are of mixed Arab and African ancestry. There is also the Mijikenda tribe as well as Hindus, Persians and Europeans. The building of the railway and the expansion of the Mombasa port in the 20th century attracted large numbers of workers from the interior of Kenya. The workers came mostly from the Luo, Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba and Taita tribes. In the 1980s, a booming tourism industry attracted greater numbers of migrant workers in search of jobs and business opportunities.

During the 1997 campaigns, Nassir and KANU were worried that migrant workers would not vote for Moi. A campaign for Majimbo federalism was began, with Nassir claiming that migrant workers were taking up jobs at the coast meant for local people. Migrant communities were blamed for crime, prostitution and drug trafficking. As it turns out, the local Mijikenda tribe found these messages very appealing and gave their support to KANU. Then came terror.

In August 1997, a group consisting of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of raiders attacked the Likoni Police Station, just across the bay from Mombasa Port. Police officers were killed, prisoners released and firearms looted. Within the Likoni area, large numbers of Luo and Kikuyu were attacked and forced into trains heading for their ancestral homes. It was rumored at the time that the vanguard of the raiding unit consisted of Interahamwe militia, straight out of the Rwanda genocide. Other rumors indicated that the raiders were led by foreign-trained elite forces loyal to Moi.

Evidence was produced in the Akiwumi Commission of Inquiry implicating senior politicians in the Moi government and KANU party. An Asian farmer in Kwale District alleged that prior to the Likoni violence, his land was used to oath local youths but his reports to the police were ignored.

With Moi declared as winner of the 1997 elections, Mwai Kibaki, who came second, went to court to petition the results. Kibaki claimed that there had been electoral malpractices that gave Moi an unfair advantage over his opponents. Moi’s allies in the Rift Valley were outraged by what they saw as Kibaki’s challenge and a fresh round of ethnic clashes began. Kikuyu settlers in Laikipia District were especially affected by incidences of raiders burning homes and looting livestock.

From this overwhelming evidence, it is clear that Moi should be the first person to apologize as far as ethnic clashes are concerned. Otherwise, his calls for Rift Valley people to apologize can only be considered hypocritical at worst and cynical at best.

Near disaster at Likoni ferry

Thousands of people escaped death narrowly after two overloaded ferries that had stalled at the Likoni channel were caught in ocean currents.

News footage from KTN television showed thousands of panicked people on a ferry drifting on rough seas. The incident evoked memories of the Mtongwe ferry disaster of 1994, where hundreds drowned. Mtongwe is just a couple of kilometres away from yesterday’s ferry incident.

Kenya’s government has been criticized for failing to build a bypass road linking the main highway from Mombasa to Nairobi and the tourist resorts of the South Coast. It is believed that construction of such a highway will cut traffic at the Likoni ferry by at least two-thirds.

Plans for the bypass have been pending for close to 30 years.

Click here for more details on yesterdays ferry scare.

Simmering Coast nationalism hijacked by politicians

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.