For more than a century, Kenya’s coastal people have been repeatedly alienated from their land and marginalised from public services, particularly education. Now they want to break away from the rest of the country.
I did not know who the Wabara were until I moved to Malindi.
I had heard the term used often by the local Giriama people but did not know what it meant until Zawadi, a local resident, explained it to me in Kiswahili.
“Wabara,” she said, “are people who do not belong here; they come from elsewhere.”
“Oh I see,” I replied. “You mean like the Italians and the British who live here?”
“No,” she said, “they are not Wabara, they are Wazungu. Wabara are from the interior, outside Pwani.”
Zawadi’s simple explanation of a very complex issue that has dominated Kenya’s coastal region captures the mindset and grievances of a people who have been marginalised for more than a century by “outsiders”, ranging from the Sultan of Zanzibar, who allowed the British to turn the region’s Ten Mile Strip into a protectorate, to post-colonial governments that deprived local populations of their land and under-invested in the region’s development.
For coastal people, the Wabara are epitomised by Kenya’s old and new post-independence leaders who exacerbated landlessness and disempowerment in the region by implementing settlement schemes that provided land to non-coastal upcountry people by usurping large swathes of prime beach property for their own personal benefit and ignoring the local people’s desire for self-determination.
Now, a movement known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is saying that the historical injustices imposed by the Wabara can only be addressed if the coast region secedes from the rest of Kenya, thereby making the region autonomous.
Their rallying cry “Pwani si Kenya” (Coast is not Kenya) is resonating with many coastal people, according to Dr Paul Goldsmith, a researcher who has just concluded a study commissioned by Pact Kenya.
The study is an indictment of both the colonial and post-colonial Kenyan state vis-à-vis its relationship with coastal people, who have for more than a century been repeatedly alienated from their land and marginalised from public services, particularly education.
MRC’s grievances, he says, stem from a variety of conditions: the coastal people’s inferior socio-economic position, landlessness, high unemployment, demographic growth, commercialism and the politics of social exclusion.
Indeed, government data shows that four of the six coastal counties (namely, Tana River, Malindi, Kwale, and Kilifi) rank among the poorest in Kenya.
These counties also generally have high illiteracy rates and low rates of enrolment in schools and universities.
Land tenure is ambiguous or is not officially recognised. More than 60 per cent of indigenous coastal people do not possess title deeds to their land.
Others have entered into a kind of quasi squatter-tenant agreement with land owners.
The study shows that while Kenya’s new constitution offers a blueprint to address historical injustices related to land and other issues at the coast, most Coasterians (as the Wabara like to call them) are sceptical that “Kenyans” are committed to implementing its provisions in the coast region.
One respondent told Goldsmith, “We want our country back, not their constitution.”
This negative view of ongoing reforms is fuelled by the fact that the MRC is considered an illegal, criminal organisation by the government along the lines of Mungiki and other gangs that have adopted violent means to achieve their objectives.
But according to Goldsmith, there are few signs — yet — that the MRC is a violent movement or that it has links to terrorist organisations, as is often claimed.
It is more akin to peasant and class-based movements that have emerged in other parts of the world and its support base appears to be strongest in rural areas.
The government has refused MRC’s application to be registered as a civil society organisation and banned it in 2008. Police routinely disrupt its meetings and many of its members have been jailed.
The more appropriate response from the government and civil society organisations, says the study, would be to actively engage with the MRC leadership and to lift the ban on the organisation, if for no other reason than to monitor it and prevent it from forming associations with less desirable elements.
This might also quell the MRC’s rejectionist stance towards the Constitution and the forthcoming General Election, which it has vowed to boycott.
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