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Kenya’s Past as Prologue

Christian Thibon
Marie-Aude Fouéré
Mildred Ndeda
et al.

“The Grassroots Are Very Complicated”: Marginalization and the Emergence of Alternative Authority in the Kenyan Coast 2013 Elections

Ngala Chome

Note de l’auteur

This article was originally published in French under the title “Marginalisation politique et politisation des structures alternatives de pouvoir dans la province de la côte au Kenya: Analyses des dynamiques électorales et des pouvoirs politiques locaux” DOI: 10.3917/afco.247.0087 (Afrique Contemporaine, n° 247, Élections Kenya, © De Boeck Supérieur s.a., 2013 1re édition, Fond Jean-Pâques 4, B-1348 Louvain-la-Neuve).

Texte intégral


1After the re-introduction of multi-party politics in the 1990s, anxieties about future political possibilities on the Kenya Coast have generally driven various individuals and grassroots organisations into making appealsfor regional unity and regional autonomy, including a much publicised secessionist demand on the run-up to the 2013 general elections (Willis and Chome, 2014; Willis and Gona, 2012). These individuals and organisations (e.g. the Mombasa Republican Council, the Coast People’s Forum and the Mijikenda Council of Elders) have not only imagined and spoken for a wider Coastal political community (Wapwani, meaningpeople of the Coast) but have from time to time made clear their dissatisfaction with Members of Parliament (MPs) representing Coastal constituencies in the National Assembly; they claimed that the MPs have failed in addressing the ‘marginalisation’ of the Coast region from national politics and key institutions of governance at the political centre.

2In 2010 and 2013– that is, between the promulgation of a new constitution and the general election–these discussions assumed a central place in coastal and to an extent, national politics. The Mijikenda Council of Elders Association (MICOSEA) highlighted the frustrations that the “indigenous” people of the Coast had had with their formal political representatives; arguing that disunity amongst Coast leaders had undermined the region’s influence on the national political stage and thus had marginalized it. This included an affront onthe educated ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of coastal “natives”, who – according to the self-proclaimed “elders” of MICOSEA, and other individuals claiming to speak for organizations such as the Malindi District Cultural Association (MADCA) and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) – have “forsaken” their uneducated ethnic kin in their flight to the capital Nairobi, or into the diaspora. This discourse rejecting formally elected representatives and the educated elite also speaks to a longer historical narrative along the Kenyan Coast – one that rejects a Kenyan state perceived to have devastated the economic and cultural futures of its “native peoples”. This discourse underpinned the politics of the MRC, a secessionist group that demanded coastal independence on the grounds of political marginalization by the central government (Willis and Gona, 2012).

  • 1 Part of Kenya’s political lexicon meaning ‘not of the Coast’.

3These recent developments in Coastal politics are not very new. Political marginalisation has been the central and overriding theme animating politics on the Coast Region since the late colonial era. It has also been the focus of a modest but growing academic scholarship (e.g. Stren, 1970; Mazrui, 1997; Mazrui, 2000; Meilink, 2000; Gona, 2008). This chapter interrogates the role of political marginalisation in shaping political consciousness along the coast of Kenya and the consequences for electoral politics in the 2013 general elections. In particular, the chapter examines the politicisation of alternative structures of authority under the context of the marginalisation of Coastal MPs on the national political stage by mostly MPs from upcountry1 regions between 2002 (at the end of the Kenya African National Union rule and dominance) and the 2013 general-elections. During this period ethno-regional coalition building and negotiation – a key feature of Kenyan politics – became much more contentious. As Lynch (2006: 49) has observed, “he negotiation of ethno-regionalism [became] inexorably intertwined with common perceptions of how political representation and redistribution actually works”. Following in this precedent, the perception by most who consider themselves as indigenous to the Coast that their MPs had failed in the negotiation of a Coastal political community and its interests (Gona, 2008); explains why various individuals with other forms of authority (educated, religious, traditional) took it upon themselves in speaking on behalf of the people of the Coast – leading to the emergence of what I refer to as alternative authority in Coastal politics.

4The perceived marginalisation of the former Coast Province by the Kenyan state is not only read from the low status of Coastal politicians in national politics but also from the poverty and the low socio-economic levels of those considered as ‘indigenous’ to the Coast. However, there exist different readings of marginalisation amongst the imagined community of the people of the Coast. For most Mijikenda, marginalisation is expressed as a loss of ancestral land (to both Arab and up-country communities) and is rooted in conditions of serious impoverishment and social exclusion; “finding themselves on the lowest rung of the ladder of capitalism and feeling like outsiders in most national political proceedings” (McIntosh, 2009: 37). For Arabs, encroachment on land and privilege acquired during the colonial period, and the perceived threatening of Islamic institutions by the predominantly Christian upcountry groups forms the main reading of this marginalisation (Willis and Chome, 2014). Indeed, these feelings of marginalization and apparent political weakness on the national political stage have led others in describing the Coast Region as the least national in terms of power, influence and orientation (Mazrui, 2000).

5The result of this overall marginalization is that Coastal MPs have become a quintessential class of privileged elites – one that may wield much power, but have little authority; one that may enjoy great economic influence but little political acceptance. The contention is that since Coastal MPs have a relatively weaker anchorage in Kenya’s political economy (compared to their Kalenjin, Luo or Kikuyu counterparts), they cannot effectively provision neo-patrimonial ethnic structures that seem to give politicians elsewhere in Kenya the much needed political legitimacy. This serves to constrain their wider legitimacy amongst those considering themselves as being from the Coast. In examining this discourse of marginalisation and how it interacts with ideas of political representation and legitimacy on the Coast (and the consequent politicisation of alternative authority structures), the chapter engages with a wider literature on African politics and specifically on the nature and role of institutions of political representation.

6Most significantly, as I will argue, the strategic marginalisation of coastal MPs in the national sphere has weakened the legitimacy of formal political representation on the Coast Region, and of national politics in general. This in turn has enabled the emergence of an alternative space, with alternative political authority structures; these have sought – with varying degrees of success – greater respect and recognition, and wider legitimacy. A disclaimer is given: that these alternative spheres of authority, despite seeking and attaining enough space during 2010 and 2013 in local electoral politics, were seriously curtailed in influencing political outcomes due to the existence of multiple fault lines of race, ethnicity, business competition and personal rivalry, which divide the imagined community of the people of the Coast. To illustrate its main assumptions, the chapter will examine the case of the Mijikenda Council of Elders Association, the Coast Professional Forum and the Mombasa Republican Council.

7In addition, the chapter will briefly highlight the politicisation of the Church in Mombasa during 2010 and 2013. Concerned with rising political activism among those who consider themselves ‘indigenous’ to the Coast Region, the traditionally apolitical Christian community (predominantly up-country and chiefly resident in Mombasa) became politically active and involved during the 2013 general elections. However, the latter can also be considered part of an emerging wider pentecostalisation of politics in Kenya (Deacon and Lynch, 2013).

8The chapter proceeds as follows: the first section of the chapter considers the main discussions regarding representative politics in Africa, arguing that neo-patrimonial literature continues to be relevant in the understanding of Kenyan politics in general and of the Coast in particular. In this way, the pressure from the grassroots by MPs to be responsive to clientelistic demands is causing a politicisation of alternative authority structures since MPs find themselves constrained– due to a lack of resources caused in turn by a marginalisation from national political structures. The second section discusses the main political trends on the Coast from 2002-2013 by offering a contextual background to the emergence of alternative authority during the 2013 elections which will be considered in the third section of the chapter.

Patronage politics and the institution of the Member of Parliament

9The nature and role of African political institutions, and in particularly that of the Member of Parliament, has been the subject of much academic debate in Africanist political science. The main question has been whether political institutions in Africa, seen and described as neo-patrimonial, can endure. However, after withstanding a raft of reforms and interventions (structural adjustment, decentralisation, and democratisation) a number of analysts (e.g. Orvis, 2006; Lindberg, 2010) have sought to explain the durability of African political institutions that nonetheless remain neo-patrimonial – especially with the normalisation of multi-party elections in much of the continent.

10The idea, that “political clientelism is endogenous to its own existence” (Lindberg, 2010: 117) inherently assumes that neo-patrimonial structures will wither in the face of increased institutionalisation of political power in Africa (Posner and Young, 2007) and of decreasing wealth for furnishing patron-client relationships between voters and their representatives. To address this analytical problem – which priviledges a Western liberal democratic tradition that does not attach strong material and personal imperatives to political processes – Lindberg (2010) argues that in addition to the formal functions of Members of Parliament in Africa (legislative, representative, monitoring the executive etc.) a more informal role –the role of dispensing patrongae to constituents in terms of private and collective goods – should also be taken seriously. The contrast is that, while in Western liberal democracies the electorate expects politicians to ‘deliver the goods’ in terms of a promised public policy, law or adherence to a certain ideology, in much of Africa, where single-member district representation is also common, voters have continued to judge the performance of their parliamentarians mainly by their capacity to bring development projects to their constituents (Barkan, 1975).

11Migdal (1988) offers a more apt characterization of political institutions in general that is useful to an understanding of the role of the institution of Member of Parliament in Africa. In his examination of political institutions, Migdal (1988) argues that the mobilisation of power, in addition to structuring and constraining it, is a crucial element of political institutions and a key to their endurance. The contention is that the ability to mobilise power is related to the ability to deliver key components of people’s “strategies of survival,” their “blueprints for action and belief” comprising a mix of material resources and systems of meaning –myths and symbols that help explain their place in the world and how they can survive and perhaps prosper within it (Migdal, 1988: 26-27).

12In the above context, neo-patrimonialism, i.e. the personalisation of state public goods to sustain personal loyalties between a politician (patron) and a follower (client) and the apparent ethnicisation of these relationships, becomes a central operational logic within which power gains meaning and is legitimated. In African politics, the endurance of political institutions, formal or informal, within or without government, has thus been connected to their ability to provide ‘goods of modernity’ (school bursaries, construction of schools, roads and slaughterhouses etc.) and in ‘linking’ the population to the government (Branch and Cheeseman, 2006).

13In the context of the above analysis, in Kenya, and in much of Africa, elections have been described as referenda on the performance of individual MPs in obtaining resources for their local community (Barkan, 1979). Therefore, the fact that Coastal MPs are marginalised from access to resources at the disposal of what has been an overly-centralised state – dominated by elites representing other ethno-regions – has meant that their legitimacy in mobilising and speaking for or on behalf of ‘Coastals’ is largely constrained. In sum, Coastal MPs are expected by their electorate to respond to clientelistic demands and find an effective way to address ‘historical injustices’ in order to resolve a widespread sense of marginalisation in the region (Gona, 2008). It is under this context that the emergence of alternative authority structures in Coastal politics is explained. Before doing so, we will turn to the major trends in Coastal politics between 2002 and 2013.

The “loss” of majimbo and the political marginalisation of Coast Region politicians (2002-2013)

14In local debates, as highlighted above, a central discursive theme features constant public resentment by Coastal people against Coastal MPs. This relates to the theme of political marginalisation on the Coast, where ordinary citizens considering themselves as belonging in the Coasthave from time to time expressed publicly the disavowal of Coastal MPs, including voting them out during elections or not participating in elections at all. According to Gona (2008: 252), “the elected leadership has failed the Coast because when it came to making hard choices and decisions on issues that they promised in campaigns to address (crucially the land question, perception of marginalization and the quest for equitable distribution of national resources) the leaders have walked away from the people”. This proves a strong sense amongst common people on the Coast that problems affecting them would not be solved by their current representatives and especially if no form of strong regional autonomy is attained.

15A former system of decentralisation: the quasi-federalist or regionalist form referred to in Kenya’s political lexicon as majimbo was therefore widely popular on the Coast and on other regions such as the Rift Valley where domination by other communities, particularly Kikuyu–in land and civil service jobs – has been feared. Majimbo was described as an “alternative vision” of the independent Kenyan state, “a proposal for decentralisation in which six or more provinces comprising independent Kenya would have equal status” (Anderson, 2005: 547). Regionalism was short-lived, deemedby powerful sections of Kenya’s ruling eliteas destabilising in its design and “tribalistic” in its intentions. However, the politics and expectations of majimbo, which was meant in its adoption in the 1960s to protect minority ethnic communities against majority ethnic communities (Nyanjom, 2011), continued to influence political consciousness among the Coast people. In particular, the majimbo idea (or regional autonomy) determined how leadership was perceived by voters on the Coast, and functioned as a discursive repertoire embedded with the themes of autochthony, belonging and autonomy. In a nutshell, expectations by Coastal voters are in line with those that were intended with the majimbo project, and this has meant that MPs are expected by their electorate to be responsive to patronage and other kinds of political demands, framed less as patronage, yet imbuing an ethno-regionalist character.

16This is important because at the national level, the Coast Region has never had a serious political party and has produced only one presidential candidate, Chibule wa Tsuma, who ran on a Kenya National Congress Party (KNC) ticket in 1992 and came in a distant sixth. Coastal parties such as Shirikisho, Kadu-Asili, and Chama Cha Uzalendo have had little impact either nationally or regionally. This has made the Coast susceptible to parties originating elsewhere. This electoral weakness supplies the context for the Coast’s engagement in national politics of transition in 1997-2002, and in opposition politics from 2002-2007 and in 2007-2013, through NARC and ODM successively (see Table 1).

Table 1: Main political parties in Kenya 1997-2013




2013 elections



Coalition Government between PNU and ODM

JUBILEE Coalition



CORD Coalition

17After the 1997 general elections, which saw violent clashes targeting members of up-country communities in a suburb of Mombasa, new Coastal political leaders emerged, including Karisa Maitha and Najib Balala. These politicians became important opposition politicians in the former Coast Province as the country edged towards the general elections in 2002. Within the NARC party, Karisa Maitha and Najib Balala became the Coast’s point men, challenging and consequently replacing Katana Ngala and Sharif Nassir, both of KANU. Both Balala and Maitha went on to become important cabinet ministers in Mwai Kibaki’s first cabinet (2003-2004) as Ministers for Local Government and Tourism respectively.

18Maitha died in office in 2004 and did not see the conclusion of the constitutional review deliberations, widely referred to as the “Bomas Process.” Led by Yusuf Abubakar, the 24 Coast delegates at Bomas “demanded that 70% of regional revenue be retained and that control of minerals and ports be left to the Coast jimbo – in their view, a key concession” (Devereux, 2012: 19). The political marginalisation of Coast MPs in national politics would therefore soon begin after their failure to make sure regionalism or majimbo was included in what became referred to as the ‘Wako draft’ in 2005, named after the then Attorney-General, Amos Wako, who was then the government’s point man in the work of revising the document (Kramon and Posner, 2011). The draft would be rejected in a constitutional referendum the same year by 80% of the voters on the Coast Province, second only to voters on the former Nyanza Province, which posted a total of 87% opposed. After the constitutional referendum, President Mwai Kibaki dismissed his cabinet of ministers only to reinstate later what were seen as his loyal backers during the campaigns for the Wako draft. In the 2005 cabinet reshuffle, Najib Balala, the then MP for Mvita constituency, was sacked. Balala had become the symbolic head of the Coast region within the then emerging opposition coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Kenya, which had led the opposition campaign during the 2005 referendum.

19Therefore, after the referendum, the national opposition under ODM decisively captured the former Coast Province due to its earlier opposition to the ‘Wako draft’ and declared strong support for majimbo. Balala’s representation of the Coast within the ODM party did not go unchallenged by Mijikenda politicians – notably Morris Dzoro (Jibana), Anania Mwaboza (Chonyi), and Ali Mwakwere (Digo). All Mijikenda politicians, as a result of their loyalty to Kibaki’s government, had been appointed as heads or deputy heads of various ministries in the Government of National Unity (GNU) formed after 2005. They consequently challenged Balala’s pretensions as a Coast leader, claiming that he was an Arab rather than an ‘indigenous’ Coastal, and as such not worthy of the region’s leadership. However, these Mijikenda politicians – like Balala in ODM – were not part of the locus of power under the GNU. They also did not command any following in their own constituencies. With the exception of Mwakwere, whose election was successfully petitioned, they all lost their parliamentary seats in the 2007 general elections. When Raila Odinga, the ODM presidential candidate in the 2007 general elections, lost the presidency to Mwai Kibaki, Najib Balala was marginalized within ODM power structures and acquired a more absentee posture in national politics; he kept to matters within his ministry as he eventually moved out of Raila’s camp, edging towards the then-emerging camp led by Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, and founding his own party, the Republican Congress (RC), in 2012.

20After the 2007 general elections (where, following the National Accord and Reconciliation Act, ODM and PNU each received 50% of government appointments), the coalition’s cabinet appointments illuminated the insignificance of Coast politicians within government. Both Ali Mwakwere (then Matuga MP) and Najib Balala (then Mvita MP) were appointed full cabinet ministers. In addition to the appointments of Amason Kingi (then Magarini MP) and Dr. Naomi Shabaan (Taveta MP), the Coast Region received only 10% of the positions in the grand coalition cabinet. In addition, these Coast ministers owed allegiance to their parties and to appointing authorities rather than to their electorate, as demonstrated by their inability to take unified stands on matters that affected the Coast (unlike their counterparts in Central Kenya, Luo Nyanza or the Rift Valley) – as well as by Mwakwere’s campaign politics during the Matuga by-election in 2010.

21Rhetoric employed by PNU stalwarts and cabinet ministers (such as Beth Mugo and the late George Saitoti) in this by-election almost amounted to the blackmailing of Matuga voters. Campaigning for Mwakwere, they reiterated that Matuga voters, and all ‘Coastals’ by extension, would lose the bendera (ministerial flag) if they did not send Mwakwere back to parliament, since President Kibaki had allegedly reserved the seat for him. Mwakwere consequently returned to parliament and was re-appointed to the cabinet. Appointing MPs to the cabinet completed (in Kenya’s former hybrid system) a presidentialist patronage system foundered on an extensive clientelist network of regional and district-level leaders (Barkan, 1979; Widner, 1994). This meant that the less the number of ministers appointed from a region, the less patronage the region receives from goods controlled by the state.

22During the time of the Matuga by-election, the government had endorsed yet again, a proposed draft for a new constitution that introduced new counties on Kenya’s geo-political map. The 2010 Constitution’s provisions on devolution received mixed reactions on the Coast Region. The fact that they did not include extensive provisions on regionalism – as Coastal delegates had requested at “Bomas” five years earlier – may have contributed to the Coast having the widest turnout-to-registered-voter ratio in the country during the 2010 Constitutional Referendum (KNDR, 2010: 20). This meant that turnout was decisively lower than registration, which suggests that the 2010 Constitution did not sufficiently respond to the expectations that voters had at the time of their registration.

23This largely compromise and modest decentralization, that went on to be promulgated as part of a new constitution in 2010, was easily accepted by Coast MPs as they continued to play second fiddle to their up-country counterparts during Kibaki succession politics at the national level. The issues having the greatest effect on those who consider themselves indigenous to the Coast persisted unabated. Low representation in government, land evictions, poor results in national examinations, and the appointment of a Kikuyu managing director at the Port of Mombasa, with plans for port privatization initiated – all instilled concern and lack of trust towards the central government and Coast MPs. The continued absence and silence of Coast politicians on these issues did not improve matters. Therefore, when the MRC coined the rallying call “Pwani Si Kenya”’ (the Coast is not part of Kenya), it provided a kind of gestalt “… subordinating the host of grievances and problems that are typically debated on their own basis into a single point” (Goldsmith, 2011: 22). This pulled the rug out from under the feet of Coast MPs claiming to represent Coastal grievances. The emergence of the MRC opened a chapter in Coastal politics in which MPs lost the monopoly to speak about issues that touched the hearts of the populace. It was thus felt that since the death of Karisa Maitha in 2004, no other Coast MP had come close to claiming the title of ‘regional patron’. In this case, professionals, in the name of Coast Professional Forum, emerged to feel the gap that existed in articulating Coastal problems.

The Coast People’s Forum and other professional associations

24Joe Khamisi, a sophisticated and accomplished bureaucrat who also served as MP for Bahari constituency in 2003-2007, founded the Coast People’s Forum (CPF) in 2006 (Daily Nation, April 4, 2006). After his loss in the 2007 parliamentary elections to Benedict Gunda, he left the organization in the hands of the educated elite of Coast Province. CPF would remain docile until conversations on a new constitutional dispensation resumed under the auspices of the Committee of Experts in 2009-2010. Its major successes have included the organization of the Coast Province Investment Conferences, civic education about the 2010 Constitution to push for its passage in the Coast Region, and successful lobbying for the formation of a Task Force with a mandate to look into the issues of Coastal marginalization.

25Its political origins notwithstanding, CPF’s stated objectives are civic engagement and the promotion of socio-economic activities (The Constitution of the Coast People’s Forum, 2006: 1). It also includes an online discussion group called “Wapwani” where the educated coastal elite debate and converse about regional issues. In these discussions and in the CPF constitution, “failure of leadership” in the Coast Region forms a core theme. Combined with the Coast’s history of electing parliamentarians of low or questionable educational credentials, the conveners of CPF felt that time had come for Coast Region professionals to unite and engage with the region’s political problems.

26For a long time, many Coastal professionals had been at the very best apolitical. A class small in number, many of them had worked hard in school and secured important national and international jobs without relying much on political patronage. Their position in Kenya’s political economy therefore stands outside the usual dynamic, in which the changing tides of identity politics determine career paths in both the civil service and the private sectors. Since political processes have not directly aided their ascension in either sector – their advancement has often come through sheer diligence in school and the professions – they have also tended to alienate themselves from their communities and grassroots civic programs. The less-fortunate who consider themselves Coast natives or “Coasterians” generally paint the more fortunate and educated elites as unhelpful and selfish; they are seen as not “getting” their kin jobs and the right connections the way their Up-country counterparts supposedly do. The Coast Professional Forum (CPF), in many ways, sought to bridge this gulf.

  • 2 The most noted example is that of the Likoni MP, Masoud Mwahima, a primary-school drop-out.

27Coastal professionals, in veiled attacks on their MPs, have also claimed legitimacy – and the right to make statements on behalf of the community – through their educational achievements, credentials that Coast MPs could not match. Most members of the CPF are accomplished university professors, bankers, IT specialists, and university students, clearly differentiated from the caliber of people who represent the Coast Region in the national assembly.2 After the passage and promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, members of the CPF and its allied associations (such as the Kwale KUU and the Kinango professionals) used their participation in these organizations as springboards for political office. Many also presented themselves for appointments in various constitutional offices. For example, Murshid Abdallah, a Mombasa-based lawyer and member of the CPF, applied unsuccessfully to two constitutional commissions before he was appointed to the National Police Service Commission. Dr. Mohamed Swazuri, a land expert and also a member of the CPF, was appointed Chairman of the National Land Commission. Mohamed Alawy, a former Company Secretary at the Kenya Ports Authority was appointed to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Other Coast professionals (as shown in Table 2) who might or might not have been CPF members claimed to speak for Coast residents by virtue of their educational and professional achievements. These professionals also stood for elective seats, particularly for the newly-created position of county governor during the 2013 elections

Table 2: Coast professionals who vied for political office


Professional Career

Contested Political Office

John Mruttu

Former Managing Director of Kenya
Pipeline and Oil Refinery

County Governor, Taita Taveta

Jacinta Mwatela

Former Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Kenya

County Governor, Taita Taveta

Suleiman Shahbal

Chief Executive Officer, GulfBank

County Governor, Mombasa

Abdallah Mwaruwa

Former Managing Director, Kenya Ports Authority

County Governor, Mombasa

Ibrahim (Babangida) Khamis

Career Banker

County Governor, Mombasa

Hassan Omar Sarai

Former Vice-Chairperson, Kenya National Human Rights Commission

Senator, Mombasa County

Prof. Gabriel Katana Gona

Professor at Pwani University College

Governor, Kilifi County

Naomi Sidi

Former Deputy Managing-Director, Kenya Airports Authority

Women Representative, Kilifi County

Salim Mvuria

Former Manager, Plan International

County Governor, Kwale County

Mohamed Mwachai

Former Permanent Secretary

County Governor, Kwale County

28In all these contests, professionals ran in direct confrontation with former Coast MPs. This led to a competition between a “new” kind of politics that invoked professional and managerial efficacy and an “old” p politics that appealed to the affective side of representation, based in identity and membership. This does not mean that the “new politician,” steeped in a professional/managerial image, did not also make appeals to those less interested inefficacy. As Martin Sheffter (1994) has argued, politicians with access to state resources (those he called “internally mobilised”) were more likely to eschew programmatic appeals in favour of clientelism, while outsider politicians, whodo not benefit from such access, were more likely to adopt programmatic appeals as the only viable strategy to gain the support of significant segments of the population. This was epitomized by the Mombasa contest for the Senate seat between Hassan Omar and Ramadhan Seif Kajembe, and that between Suleiman Shahbal and Hassan Joho for the governor’s seat (Daily Nation, January 9, 2013).

29Many voters were drawn to the polls by more proximate political competitions; fivenew local-level seats were created in the 2010 Constitution (Willis and Chome, 2014). This explains the higher voter turnout for the general elections in 2013 compared to 2007 (Table 3). However, compared to the rest of the country, voter turnout in the Coast Region remained low, indicating a higher level of voter apathy (Table 4). Supremacy wars emerged between wealthy candidates, echoingrivalries in business circles in Mombasa; some candidates used violence and intimidation. “New politics” candidates, Suleiman Shahbal, Hassan Omar, Sureya Hersi (a county women’s representative candidate in Mombasa) and Awiti Bolo (then a Nyali parliamentary candidate and now an MP) forged a united front to call for peaceful elections. Omar, Shahbal and Bolo were singled out for personal attacks during the campaigns by alleged supporters of Hassan Joho, a seasoned politician.

Table 3: Voter registration and turnout trends in the Coast region 1992-2013



Voter Turnout

Voter turnout as% of total registration


640, 140




782, 179















Source: Electoral Commission of Kenya and Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Table 4: A comparison between Coast region and Central region voter turnout

Table 4: A comparison between Coast region and Central region voter turnout

Source: Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

30After their politicization – caused by but also driving the delegitimisation of formally elected representatives –coastal professionals had therefore sought to make their presence felt in local electoral spaces, with varying degrees of success and unity. In Kwale, when CPF brokered a deal between the Digo-dominated Kwale KUU and the Duruma-dominated Kinango professionals associations to share county positions equally amongst the county’s ethnic groups, ethnic sentiments won and the talks collapsed. The Kinango professionals, citing Digo domination, rejected the deal and formed an alliance with the Kamba community in Kwale; they voted as a bloc for Salim Mvuria, who won the governorship of the county.

31Even as the delegitimisation of formal representatives led to the politicisation and emergence of the coastal educated elite as a conscious class, one with self-appointed community and political roles, the Coast residents strong disaffection with national politics persisted (Willis, 2013). It remains to be seen how the relationship will shape between the region’s county governments, where professionals gained some seats, and the national government in the context of fulfilling the “Coast Agenda.” It is likely that the coastal populace will turn their interest more toward the working of county governments, as marginalisation of their MPs in national political arenas continues unabated.

The Mijikenda Council of Elders Association (MICOSEA)

32The Mijikenda Council of Elders Association (MICOSEA) was formed in 2004 solely for political functions, seeking to “offer guidance” to the Coast Region’s politicians.… MICOSEA differs from CPF on two grounds. It is based on traditional rather than educational primacy and has stricter criteria for membership: it speakssolely for members of the Mijikenda community. Modeled on the lines of the Mijikenda Union (formed in 1945 and disbanded in 1980), MICOSEA sought to exploit or foster a sense of “Mijikenda Unity” – a somewhat spurious unity in light of the actual disarray amongst Mijikenda politicians and their low status in national politics. The Mijikenda identity is itself a classic case of ethnic invention (Willis, 1993; Willis and Gona, 2013). The term originated with a group of mission-educated civil servants in the 1940s, and spread with the subtle support of colonial authorities; its success depended on the cultural affinities of the groups in question (Willis and Gona, 2013). Current historiographies – accepted as truth, taught in schools and “verified” by repetition – base this unified and discrete Mijikenda identity in a history of shared migration from Singwaya – a tradition which did not in fact exist before the twentieth century (Willis, 1993).

33An early success of the new Mijikenda identity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it was politicized in a nervous Coastal politics of autochthony against Arabs and Swahilis (Salim, 1971). The Mijikenda identity wasalso politicised during the ‘Likoni clashes’ in 1997 (Mazrui, 1997). Equally, it became harder to mobilize the Mijikenda politically after the death of Ronald Ngala in 1972 (Gona, 1990), and again after Karisa Maitha died in 2004. This was mainly as the result of the inability by formal political representatives representing Mijikenda constituencies to confer status upon the Mijikenda since their marginalisation in national politics reduced their access to the state’s largesse and related, intangible benefits of identity.

34Given the broad lack of identification with formal state institutions, traditional authorities have gained significance among the coastal Mijikenda on juridical matters around socio-cultural issues. Here, they exercise considerable influence. From time to time, they have also been appropriated by politicians to legitimise their elected offices. Therefore, taking on specific political functions, MICOSEA sought to “bring back unity”. This was a strategy to mobilize the Mijikenda, who would then dominate Coastal politics and bargain effectively at the national level. MICOSEA faced one major challenge from the outset – a lack of funds. One of its grand initial strategies (which failed during the run-up to the 2007 general elections) was to spur Mijikenda voter registration in Mombasa in order to elect Mijikenda MPs to all of Mombasa’s constituencies. The last time this strategy had worked was during the 1974 general elections, when the Giriama Union East Africa mobilized Mijikenda voters from Mazeras to register in Mombasa West (now the Changamwe and Jomvu constituencies) and vote for its vice-chairperson, Ferdinand Mwaro.

35MICOSEA’s only major success came in soliciting funds from Kamlesh Pattni, the architect of the infamous Goldenberg Scandal and his KENDA party; the funds purchased one bulldozer for each of the nine Mijikenda groups, to be used in agriculture. Also with Kamlesh Pattni’s support, MICOSEA sent some of its members to a meeting with former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in late 2010. Gaddafi promised money, but the Libyan crisis that deposed him intervened; in the meantime, Pattni had become the Chair of the House of Traditional Leaders.

36After the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, Patrick Birya, the chairman of the Mijikenda YouthAssociation under the auspices of MICOSEA, planned an event to announce the Mijikenda’s endorsement of the former managing director of Kenya Ports Authority, Abdalla Mwaruwa (a Digo technocrat), in the 2013 Mombasa gubernatorial elections. That support followed the lines of MICOSEA’s initial grand-strategy during the 2007 general elections, which, of course, had not succeeded. When Mwaruwa lacked the funds to support the endorsement event, Birya opportunistically approached Suleiman Shahbal (an Arab businessman and technocrat), who had just colourfully announced his interest in the governor position. Eventually, the Mijikenda Youth Association “endorsed” Suleiman Shahbal in early 2011 at a ceremony held at the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Hall in Mombasa. Shahbal went on to pick a Mijikenda running-mate, Emmanuel Nzai (a Mijikenda technocrat), and Birya used his accrued networks to become the national organizing-secretary of Uhuru Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA). Notwithstanding the importance of the traditional elders’ legitimacy as shown through its continued appropriation by political leaders, MICOSEA’s disintegration into a host of other organizations did not help its electoral influence; it often gave way to money and political expediency while failing to mobilize the Mijikenda vote.

The MRC: Just another political association?

37A year after the formation of MICOSEA, a new and more potent organisation announced its appearance in Kenya’s Coast Region. The “Republican Council” addressed a letter to Queen Elizabeth II that “set out, at considerable length, the multiple grievances of the Coast Natives” (Willis and Gona, 2012: 15). The list was familiar enough: “poor education access, the domination of Up-country people in public-sector jobs, the “grabbing of huge chunks of Coastal land” by Kenyatta and others” (Willis and Gona, Ibid). Referring to the Zanzibar Protectorate Agreement of 1890, the group claimed (inaccurately, on numerous grounds) that the treaty;

“provides a road map and a wholesale politico-administrative package” under which the Kenya Colony colonized by the British Governors, and the Coastal Protectorate (also known as Kenya Protectorate) colonized by the Arabs under Arab sultans, were to be two independent territorial entities with definite territorial boundaries and full and equal constitutional rights… […] And that since the 2004 “Bomas draft” of a new Kenyan constitution — a draft that would have addressed Coastal grievances — had been sabotaged by the “land grabbers,” therefore “we, the Coast Protectorate Natives, denounce the citizenship of Kenya,” and “the Coastal Protectorate, known as Mombasa, is declared a Republic of Mombasa from now – and is under the authority of the Republican Council”.

38The letter (Republican Council to Your Majesty, Queen of the United Kingdom, 2005) was signed by Omar Mwamnuadzi and twelve others, including H. R. Nzai. This group would not achieve substantive publicity until February 2012, when government security officers attempted to arrest its members at a local video bar in Likoni, Mombasa, and a clash ensued. By this time, calling itself the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), the group claimed to have registered about 80,000 members.

39Re-emerging in an environment marked by particularly strong feelings of apathy, hopelessness and disillusionment with the promise of national politics, the secessionist message of the MRC appealed to many Coast residents. This rejection of the Kenyan state also accompanied a rejection of Coast MP’s who, acting largely as clients of national politics, have generally failed to keep campaign promises when required to make hard choices on Coastal issues. Crucially, they have failed to address the land question, perceptions of marginalization, or the quest for equitable distribution of national resources (Gona, 2008). The MRC letters and citations of agreements, which continued to circulate along the Coast until the time of the 2013 elections, were the MRC leadership’s attempt to appropriate documentary knowledge and present a distinctive challenge to state legitimacy (Willis and Gona, 2012).

40The MRC’s popularity, while varying between parts of the Coast, has exceeded anything claimed for decades by any local political association. Justin Willis (2013) argues that the MRC provided the distinctive character of the 2013 elections in the Coast Region. The overall effect was that the leaders of the MRC, as astute grassroots mobilisers and efficient orators, had gained wide respect and recognition amongst self-identified Coasterians. They were quick to distance themselves from Coast MPs. While expressing his frustrations about the grassrootsresponse to the MRC secessionist calls (by leaders such as Omar Mwamnuadzi and Rashid Mraja), which bypassed the rational approach of the Coastal educated elites in CPF, one informant reiterated that “the grassroots are very complicated” (Interview, March 2013). What the latter might not have appreciated, however, is the extent to which the ‘grassroots’, frustrated by their feeling a decline in their status in Kenya – had come to distrust their elected officials and the calculated jargon of formal politics.

41The government responded by banning the MRC. The ban was lifted on 30 July 2012 by a three-judge panel; but the government responded by banning the organization yet again. A month after the government’s re-banning of the MRC more than 20 people were reportedly killed in attacks in Kaloleni, Mtwapa and Kwale. On 4 October, five people, including the bodyguard of the then-Fisheries Minister Amason Kingi, were killed in a remote village in Mtwapa when armed assailants interrupted a meeting he was addressing (Benyawa and Masha 2012). The motive and identities of the attackers were unknown, but suspicion immediately fell on the MRC. Reports indicated that one of the assailants shouted the MRC’s separatist slogan, Pwani si Kenya!. The next day, the government issued a statement threatening the leadership of the MRC with dire consequences. At this time, the government added another layer of accusations – the MRC was planning to disrupt that year’s national examinations on the Coast Region. The MRC leadership distanced itself from these accusations and all the attacks, claiming that the gang had no links with MRC, but were individuals hired to commit the crimes so that blame would fall on the group. The government did not explain how the visible leadership of the MRC (in this case, Mwamnuadzi, Mraja and Nzai) could muster the financial and organizational ability to pursue all the activities allegedly linked to them.

42However, on 14 October, the government’s crackdown on the MRC began, and more than 40 alleged members of the MRC were arrested. The MP nominee, Sheikh Dor was also arrested after he intimated in an interview that he would fund the MRC if they approached him. Interestingly, the then-Makadara MP, Gideon Mbuvi Sonko, (incidentally born and raised in Kwale), bailed the MRC leaders out of jail, asking them to go and preach peace – and they agreed.

43Conspiracy theories abounded, questioning the source of all these attacks. The most prevalent claimed that the attacks were organized to discourage voter registration and actual voter turnout, so as to favour the Jubilee Coalition, which had minimal support along the Kenyan Coast (Chanji, 2012). The incoherent nature of the MRC idea made it vulnerable to appropriation in other quarters, by actors who could use its popularity for their own gains. As a result, on the night before the election, separate yet similarly executed attacks occurred in different parts of the Coast Region, leading to the death of 10 security officers and a number of other people.

44Overall, the MRC idea, otherwise expressed as disaffection with national politics and with formal officials, became the ultimate symbol delegitimizing formal leadership in the Coast Region, giving rise to the significance of alternative authority structures, during the 2013 elections. In this context, the MRC was not merely another political association, but was also a form of political consciousness, one appealing to many who identify as Coasterians. As a result, among those considered indigenous, the MRC presented itself as a spontaneous reaction against marginalization that is seen by many at the Coast to be caused by the up-country communities and the passive reaction of Coastal MPs.

45In the urban centers, men from across Kenya have competed for jobs, working for the municipality, for the railway, and most of all, on the docks, with Coastal natives claiming primacy and feeling threatened (Willis and Gona, 2012). In the rural areas – mostly in Kilifi, Kwale, Tana-River and Lamu – contestations over claims to land based on indigeneity/autochthony have always been used against those based on settlement schemes. These have led to conflicts that pit peasant families that consider themselves as indigenous to the Coast against up-country residents from Central, Eastern and Western Kenya. Due to the predominance of up-country groups within the Christian community, chiefly based in Mombasa, the debates and discussions initiated by conversations about and around the MRC and Pwani si Kenya also took on a religious note. The formation of the Mombasa Church Forum after the 2010 constitutional referendum and the subsequent emergence of the Pwani Church, which I will consider shortly, attest to this.

Christians and Coasterians

46The interdenominational Mombasa Church Forum, led by Reverend Wilfred Lai of the Redeemed Gospel Church, actively campaigned for voter registration in Mombasa. For instance, it organised a registration rally in late 2012, when the MRC’s call for an electoral boycott was at its zenith. Additionally, the Mombasa Church Forum did not advocate for secession. On the other hand, the Pwani Church described itself as a confederation of Christian churches of “indigenous coastal peoples,” and asserted its support for the Mombasa Republican Council as a “spontaneous coastal people response to the long-standing grievances of the coastal people against the government of Kenya and… up-country immigrant communities” (Willis and Gona, 2012).

47Concern in the Christian community increased in late 2012, when two churches were burned in Mombasa following the brutal murder of a firebrand Muslim cleric, Sheikh Aboud Rogo. The fact that that the two main contenders for the Mombasa gubernatorial race, Suleiman Shahbal and Hassan Joho, were Muslim, also concerned the Mombasa Church Forum. A governor-candidates’ debate organized by the MCF saw Mombasa Christian leaders seeking assurances from Suleiman Shahbal that he would not turn Mombasa into a Muslim-Middle-Eastern enclave, as some accusations would have of him. A few days after the debate, the Mombasa Pentecostal Church endorsed its “Christian” candidate, the unaffiliated Tendai Mtana Lewa, the only other Christian in the race. He managed to garner about 10,000 votes.


48This chapter has argued that Coast residents’ disaffection related to the political marginalisation of Coast MPs at the national level has contributed to the emergence of alternative authority structures that, in turn, posit contending visions of primacy and legitimacy. As this article has shown, the authority of elected officials has been contested by alternative forms of politics and legitimacy. It remains to be seen what the role of these alternatives will become with the introduction of government devolution. As already noted, some of them (MICOSEA and CPF) tried to steer local outcomes during the 2013 general elections, in Mombasa and Kwale respectively. Most importantly, the Coast Region’s experience in the 2013 elections highlighted the failure of the elected to articulate a political community. In a country whose most salient political features include ethnic and regional brokerage, this added to the indigenous Coast residents’ feeling of political marginalization and their missing opportunities for participation. This explains the emergence of the MRC, CPF and MICOSEA, low voter participation rates, and the formal political representatives’ inability to mobilize the the Coast natives.



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1 Part of Kenya’s political lexicon meaning ‘not of the Coast’.

2 The most noted example is that of the Likoni MP, Masoud Mwahima, a primary-school drop-out.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 4: A comparison between Coast region and Central region voter turnout
Crédits Source: Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k


Commonwealth Shared Scholar for the year 2013-2014 at the Center of African Studies, University of Edinburgh and BIEA fellow.

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