By Amos Kareithi
When a group of five elders was dispatched in search of military assistance from Oman, little did they know they were providing the first blocks for a jigsaw puzzle that would take over three centuries to untangle.
After more than 350 years, echoes of the five Swahili delegates journey are still haunting Kenya, which is now threatened with cession as the descendants of the elders demand autonomy.
Ironically, when Mwinyi Nguti, Mwinyi Mole bin Hajji, Mwinyi Ndao bin Hajji, Moto Wa Mtorogo and Kubo Wa Mwamzungu set out for Muscat, they were motivated by a desire to ward off invasions by the Portuguese.
In yet another ironic twist, the elders’ request for assistance was rejected by the Sultan of Oman, although seven decades later in 1729, another delegation would retrace the journey and succeed in establishing military and political bonds that would shape the destiny of the East Coast of Africa.
Moi University historian John Mwavurie’s paper, The Ten Miles Coastal strip: An Examination of the Intricate Nature of Land Question at Kenyan Coast, believes this was the genesis of the Arab domination of the Coast.
Ultimately, the Arabs kicked the Portuguese out of Mombasa but delivered the East Coast of Africa to the Omani Arabs who would later annex and place it under the Sultan’s of Zanzibar. Previously, the Swahili had been residing in the 10-mile strip for centuries as they fished and traded with Arabs and other sailors from different parts of the world including China.
This narrative is backed by ancient records such as The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea dating back to 100 AD by anonymous authors, who describe the inhabitants of the region as black men of great stature that were ruled by chiefs.
“There is no doubt that the Swahili controlled the Coast before Arabs settled in the area. It would seem the conquest of the Coast by the Portuguese from 1,500 and their ruthless administration was the main cause for the Swahili to enter into a marriage of convenience with the Omani Arabs,” Mwavurie writes.
In a case of history repeating itself, the advance of Britain and Germany, which were trying to carve territories for themselves in Africa, threatened the Sultan of Zanzibar. After the scramble and sharing out of Africa, Germany and Britain worked out an arrangement and summarised the 1886 treaty where they both avoided conflict by determining their spheres of influence in East Africa. Since none of them wanted to start a war with Zanzibar, they decided to allocate the Sultan a 10-mile strip running from Kipini to the north and River Ruvuma in the south.
The Britain’s agreement with the Sultan of Zanzibar averted a conflict then but has been a source of conflict along the Coast of Kenya since it was penned on March 14, 1890. According to the agreement, Sultan Sayyid of Zanzibar surrendered all his authority over a people his ancestors had vowed to protect 161 year earlier.