In recent months Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi and his group of MPs have revived calls for a political party for the Coast region, raising questions about their real intentions.
While Kingi appears to be walking out of ODM, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho appears reluctant to leave and believes he stands a good chance of leading one of Kenya’s largest political parties.
Joho’s supporters believe ODM’s policy and history supports Coast’s own development goals.
While some claim the governors are driven by rival desires to secure a place when their second terms end, others read sinister motives by politicians seeking to fragment the region in order to control it.
Yet this is not a new debate. In the past, politicians have tried to form political parties for the Coast region and failed. Today’s proponents, however, believe past failures are not enough reasons not to try afresh.
Quest for unity
Kilifi North MP Owen Baya says proponents need a good mobiliser who commands the support of at least 80 per cent of the Mijikenda and other communities in the region for the party to take shape.
“We need a trusted person to lead us to a Coast-based political party. We have to begin mobilising and uniting the residents,” Baya, a Kingi ally who also has ties to DP William Ruto, says.
According to Baya, Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, Taita Taveta, Tana River and Lamu counties already have common issues of land, poverty, unemployment, marginalisation and historical injustices that can form the unifying ideology for the proposed party.
He says ODM leader Raila Odinga has retained Coast voters under his fold since 2007 because he championed land reforms and devolution, two key issues that resonate with residents.
“The problem with the existing political parties is that they did not have trusted leaders to drive our agenda. We have to rally our people around the ideology; we don’t have to have a lot of resource to convince them. Leadership of party matters a lot,” he says.
But other leaders and political pundits beg to differ. Pwani University lecturer Hassan Mwakimako says the region should focus on the challenges previous political parties have faced and address them. He believes Coast residents can revive or use existing parties instead of creating new ones.
According to Prof Mwakimako, parties like Shirikisho and Kadu Asili had “people-friendly policies” and only needed effective mobilisation to attract strong support.
“Existing Coast parties have a people-friendly ideology on land reforms, jobs and devolution. We don’t need new political parties. We need leaders with a strategy to strengthen and popularise the parties. The problem is that some individuals want new parties just to control the agenda,” he says.
Traditionally, Coast political movements have been associated with the ideology of exclusion and separation – pushing the divisive debate of upcountry versus indigenous residents. In the early 1990s, Shirikisho was accused of fanning xenophobia and aiding violence against so called up-county people.
The separation/xenophobia 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.
On one hand, 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) pushed for a unified Kenya under federalism.
Political analysts say the secession talk that emerged early this year was a mobilising tool and the politicians behind the separation talk are only keen on the formation of a political party to raise their profile and bargaining power in national politics.
“Secession was a tool to mobilise the masses because it is a topic that raises the emotions of residents regardless of party affiliations. The ultimate goal was the formation of a political party,” said political analysts Maimuna Mwidau.
Since the return of political pluralism, seven parties have sprung up from the Coast and fizzled out without impact.
They include the Islamic Party of Kenya, Chama cha Majimbo na Mwangaza, Shirikisho Party of Kenya, Republican Congress, Uzalendo Party of Kenya, National Labour Party of Kenya, Kenya National Congress, Federal Party of Kenya and Kadu Asili.
In the run up to the August 2017 elections, Jubilee-allied politicians led by former Kilifi North MP Gideon Mung’aro also toyed with the idea of forming a political party following the so-called Dabaso Declaration of 2014.
in June 2015, the region also launched Coast’s social-economic bloc Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani (JKP) which analysts say has been derailed by turf wars.
The architects of the bloc admit that the idea has been held hostage by deep seated political differences among governors. Others dismissed it as an ODM affair.
Political analysts now say that the new efforts mainly led by leaders from Kilifi must have a compelling agenda that captures the aspirations of all communities living in the region and avoid stocking racial overtones.
Others argue that calls for the formation of the Coast party are sponsored by leaders from other regions to stop the ‘secession bushfire’ and spark division between Kingi and Joho. According to Caleb Ng’wena, a human rights activist, historical, racial and religious differences pit Coastal people against each other, making it hard for a local party to flourish.
“In the past, Coast politics was controlled by an affluent clique based in Mombasa that held ultimate power of political control. That is why they could not allow a party formed by leaders from other areas to flourish,” Ngw’ena says.
Ngw’ena however says if Joho and Kingi were to team up, a party with a base in the region will be viable because of the two leaders’ charisma and financial muscle.
Lawyer Yusuf Abubakar, who once chaired the Shirikisho Party of Kenya, says he encountered problems with Christian Mijikenda who viewed it as an Islamist party with a Muslim at the helm.
“The inclusion of ethnic Swahili officials, he said, alienated the Mijikenda further,” said Abubakar in a recent interview.
According to Halimu Shauri of Pwani University, Coast residents have dreamt of a strong regional party since before independence.
“It is a serious issue, not just a bait for votes. A strong party can unite the region. Many of the problems afflicting the region can be blamed on lack of a strong political party that gives direction. If we are supporting parties from other regions bearing their visions, it means that we, as the people of Coast have no vision. It is as if we have failed to identify ourselves, Prof Shauri said early this year.
According to former Cabinet Minister Chirau Mwakwere, past political parties from the region were dogged by lack of unity.
“If unity is forged, we will benefit a lot,” he said.