MARGINALISED

A defeat for coastal unity

In Summary
  • If united behind one acknowledged leader, the Coast has electoral numbers pretty close to those of the Big Tribe groupings other than the Central Kenya caucus.
  • So, the fact that Joho and Mvurya are on opposing sides of the current political divide is not good news for coastal unity

Ever since the Msambweni by-election was won by the independent candidate, Feisal Bader, who triumphed over the favoured ODM candidate Omar Boga, there has been a frenzy of analyses as to what this outcome signifies.

Two key threads have emerged in these analyses:

First is that it is a defeat for the ODM leader Raila Odinga personally, and a signal victory for the Deputy President Dr William Ruto, who reportedly supplied the “logistics” for Bader’s campaign.

Second is that the real loser was the Mombasa County Governor, Hassan Joho, who spent many days in Msambweni campaigning for Omar Boga; and that the winner was the Kwale County Governor, Salim Mvurya, who based his campaign in support of Feisal Bader, on a theme of Kwale residents resisting outsider influences.

This is all very well. But there is an even bigger picture here, which is that the real loser in all this was the elusive prospect of coastal unity.

Let me explain what I mean by this:

Going back all the way to the early years of independence, leading lights of the Coast region – not just politicians but also academics, technocrats, and religious leaders – have long recognized that their region faces unique challenges which the rest of Kenya cannot easily appreciate.

Because the “ten-mile Coastal strip” was once governed from Zanzibar, by the Sultan from Oman who was based there, matters of land ownership, were uniquely convoluted in the Coast.

And as the Coast (like the rest of Kenya) has a population which consist of about 70 per cent rural small-scale farmers, the question of land ownership is an existential challenge. Personal survival is pegged primarily on the small farm, which the entire family depends on.

Resolving the historical injustices which attend the coastal land ownership issue is therefore at the forefront of the priorities for all indigenous residents of the Coast. And it is not an issue that can be resolved through local politics: it requires the dedicated and sustained attention of the central government.

In short, the Coast region as a unit, has much to gain from having “a seat at the big table” of national politics.

And without such a seat, the Coast is doomed to remain a marginalized zone.

Up to now, any prospect of coastal prominence on the national stage has been difficult because our system of government only had room at the top for one individual – the imperial president – and his circle of cronies. At best (and since the 2010 constitution) we have been ruled by “the Big Two”.

The Building Bridges Initiative promises to change this: we will no longer have “the Big Two” but “the Big Five”.

The key intended impact of the BBI is that we should no longer have – with each new president – a situation in which only two tribal communities are fully confident that they have adequate representation in the top echelons of government. Power is to be disbursed, and key decisions driven by consensus.

I am not saying that it will work. Just that such seems to be the obvious intention.

So, what we may expect to have in 2022, is not just two leading presidential candidates supported by their running mates, but rather two rival slates each with five indispensable members.

This is important for the Coast insofar as while such regions as the Maasai counties (Kajiado and Narok) or the Gusii counties (Nyamira and Kisii) seem likely to remain significant only as swing vote areas, when it comes to the Coast, this is where it has an opportunity to play in the arena of “big tribe politics”.

For if united behind one acknowledged leader, the Coast has electoral numbers pretty close to those of the Big Tribe groupings other than the Central Kenya caucus.

So, the fact that Joho and Mvurya are on opposing sides of the current political divide is not good news for coastal unity.

Whatever they may be able to achieve within their own counties, is relatively insignificant compared to what would be achievable if they were to unite and present the other national political barons with a unified coastal voting bloc.