The debate about coastal secession is a cry for inclusion rather than exclusion. It bears more national, rather than regional impulses, and is informed, not by history, but by recent experiences, especially common perceptions of how political representation and redistribution actually works in Kenya.
In sum, it is the result of the failure by Kenya’s current presidential system of governance in capturing the aspirations of a multi-ethnic society.
In this way, the ubiquitous calls for national unity that also encourage people to forget the past and move on, may actually serve to silence a healthy conversation. This conversation is fundamentally concerned with building a Kenya whose destiny can be shaped by citizens from all its regions. Therefore, the coastal secession debate should not be seen as an extrinsic, separate or fringe issue, but as forming parts to a wider (and more national) conversation that is as old as independent Kenya.
Granted, the promoters of the proposal have openly stated that theirs is driven by the experience of exclusion of coastal interests, where majority of coastal residents find themselves on the lowest rung of the ladder of capitalism and feeling like outsiders in most national political proceedings.
Yet this language of exclusion is distinctively Kenyan, and has been the experience of most regions that have felt pangs of marginalisation from a small clique of elites centred around Nairobi and its environs. The immediacy of this concern, felt in most regions outside the coast, has of course been heightened by the experiences of the 2013 and 2017 elections, all of which were held under the 2010 constitution that established a majoritarian, presidential system and introduced what most have felt to be modest decentralisation.
Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and his Kilifi counterpart, Amason Kingi, have openly stated that even without the historical colonial treaties that gave a special legal category for what was known as the ten-mile coastal strip, they would still push for secession as they feel “unwanted, ignored and oppressed.”
Critics have (perhaps rightly so) stated that Joho and Kingi are pushing the secession agenda merely to advance their future political careers. But in addition to not denying the role of personal interests in their demands for secession, the two have also stated that the call for secession is informed by the Jubilee administration’s hostility towards devolution.
In a tacit indictment of Kenya’s strongly ethnicised discourse of politics, including the exclusionary qualities of the presidential system, Kingi stated that he and Joho have ambitions to run for the presidency, but don’t feel that they can adequately compete in Kenya’s politics as currently constituted. In sum, the two have learnt that a coastal politician will not fare well in a presidential contest under a majoritarian presidential system given the region’s numerically smaller ethnic communities. In this manner, the current call for coastal secession has become part of a longer conversation about restructuring the Kenyan state.
In this historical discussion, differences amongst Kenyan political players have always revolved around the form and extent of decentralisation, and whether Kenya should adopt a presidential or a parliamentary system. During independence constitutional talks in the 1960s, a form of regional decentralisation dubbed Majimbo in Swahili was proposed and adopted in the 1963 constitution.
Majimbo and the parliamentary system that was also adopted at independence were meant to protect minority ethnic communities in land and resource distribution. In addition to Jomo Kenyatta becoming the Prime Minister in a more egalitarian parliamentary system, Majimbo meant that the eight provinces that comprised independent Kenya had equal status.
However, this system was short-lived, deemed by powerful sections of Kenya’s ruling elite as destabilizing in its design and ‘tribalistic’ in its intentions. Instead, these leaders, such as Jaramogi Oginga, Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta himself, were dedicated in establishing a powerful centralised system of government under an executive President. It is important to note that these leaders came from ethnic communities (Kikuyu and Luo) that were numerically larger and better mobilized than the rest.
The Bomas draft
Nearly 37 years later, delegates from all over Kenya sat at the Bomas of Kenya as part of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC.) to chart the country’s political future. At Bomas, proposals for a parliamentary system and a three-tier decentralisation mimicking the proscribed Majimbo system of 1963-4 received near universal support.
In an article published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, Yash Pal Ghai, the then chair of CKRC., vividly recalls the submissions at Bomas. He states that the demand for Majimbo was for positive reasons: as a way of strengthening national unity through the device of power sharing, creating more centres of decision-making and development (arresting the deepening poverty in many parts of the country and the migration to urban centres), and above all, increasing people’s participation in public affairs and ensuring greater responsiveness and accountability to local communities.
The concern at Bomas, he argues, was not for the former provinces/regions to detach themselves from the centre, but to find a suitable balance between Nairobi and the rest of the country, so that economic, political and social development would be accelerated. The motivation was not for the well off or well-endowed areas to keep their wealth for themselves, instead, a primary concern was the equitable distribution of revenue and promotion of development throughout the country.
Ultimately, people felt that this would happen only if the powers of the central (now national) government were limited. But the Bomas provisions were mutilated in a government-backed draft that was then presented to Kenyans in a constitutional referendum in 2005 – and 57 per cent of the voters rejected it.
It is this popular demand for a limited central government that was in the minds of Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) activists, when they first announced their presence on the coast in 2005. In one of the “letters” that were widely circulated on the coast, the activists stated that the reasons behind their declaration of a ‘Republic of Mombasa’, was due to what they called the “sabotage of the Bomas draft by the grabbers of coastal land.”
Most importantly, they stated that the Bomas draft – a constitutional draft that made extensive provisions for decentralisation and established a parliamentary system of government – would have addressed coastal grievances.
Their rallying call, Pwani si Kenya (the coast is not part of Kenya) was therefore a product of the constitutional disappointments of 2005.
It opened a chapter in coastal politics where demands for secession would routinely be voiced – the latest of which are now being channelled by some of the region’s politicians.
The debate about which political system Kenya should adopt came full circle with the experience of the 2017 elections. These elections have shown us that institutional incapacity and lack of political trust continue to ail our politics, including continued disagreements about the rules of the democratic game. Most importantly, these elections have shown us that, without an inclusive system where leaders from every region are accommodated at the centre and meaningful local governance is responsive to popular demands, Kenya will find itself in this crisis after every five years.
Empty calls for national unity and promising visions for the future are not enough. In a country built on historical injustices, these promising visions become too simplistic. On the coast and other regions that don’t feel included, development promises from the Jubilee administration will not make people forget the past, but will always be translated into a hybrid of predicament and become targets of local resentment and resistance.
The secession debate is useful, in as far as it can offer a platform to open the discussion on inclusivity, including making suitable amendments to the constitution that will allow for the birth of a truly united democratic country.
It is a conversation about the future political direction of Kenya, one in which national unity will be built on the values of power sharing, mutual respect, and meaningful public participation in the country’s affairs. Encouragements to move towards national unity should therefore be predicated on these principles.
- Ngala Chome is a PhD candidate at Durham University, United Kingdom