Kenya: Postcolonial Imperial Hangover

I distinctly remember watching on television with concern how young men from the Coast province of Kenya were ambushed and rounded up by security forces who busted them in the midst of military training with homemade wooden rifles a few years ago. Given the ragtag nature of this wannabe “army,” my initial reaction was to dismiss them as a bunch of loonies. But a few months to roughly a year later, I again saw in the news this time a group of well-clad young men being frog-marched by police in the streets of Mombasa, the second biggest and oldest trading city in Kenya on the Indian Ocean that is also home to the country’s naval force. This group, it was later to emerge was the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) that is no doubt one of the biggest headaches for Kenya’s political leadership, and to some extent a great concern to the international community of nations considering the geo-political significance of Mombasa, which is a remarkable commercial and military nerve centre. The MRC has dominated national news for the last few months as their secessionist demands have hit a new high octave. These young men, women and children are not a passing cloud that can be wished away and their existential frustrations and subsequent pain and distress motivating them to secede from Kenya after almost fifty years ought to be an issue of great concern to all.

Watching those poor chaps being dragged to the waiting police truck, as a trained historian with the cause of ordinary and marginalized people very close to the heart of what I do I thought to myself: “There but by the grace of Allah go I.” It is then that I embarked on the quest for what motivated my compatriots and mostly angry age-mates from Pwani, as the coast region of Kenya is called. That is because as a young man I identify and empathize with their plight and cause but only to a certain extent.

NOT YET UHURU: THE CASE OF PWANI

Many years after independence, sections of the Kenyan population still live in landlessness and abject poverty. The good thing is that they are slowly stirring to political consciousness and social action to demand their fair share of the fruits of independence or uhuru. This is clearly borne out in the group’s poorly-thought-out and hastily sketched manifesto that seeks redress with regard to education and healthcare facilities as well as ensuring a substantial share of benefits accruing from local and foreign beach-tourism for residents of the region. This is perhaps why the MRC should not stop its demands, considering that the Coast, among other regions, has been unduly marginalized since independence in this regard. Although the MRC manifesto makes for bad reading, the key question and problem, and therefore, grievance of land as stated therein is particularly outstanding and eloquent. These issues are timely now that the MRC has “sympathetic” election-related attention from the powers that be, although this new “concern” is bedeviled by double-speak, which means politicians’ promises cannot quite be taken to the bank. I, therefore, urge the MRC to stick to their guns –but not literally, of course.

The landless situation and consequent poverty and pauperization in the Coast are deplorable and I duly commiserate with the MRC. Needless to say, the eyesore of absentee land ownership is most obvious and acutely felt in the Coast. Having said that, I must advise the MRC to seriously consider dropping their factually flawed and almost childish wish of thinking that “Pwani si Kenya.” [The Coast is not part of Kenya] That is, the ill-advised and doomed secession ambition. Here the lesson of the history of the Ten-miles Coastal Strip of the land of the Zanj stretching from Vanga near the Tanzanian border all the way up to Faza Island near Somalia is instructive. On the strength of historical knowledge, I would herein like to counsel the MRC youth and tell them the resounding truth: that they are neither Arab nor British. They are also not Kenya’s wannabe coastal country of Pwani – a hilarious joke in the light of the following outlined history of stateformation as far as it affected the East African coast below. MRC, you are Mijikenda an African indigenous group of people long harassed and ignored and you ought to remain true to that core identity.

HISTORY OF TERRITORIAL QUAGMIRE AND MIJIKENDA FATE

Attempts to secede, besides what must have been truly inspiring Arab Spring revolutions in the north of Africa, are based on the arrangement reached between two empires, one big and overstretched needing the smaller one (Omani) that had played a crucial role in the politics and economics of the region way before the British made their presence felt in the east coast of Africa. One of my inspirations to specialize in history and war and conflict by extension was the heroics of Saif bin Sultan, the Iman of Oman, who routed the Portuguese from the Zanj in the 1690s. It should be remembered that before this in 1862, France and Britain had agreed reciprocally and mutually “guaranteed” the integrity of Zanzibar’s domains. In the 17th century, Oman Sultan Sai’d Ibn Sultan in 1837 decided to oversee his eastern African coast territorial and trade interests more closely and thus made resplendent Zanzibar his citadel of the growing Oman Empire and influence along the coast. Zanzibar was, significantly, also the nerve center of the slave trade that exploited the hinterland of what is modern Kenya, Tanzania all the way to Zambia and DRC-Congo, which were the supply zones. There’s no gainsaying the fact that trade in African slaves increased with Omani hold on Zanj territory. But that is beside the point.

The British were just buying time before they moved to fulfill what they saw as their main (moral) mission in the east African coast, namely, to end trade in slaves by the Arab overlords at the coast. Indeed, the deal that became the Ten-Mile Coastal Strip was a sort of collusion between the British and the Omani to strip (no pun intended) indigenous people of the strip, the Mijikenda of their land. This is the land that the MRC constituted of the unfortunate descendants of these indigenous African groups whose land was very cleverly misappropriated by the British-Omani Land Titles Ordinance. What this meant was that people claiming ownership of the strip of land (mainly not the Mijikenda but Arabs and the British together with their mission-educated Africans) could acquire title deeds under this legal framework. MRC, please take note of this. I repeat that you are not Omani or British as much as you are admirable and “informed” fighters for your democratic right to sustaining basic livelihood and land.

From the foregoing, it is easy to tell where the rain started to beat our misunderstood MRC kin. Therefore, your claims to a would-be Pwani state are rather farfetched and flawed. As noted above, under the Land Titles Ordinance Zanzibar the Ten-Mile Strip was the personal property of the Omani rulers and Arab and Swahili subjects close to the throne. And this was in the official British mind short-lived sovereignty. Omani sovereignty in Zanzibar and the Ten-Mile Strip carefully checked by the British who now ruled the region by proxy. Before the British Royal Navy broke the back of Omani Arabs in East Africa in 1896 in what is the shortest war in history having lasted 38 minutes, London had played a crucial role in saving Muscat’s hold on region from the Germans. This is, indeed, how the strip of land came about.

In August 1885 Otto von Bismarck sent five German warships to Zanzibar to ask then Sultan, Sayyid Barghash, to “salimu amri”, acknowledge German naval military might and cede power to Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I. Britain intervened on behalf of the poor guy and, working together with Germany and France, called the bluff of Omani claims to the hinterland, which the sultan was now forced to give up to the benefit of the British and Germans who then split it up between themselves along latitude 1° S to Mt. Kilimanjaro and on to Lake Nam Lolwe (Victoria). This left for the Oman sultan Zanzibar and his meager ten-mile holding agreed upon in the mid-1880s and that the Germans were all too happy to lease. What this history tells us is that the strip and interior hinterland were claimed by the Sultan as imperial counter-European bluff. With regard to the coastal strip, the claim was much more credible as it was by virtue of its occupation by the Sultan’s Arab, Swahili and African groups that practiced Islam. Sayyid bin Barghash would, a decade later in 1896, lost claim to either Zanzibar and related Islands and the coastal strip after the short-lived Anglo-Zanzibar war. It is this historical fact that ought to dispel any illusions that the MRC may have of an offshoot state.

The MRC is content to ignore all this and instead cites the more recent history of the agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom, His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar, the Government of Kenya and the Government of Zanzibar that connects the current stand-off and secessionist claims with another closely related territorial argument of postcolonial East Africa. This agreement was signed in London in October 1963 during the Third Lancaster House Conference, of course as always without asking the people it affected most, the Mijikenda. In the main, it guaranteed the free exercise of any creed or religion of the inhabitants of the ten-mile coastal strip and recognized freehold titles to land in the coast region thus further validating earlier acquisitions under the British-Omani Arab land ordinance. However, the most important principle agreed upon was that territories comprised in the Kenya protectorate ceased to form part of His Highness dominions, which now formed part of Kenya. It should be recalled that that could only have referred to the coastal strip as hitherto what became the Republic of Kenya had been “Colony and Protectorate of Kenya” since 1920. “Protectorate” here referred to and designated the ten-mile coastal strip. This legal history that did provide an opportunity for further historical injustice to the indigenous people of the region (read the Mijikenda) cannot be undone especially not with secession as an alternative. Indeed, it is incorrigible considering the unassailable provision of the Constitution of Kenya in Chapter One Article 3 (2) and Chapter Two Article 5 that state respectively, that it is unlawful to establish a government otherwise than in compliance with the supreme law of the land and that Kenya consists of the territory and territorial waters comprising Kenya on the effective date, and any additional territory and territorial waters as defined by an Act of Parliament. As such, it is admissible for the MRC to seek redress of historical injustices but the case for secession is a goner. If the historical facts adduced herein are not enough, here are more lessons from the short post-independence history of East Africa as far as territorial disputes go.

LESSONS OF POSTCOLONIAL AFRICAN HISTORY

I urge the MRC to remember their Kenyan elementary school Geography History and Civics (GHC) lesson about the Organization of African Unity’s (now African Union) acceptance of colonial spatial administrative blunders in principle. There is no mistaking that I understand your cause perfectly but diagnose it as a case of imperial hangover suffered by most postcolonial African states. In the case of the East African coast this imperial hangover is complicated by the long pre-European history of the layered sovereignty of various city states of Mombasa, Zanzibar, Malindi, Pate, Gedi, Kilwa, Sofala and Pemba among others. I have no doubt that you remember the “entertaining” diplomatic stand-off between Kenya and Uganda over the true treasure island, Migingo. I seem to remember at least one legislator uttering the taboo word over this diplomatic duel: “war.” This scraggy and rocky one-acre, let alone ten miles worth of fertile land, had everyone including the two governments and the media running to the archives to look for old British maps to determine which of the two countries own Migingo. That’s not the only postcolonial headache to have recently rocked us: closer to home and the preceding Omani Empire history was the muffled tension relating to the union between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar. I know this because a close good old history professor of mine served in the Kituo Cha Katiba fact-finding mission in 2009 to examine this union and gather views on it and how Zanzibar could better be actively integrated within the East African Community.

I give these two examples to show that the MRC’s cause is not stupid or unfounded. It is only calling for the rectification of historical misdemeanors. To what extent and how these are to be resolved is the main bone of contention. The way to go would be a fact-finding mission, which is already underway. The positive noises coming from Deputy Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Hon. Musalia Mudavadi’s United Democratic Forum Party (UDFP) are also encouraging. The UDFP has promised to sponsor a motion in parliament seeking to set up a parliamentary select committee to dialogue with Mombasa Republican Council (MRC). I have also noticed that member of parliament Jeremiah Kioni has drafted a motion to set up this framework for dialogue to seek redress with regard to landlessness and socio-economic marginalization of the people that the MRC represents. Over and above this region-specific enquiry is the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, whose mission has been the evaluation of all historical injustices in Kenya. Lastly, the deconcentration and devolution of power from the center to forty-seven counties around the country suffices in itself to give Wapwani the kind of agency and control of their own destiny that they wish for. The Coast province now boasts six counties, Mombasa being one of them.

I have, however, watched recent news with consternation as young MRC spokespeople hardened their stance and pooh-poohed all this and the recent parliamentary interest in their woes saying “…hiyo ni hiari yao….” (Well, the parliamentary select committee’s their own doing…we didn’t ask for it). This smacks of misplaced arrogance: the MRC has gone from a banned movement branded a “terrorist” group to a much sought-after organization by senior members of the Government of Kenya, including presidential hopeful Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who unfortunately have their eyes on next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections in this regard. The MRC, however, ought to capitalize on this window of opportunity that might soon close to have institutionalized redress of their grievances excepting secession.

MRC claims of “Pwani Si Kenya” are reminiscent of yet another imperial hangover: Somali irredentism that had eyes on the North Eastern Province of Kenya, which led to the Shifta War in the 1960s. The survival and integrity of Kenya, not only in terms of geography but also its ethnic composition, has always since independence been the government’s number one priority, beleaguered and as challenging the task of national integration has been. This is why Jomo Kenyatta the then President of Kenya responded to pan-Somalism and calls for a Greater Somalia with, “not one inch!” This will be, I am afraid, the ultimate rigid and uncaring response from Nairobi if the MRC pushes its luck too far and too hard. It is time to talk, people. After all, there’s no need for another short war. Indeed, there’s no need of a war at all! A settlement agreed upon through dialogue and compromise is preferred as opposed to force that might soon follow after the search for votes from the coast ends with the elections in March 2013. If that date finds you hiding in fox holes instead of sitting prim and proud at the negotiation table, please don’t tell anyone that no one warned you, MRC!

Nicholas Githuku is a PhD student at West Virginia University, Department of History ([email protected]).