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October 20, 2017

Mijikenda play second fiddle

Jubilee Party Mombasa gubernatorial aspirant Suleiman Shahbal./Elkana Jacob
Jubilee Party Mombasa gubernatorial aspirant Suleiman Shahbal./Elkana Jacob

This last week, the Jubilee Party in Mombasa did what ODM has done in the past. It unilaterally picked Suleiman Shahbal, a politician of Arab extraction, as the Jubilee governor candidate and Anania Mwaboza, a Mijikenda, as his running mate.

This reignited debate on the politics of ethnicity. In particular, people questioned why Mwaboza himself could not be the governor candidate in a county dominated by the Mijikenda. Mombasa is the hub of Coast politics. Whoever wins in Mombasa literally controls the regional politics. The Mijikenda is made up of nine subtribe groups – called the Midzichenda or popularly Mijikenda (nine homesteads). They are the Giryama, the Chonyi, the Rabai, the Jibana, the Kambe, the Ribe and the Kauma, who reside on the North Coast and the Digo and the Duruma on the South Coast. These subgroups account for about 45 per cent of the Mombasa county population.

Historically, the battle for control of Mombasa politics has been fought between the majority Mijikenda and the minority Arab/Swahili communities. Many more communities have recently moved to Mombasa in search of politico-economic opportunities. Despite this, the battle for political supremacy is still in the hands of the Mijikenda and the Arab/Swahili. In this arrangement, the Mijikenda have the numbers while the Arab/Swahili communities have the resources.

There are only two instances when the Mijikenda have influenced Mombasa politics. The first was between 1963-1972, when Ronald Ngala was Cabinet minister and, before that, leader of Kadu, Kenya’s first Independence opposition political party. The second instance was between 2002-04, when Karisa Maitha was elected Kisauni MP. He later became an influential Cabinet minister before he died in 2004. These two politicians had a huge impact on Mombasa politics.

Since Maitha’s death, the Mijikenda have not had a dependable political leader. They have had to resort to voting in outsiders, which leaves them playing second fiddle in the county politics. It happened at the 2013 election, when Hassan Joho picked Hazel Katana, a Mijikenda, as the running mate in ODM. This is despite their being aware that the Mijikenda in Mombasa have the votes to influence any political change if they voted one of their own. It is a fact that any politician who needs to win an election in Mombasa needs the support and voting power of the Mijikenda people. The question is, why have the Mijikenda continued to play second fiddle?

Several factors explain this.

One is voter apathy. Despite their numerical strength, the Mijikenda in Mombasa (and elsewhere) have been reluctant to register and vote in large numbers. In effect, they have missed the opportunity to regain control of Mombasa politics. The second is the lack of political unity of purpose. Unlike other communities that have come together to chart their own political and economic destiny, the Mijikenda and other Coast communities, have remained defiant to political unity. The third reason is the lack of a political godfather and a political party to unify them. While other communities have parties and leaders such as William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, and Kalonzo Musyoka, as unifying factors, the Mijikenda have had none of these. They have become political orphans.

This is why as August 8 approaches, the Mijikenda in Mombasa have to re-invent themselves politically. They have to hit or miss. Though they abhor the politics of ethnicity, they have to acknowledge this as a fact in our politics. They should use their numbers to elect one of their own.

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