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Coast leaders differ on calls for own party

By Benard Sanga and Ishaq Jumbe | January 26th 2014
                                                       Hassan Joho                PHOTO: COURTESY

By Benard Sanga and Ishaq Jumbe

The push for the formation of a Coast-based political party has elicited sharp debate in the region.

Leaders from the region are sharply divided on the timing, motive and feasibility of the proposed party.

Scholars and opinion leaders have also weighed in on the matter, espousing divergent views.

According to Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar, many Coast based political parties failed to take off in the past because they lacked a founding ideology to unify people in the region or that they sought to thrive on the agenda of exclusion without a firm leadership.

Speaking to The Standard on Sunday, Mr Omar said the party being proposed by some local leaders must have a compelling agenda that captures the aspirations of all communities living in the region.

“In the past locals have vented their frustration on upcountry people but at the moment there should be a powerful agenda or ideology that is compelling to all communities,” said Omar who believes that the ideology of the proposed party should address the land inequalities warning that it will collapse if it does not have credible leaders.

Lost identity

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But Lamu County MP Shakila Abdallah, a proponent of the party best captures the thinking behind the proposed outfit. According to her, the proposed party seeks to reclaim the “lost identity of the Coast people” and their politics from “a threat of assimilation”.

“The identity of the Coast people is being swallowed very fast. We have seen signs that people from other regions will rule us soon if we don’t remain focused as Coastals. We need to come together to safeguard our identity,” said Shakila in a phone interview from Lamu, a county where Julius Ndegwa is the MP for Lamu West.

She said the Constitution demands that a political party should have membership from at least 25 counties and once they settle on a party, they would popularise it in the whole country.

Her comments clash sharply with the opinion of former Matuga MP Chirau Ali Mwakwere who once belonged to Shirikisho and was once accused of racial incitement.

Mwakwere believes proponents of the said party could be breaking the 2010 Constitution but still feels there are forces opposed to Coastal unity.

“The Constitution does not allow regional parties and a political party should be formed with the intention of forming government,” he told The Standard on Sunday in a phone interview.

Affirmative action

“Other regions rally behind parties which serve their collective predicaments and we at the Coast have suffered marginalisation, poverty, illiteracy and general backwardness. What we require is affirmative action to put the region at par with the rest of the country. However, we have to grapple with forces that do not want to see a unified Coast,” he said.

According to Caleb Ngwena, the programme coordinator for Genesis for Human Rights, a rights agency in the region, achieving political unity at the Coast is difficult because local leaders “have never found or identified an ideology that cuts across the different ethnic groups”.

According to him calls for a Coast-based political party have always been suspect and sporadic and appear designed to isolate ethnic Mijikenda from other tribes.

Analysts argue that historical, racial and religious differences pit Coastal people inevitably against each other with affluent cliques based in Mombasa holding the ultimate power of political control. “This diversity is being manipulated for the selfish interests of some politicians. All that is required at the moment is for Coastal politicians to form a caucus to advance the Coastal agenda before they start to engage in an ambitious project like a political party,” said Professor Mohamed Hydar, a local scholar.

“It is not good for the idea to be labelled as Coast region party as it scares away people from other regions working and living at the Coast,” said Ngwena.

“When an Arab forms a party, the Mijikenda perceive it as an Arab agenda. When the Mijikenda form one, the Arabs ignore it as irrelevant to them,” Ngwena says.

Local lawyer Abubakar Yusuf, who once chaired the Shirikisho Party of Kenya, says he encountered problems with Christian Mijikenda who viewed it as Islamist with a Muslim at the helm. The inclusion of ethnic Swahili officials, he said, alienated the Mijikenda further.

Political bargain

The same Islamist and pan-Arabic characterisation afflicted IPK and MRC. But Kilifi North MP Gideon Mung’aro, who is at the forefront in championing the political party idea, claims they will succeed in bringing together all communities in the region for the sake of development and future political bargaining.

Speaking to The Standard on Sunday yesterday, he wondered:

“What is wrong when Coast leaders talk of Coastal unity? Why are some people scared of Coastal unity?” He said champions of the idea could start by taking over an existing political party.

Civil society organisations and political analysts in the region have challenged his motivation.

“Those behind the Coast based party and purporting to unify the Coast communities have failed to explain to us (locals) what their agenda really is. They say they want to foster a united front and increase bargaining power with the government, but I think they have not accepted the reality that they are in the opposition and they should be effective in the opposition,” said Maimuna Mwidau, human rights and women’s affairs activist in Coast region.

Mwidau said though Coast unity was a noble idea, the timing was suspect given it came up when the Jubilee leadership visited the region, a claim hotly contested by Farid Hisham, a TNA activist in Mombasa.

Meanwhile some analysts believe calls for a local party are sponsored from outside the region with suspicion directed at Jubilee leaders keen to whittle down former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s ODM party, which won five gubernatorial seats in the region.

Changamwe MP Omar Mwinyi says there is still deep-seated mistrust among the Coast communities that should be resolved first for the idea to work.

“The formation of a political party should be a long-term project. Right now we need a serious and structured talk to develop the idea to deal with the mistrust and confusion among our people. The Mijikenda view people in Mombasa as Arabs and the Taita and Taveta like to refer themselves as upcountry people,” said Mwinyi. He called on the proponents of the idea to organise a session for leaders to discuss the matter. “We don’t want a situation where those given the mantle run to the government to look for personal favours and not champion the needs of the people, because that is what has happened in the past,” said Mwinyi.

History of clamour

Historically Coast based parties and political movements have been associated with the ideology of exclusion – pushing the divisive debate of upcountry versus indigenous residents.

This ideology is based on pre-independence logic in which there was a split at the Coast fronted by a clique that sought outright separation of the Coast from Kenya and a second group that sought unity with the new republic but under a federal system.

Citing pre-independence treaties, the separatists led by the late Sharif Nassir and Arab nationalists with links to the defunct sultanate of Zanzibar called for secession of the Coastal strip while another group, led by the late Ronald Ngala under the defunct Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) acknowledged the complex land problem at the Coast but felt it could be solved within a unified Kenya under federalism.

Debate is heating up on the possibility of coming up with a political ideology to unify the disparate tribes, races and classes in the region into a coherent whole or craft an objective ideology on which a Coast-based party could be founded.

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