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Lack of unity and distinctive agenda ails Coast politics

By NGALA CHOME | November 12th 2017
Mombasa Governor hassan Joho (left) hugs his rival Hassan Omar at Ronald Ngala grounds in Mombasa on Monday 26th June,2017. [Maarufu Mohamed,Standard]

The arrival of Coast politicians at the national political stage in general – and their increased importance in national opposition politics in particular – has captured significant public attention in recent years, especially, since the 2013 General Election that unveiled devolution. However, this has not been accompanied by an easily identifiable and distinctive Coast political agenda, including a unified political community of Wapwani.

The current political leadership in the Coast is known more for its divisions, personal rivalries, and competing economic interests, than for its unity of purpose. This is why differences among Coast politicians should not be read as local manifestations of national differences between the National Super Alliance (NASA) and Jubilee, but should be understood as a result of very localised political divisions and personal rivalries. At the Coast, politicians usually tap into national politics only to gain a favourable position within local political and economic battles.

In fact, despite the recent calls for secession or for the resuscitation of the Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani project, Coast politicians continue to play second fiddle to their up-country counterparts, a fact that has dented the political acceptance and legitimacy of formal representation in the Coast for a considerable period of time.

For instance, one hardly fails to notice that the entire face of the Jubilee Party at the Coast is made up of individuals who were once members of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) or other parties aligned to the opposition. Lacking space within ODM/NASA due to Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho’s rising dominance there, their defection to the ruling party is not informed by a newfound love for Jubilee, but is part of the advancement of their personal political careers.

These divisions, it has to be stressed, are not at all new. Political divisions in the Coast have been a central feature of the region’s politics since the colonial era. Marginalised from centres of power, politicians from the Coast have been forced to play second fiddle to their up-country counterparts, each trying to please and/or attract the attention of a powerful up-country politician, or a political party conceived from outside the region.

Indeed, the Coast region has not been associated with any serious political party since 1964, when the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), led by Ronald Ngala, was dissolved and its members joined then ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU). Subsequent Coast-based parties, such as Shirikisho and KADU-Asili, have had little impact at both regional and national levels.

In the grand coalition government – which was formed between 2008 and 2013, following the 2007/08 post-election violence – there were only four Cabinet ministers from the Coast out of a total of 40. While these ministers from the Coast concentrated in massaging the egos of their appointing authorities, other Coast MPs spent most of their time placing themselves strategically within Mwai Kibaki’s succession politics; and becoming members of new parties conceived in Nairobi.

As this happened, the issues close to many who consider themselves as indigenous to the Coast, such as low representation in government, land evictions, poor results in national examinations, port privatisation, and extra-judicial killings, proceeded unabated. During this time, the sense that the Coast had lost was widespread. Strikingly, the Coast was the only one of the former provinces of Kenya in which an opinion poll by Ipsos-Synovate in 2013 showed that a majority believed that they were worse off than in 2007.

Therefore, when the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) began attracting media attention after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, they easily pulled the rug out from under the feet of Coast politicians claiming to represent residents’ grievances. The group’s rallying call, ‘Pwani Si Kenya’ (the Coast is not part of Kenya), provided a kind of gestalt, subordinating the host of grievances and problems that are typically debated on their own basis into a single point. As a vivid expression of coastal grievances, the call for secession evidently attracted a degree of public sympathy, but was also symptomatic of a wide sense of disaffection with Coast politicians.

The style and language of those who claimed the MRC mantle was also quite distinct. Unlike civil society activists and politicians, they were not college educated, English speaking or smartly dressed, and they rejected calls to form into a civil society organisation or political party.

Their presence in the media quickly overshadowed that of Coast MPs. That politicians felt threatened by the MRC was clear enough. Many Coast MPs rushed to express their understanding of the MRC’s concerns, even as they denounced their call for secession. For instance, when Najib Balala launched a new party, the Republican Congress, he went out of his way to mention the concerns of the MRC. Some commentators noted that the initials of his party, RC, combined with the prancing horse which was its symbol, seemed to have been arranged to look rather like the letters MRC.

At this time, Coast MPs seemed to have lost the monopoly to speak about unaddressed grievances in the region. In fact, the emergence of the MRC was part of an emerging trend in Coast politics where many non-politicians (professionals, elders, activists, clerics, etc) were beginning to pay increasing attention to the region’s political issues, articulating and inserting various strands of coastal grievances into national political discourse.

It was felt, by many, that since the death of Karisa Maitha in 2004, no other Coast politician had come close to claiming the title of regional spokesperson. Even the recent arrival of Joho as the region’s most talked about politician at the moment has not served to tame this remarkable lack of unity and set a well-defined Coast political agenda.

The increased interest in the region’s politics by the non-political class has also not served to bring about unity, or begin to define an agenda for the region. In fact, the arrival of professionals, traditional elders, activists and clerics into the region’s politics has accentuated those differences.

In the 2013 and 2017 elections, these professionals, with their middle-class and diasporian sensibilities, have gone neck-to-neck with veteran politicians. The veteran politicians come from a long line of beneficiary networks built during the Moi anti-elitist era, almost all of which gravitated around the Port of Mombasa. These politicians were educated in experience, not technical knowledge, and even as they possessed ‘new money’, they represented the old form of doing bare-knuckle politics.

The negotiation of regional political interests in national politics established itself as the central feature of doing politics in Kenya a long time ago, especially since the return of multi-party politics in 1992.

The continued lack of this in the Coast, fuelled by differences among the region’s leadership, is aggravating the region’s feelings of marginalisation, where the majority, especially those considering themselves as indigenous to the Coast, will continue finding themselves on the lowest rung of the ladder of capitalism and feeling like outsiders in most national political proceedings.

– Ngala Chome is a PhD candidate at Durham University, United Kingdom

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