Shariff Nassir: The Kanu’s Mombasa supremo that was all bark, more bite

Mombasa central MP Shariff Nassir is carried shoulder high by his supporters.

Shariff Nassir bin Taib was the most voluble politician in the then Coast Province, perhaps even in Kenya, during President Daniel arap Moi’s regime.

The Mvita MP, who rose from a clerk before joining politics and serving as a minister, was vocal and known to comment on anything and everything under the sun.

Nassir even threw caution to the wind once and reminded those opposed to the president that the political party Kanu would rule for another 100 years.

Indeed, he was known for what many believed were utterances that actually reflected official thinking within the corridors of power. He was widely regarded as the absolute political monarch in Mombasa and much of the Coast Province.

Kenyan newspapers often described him as the “Kanu Mombasa supremo” in reference to his colossal political weight. To his detractors within and outside Kanu, Nassir personified the party’s ultra-conservative structure.

For instance, in March 1999 he came up with a controversial suggestion that Moi should stay in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms of five years each.

Nassir became Mombasa Kanu branch chairman after Ronald Ngala’s death in 1972. He would later contest the Mvita parliamentary seat and triumph over Mohamed Jahazi, who had established himself as a powerhouse in Mombasa politics.

Still, it took many years before Nassir, Moi’s close friend, could land a ministerial flag. He, however, served as an assistant minister in several ministries.

Many people attribute Moi’s reluctance to appoint him to the Cabinet to his relatively low level of education and inability to effectively communicate in English.

As an assistant minister, however, Nassir wielded as much political power as any minister of his time. For instance in 1980, while working as assistant minister for Labour, Nassir moved to assert himself in the labour movement by orchestrating the ouster of perceived critics.

For obvious reasons, including turf wars, Nassir disliked Juma Boy, a powerhouse in the Coast labour movement. Therefore, when Nassir was appointed to the ministry, he immediately targeted Boy with the singular intention of crippling his hold on the Mombasa Dockworkers’ Union. Boy was eventually ousted from the union.

Nassir landed his first full ministerial appointment in February 1998, following the December 1997 General Election, thereby joining Hussein Maalim Mohamed as the only Muslim ministers in the Cabinet.

Besides, his appointment was seen as a reward for the role he evidently played in boosting the fortunes of the ruling party in Mombasa. Of his Cabinet appointment, the The Weekly Review, wrote:

“Indeed, if there is any political leader in the country who has been totally committed to his boss, the government and the ruling party, Kanu, then it is the Mvita legislator, who has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the political establishment against all detractors, both local and foreign.”

Nonetheless, when it came to matters concerning Kanu, Nassir was unmatched. The late 1990s saw Kanu’s popularity swell in the Coast region. Kanu won 18 out of the 21 parliamentary seats in Coast Province.

It, however, was sometimes difficult to understand Nassir’s ways. Although perceived as the president’s mouthpiece, he had a way of confounding all and sundry by appearing to speak at variance with his boss.

His critics often demanded his sacking from the Cabinet owing to his odd utterances that ignited the mood of the public as well as the party. For instance, majimbo (regionalism), a loose form of political federalism, was his pet topic.

He never lost any opportunity to attack those who maligned this form of governance, as he believed it to be the panacea to Kenya’s problem of negative ethnicity. He once threatened to move the Coast people out of Kanu to a regional political party were the country to resist majimbo.

Yet, instructively, Nassir wasn’t really concerned about good governance and tribal equity in sharing national resources. Essentially, he was among a group of diehard politicians who appeared to believe that the Kikuyu community was so dominant in politics and business that it needed to be contained.

Others who shared this opinion included his Cabinet colleagues William ole Ntimama and Francis Lotodo. The media described them as ‘tribal warlords’; they didn’t seem to mind this deprecating tag.

There is, interestingly, hardly any information on record to quantify Nassir’s achievements in the Cabinet. Apparently, his role was not meant to add value to the management of the government. Rather, it was designed to strengthen Kanu and to stabilise the Coast region – a feat he achieved very well.

Nassir is on record as having demanded that Kanu take action against Mombasa West MP Kennedy Kiliku for statements he uttered in Parliament. Kiliku had complained about the terrible condition of roads in his constituency, but Nassir felt the legislator was laying bare the failings of Moi’s government.

It took the person of Deputy Speaker Samuel arap Ng’eny to remind Nassir that parliamentary statements were privileged and that MPs enjoyed immunity for whatever they said in the House.

Not happy with the ruling, Nassir would later call for an amendment of the Powers and Privileges Act to entrench Kanu’s supremacy. It was reminiscent of the 1975 situation when MPs Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney were detained for declaring in Parliament, “Kanu is dead.”

Nassir did not have it all easy. Apart from the many brickbats thrown at him at the national level, he smothered a number of coups at the Mombasa Kanu branch.

But the slide that eventually saw him finally elbowed out of the political landscape started in 1995. The architect of the downfall was none other than Moi himself.

Faced with a more energetic and youthful opposition within and outside of Kanu, Moi had to reform the ruling party even as he appeased the public that he was out to transform the country’s politics.

The opposition was eating into Kanu’s support base; the young people in Kanu were becoming restless and were demanding bigger roles in the party.

That year, 1995, Moi urged Nassir to let young leaders take over leadership of the party. The president who, ironically, was older than Nassir and had been in politics longer, had an eye on Rashid Sajjad, a tycoon who was obviously younger than Nassir.

But the real reason Moi wanted Sajjad in the limelight was not chiefly that the young man was a worthwhile replacement for Nassir. Hardly. Multi-billionaire Sajjad could bankroll the forthcoming 1997 elections at the Coast. Ultimately, Moi chose Sajjad over Nassir to be the Kanu coordinator for Coast region in the 1997 elections.

For Nassir, the die had been cast. He was not elected at the grassroots level and therefore couldn’t defend his party seat. This time round the tactic he used to steamroll rivals was employed against him.

Sajjad would later wield great influence at the Coast until Kanu, alongside Nassir, was removed from power in December 2002.

As difficult as it is to quantify Nassir’s successes as a Cabinet member, putting a figure to his wealth is near impossible.

According to Arye Oded in the book Islam and Politics in Kenya, Nassir “…(showed) an uncompromising ambition to be the only well-known Muslim political leader in Mombasa and the coastal region and to be the decisive influence in the coastal branch of the party, the municipality and in the trade unions”.