An insight into the Coast's political psychology

Cord leader Raila Odinga addresses a mammoth rally during the campaigns for Malindi by-elections ODM candidate Willy Mtengo at Ngala grounds Malindi, February 8, 2016. Photo/ANDREW KASUKU
Cord leader Raila Odinga addresses a mammoth rally during the campaigns for Malindi by-elections ODM candidate Willy Mtengo at Ngala grounds Malindi, February 8, 2016. Photo/ANDREW KASUKU

MANY of us know of cases of an interracial marriage that went south within a short time of a grand wedding ceremony.

In most cases, the story goes something like this: The couple met, fell in love and moved very swiftly to tie the knot. Only after the honeymoon did the problems begin to emerge.

For example, if the woman is, say, a Kenyan and the husband is German, an immediate focus of conflict would be the wife’s extended family. The wife may take it for granted that her brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts are free to drop by at her new home for a cup of tea or even a meal at any time of day that they choose, but the German man, whom she loves so much and who loves her in return, may find it unbearable to have so many people walking into and out of their home at the oddest times.

While he may easily be able to feed these people as often as necessary, he will still find it a grievous imposition that they come by so often and demand the couple’s attention and time so much. He grew up in a nuclear family and a totally different culture.

So, what does this have to do with Kenyan politics in general and specifically with the politics of the Coast?

Well, the parallel I want to draw here is that, as someone indigenous to the Coast who has however spent most of her working life in Nairobi, I am often surprised and even alarmed by how little understanding there is of coastal communal psychology among national leaders who seek the support of the region’s voters.

First, I would ask why the people of the Coast have such an obsessive interest in who gets to head the Kenya Ports Authority?

And why is it that they feel estranged and cheated when a CEO from outside the Coast is appointed to the Board?

The KPA is a State corporation established through an Act of Parliament in 1978. Its mandate is to “maintain, operate, improve and regulate all seaports”, including Mombasa’s Kilindini Harbour. Among other KPA ports are, in no particular order, not even alphabetical, Vanga, Shimoni, Kiunga, Mtwapa, Kilifi, Malindi and Lamu. The KPA is headquartered in Mombasa.

Well, the answer to the question of the Coast’s obsessiveness with who gets to head KPA at any one time has deep historic roots. Back in the early 1980s, for example, KPA was not all that iconic for coastals; it was merely one of several major employers in the region. Apart from KPA, we had such iconic institutions as the Kenya Cashewnuts Factory in Kilifi; the Kenya Bixa Factory in Kwale; the Kenya Petroleum Refineries in Changamwe; the Mariakani Kenya Cooperative Creameries milk-processing plant; and the large Kenya Meat Commission abattoir in Mombasa.

All these companies hired all kinds of people, from graduates who sat in air-conditioned offices to daily labourers who collected their earnings on a weekly basis for manual work.

But now all these other institutions have been systematically destroyed and only KPA remains.

Political psychology, like still waters, runs deep. It concerns the formation and mobilization of public opinion; it involves the role of media in influencing political perceptions and behaviours; and it determines how intractable and protracted a number of inter-group conflicts are.

It is understandable therefore that the people of the Coast as much as their leaders will have an obsessive interest in who gets to lead the largest regional employer in the region.

I might add here that with the current ongoing changes at KPA, and with a lady indigenous to the Coast, Ms Catherine Mturi, being made the acting CEO, the KPA succession will be a potent political symbol indeed. Depending on whether she is confirmed in the position or a new manager is recruited, the impression is bound to be created on the Coast either that “We are merely being given back what is ours”, or that “We have yet again been unfairly judged as being incapable of holding high office”.

Please note that I say this being fully aware of parastatal recruitment procedures as I myself served for a number of years as the deputy CEO of the Kenya Airports Authority.

However, much as I know what these recruitment procedures are, I also know how my own coastal people think and I also know the symbolic significance of having a coastal woman for the first time in Kenyan history heading the KPA.

On the same note, I was not in the least surprised when the dismissal of Summaya Hassan Athmani as National Oil Corporation of Kenya MD happened early this year. This was received as a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth in Malindi Constituency at a time when a by-election is just around the corner.

Here was a rare case of a young Muslim woman, indigenous to Kilifi County, having risen up the corporate ladder to occupy this elevated office. And then, as one of the locals in Malindi told me, “At the very time that they are asking us for our votes they are sacking our daughters for no good reason”.

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