Why Land Crisis In Coast Persists
Two events which took place in Coast Province last week were a reminder of the unique challenges that leaders at different levels will have to face, in the post-2012 General Election political dispensation. The first was the heckling of the Coast Provincial Commissioner, Ernest Munyi, during the official celebrations of Jamhuri Day in Mombasa. The second was a reported setback in the ongoing attempts by the government to engage the ‘Mombasa Republic Council’ (MRC) which advocates for the succession of Coast Province from the rest of Kenya.
And I should mention here that this amorphous organization is somewhat misnamed, as it should properly call itself the ‘Kwale Republican Council’, considering that most of its known leaders as well as supporters are from Kwale District. Further, I should add that this ‘republican council’ is viewed with deep suspicion as much by the Swahili and Arab communities of Mombasa, as by the other coastal counties like Kilifi, Lamu, Tana River and Taita-Taveta.
But nobody who understands coastal politics can fail to sympathize with these young men, who wisely choose the non-violent path to their stated goals. They may be hopelessly misguided in their proposed objectives, but they do represent valid grievances of which the underlying dynamics have been evolving for many years now.
The two issues are linked in that they both arise from the land problem – indeed the land crisis – of coast province. The PC was subjected to well-organised heckling – allegedly arranged and paid for by some political leaders in Mombasa – because he was perceived to be in some way responsible for the recent demolitions of houses said to be illegally constructed in some peri-urban zones in Mombasa.
And the root cause of the MRC’s agitation for succession is also linked to this land problem. But what the Mombasa MPs should note is that while it is easy to humiliate a PC by arranging for your political supporters to heckle him, that does not in any way solve the problem. And indeed, it is self-defeating to prevent the PC from doing his duty, as what the PC does not do now, an elected leader will have to do later, as the governor of Mombasa County or Kwale County.
And, by the same token, the national political leadership should note that while it is tempting to dismiss the MRC youths as misguided rabble-rousers, they actually do represent an attempt towards legal agitation for the redressing of historical grievances. An understanding of the coast land problem starts with appreciating that, for any political clique in power, land allotments have always been a key strategy for resolving the great political headaches of the day.
Our founding president, Jomo Kenyatta resolved the explosive land problem of Central Kenya by a mass transfer of the “landless” from Central Province to the Rift Valley Province; and our immediate former president, Daniel arap Moi and his inner circle, frequently resolve their political problems by arranging for allocation of prime coastal land to those whose allegiance they required.
Now while the land Kenyatta settled his “landless” tribesmen on, was previously owned by ‘white settlers’ who willingly sold this land, when it comes to the coast, much of what was “allocated” (by a perfectly legal process) was government land already, and required no purchase. The problem is that what seems like uninhabited “government land” from some air-conditioned office in Nairobi, will often be revealed on the ground, to be a well-settled village, whose residents have been living there for decades, and believe themselves to be the true owners of that land.
So, in order to ‘develop’ this parcel of land – whether you were the initial allottee or a subsequent buyer – you first had to dispossess those villagers of the only homes they knew. All this might have been prevented if the coast had voted in more courageous and aggressive leaders. Unfortunately, most of those voted in from the 1970s up to the 1990s were timid and hesitant politicians, who were reluctant to confront the Nairobi power barons on behalf of their constituents.
Complicating this matter further is that because the present-day lower coast province was ruled from Zanzibar in the pre-colonial era (which, of course, is what the MRC base their claims of succession on) large tracts of land at the coast were owned by Arab absentee landlords, many of whom had returned to Oman when Zanzibar became independent: just like the ‘white settlers’ returned to the UK after independence in Kenya.
Next week, I will explain why future governors of Kwale or Mombasa are unlikely to have the political will to resolve this coastal land crisis.