By Kap Kirwok
October 27th 2012
Can you hear us now?
Now that the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has commanded our attention, the answer to this question is unequivocal: yes, we hear you loud and clear. Or do we? Do we understand the MRC phenomenon as a farce or a tragedy? Or, judging by suppressed chuckles in Oman and Zanzibar, a comedy?
Before we answer these questions, it helps to brush up on our history of the coast, particularly the ten mile coastal strip, in relation to the MRC grievance. In fact, it helps to brush up on the history of Kenya, indeed of East Africa as a whole.
And so I did. What I found is fascinating. A paper titled The ten Mile Coastal Strip by Dr. John Mwaruvie of Moi University published in the December 2011 issue of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science is particularly illuminating. The Star last Saturday also did a wonderful expository job.
But as I read this history, I realised that what I should really be reading is a good book or article titled: The long boring history of greed and folly. Or, a cautionary literary tale with the title: When greed weds folly, the baby is tragedy.
Consider this highly simplified and telescoped rendering. For millennia, coastal residents interacted and traded with visitors and traders from many parts of the ancient world – Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Asia in general. For ivory, rhino-horn, tortoiseshell, ostrich eggs, palm oil, and timber, they got metal tools, pottery and weapons, wine and wheat. And, yes humans were traded too! This goes on for thousands of years and among its famous products is a people and a culture called the Swahili.
Fast forward to the 15th Century and beyond. The Portuguese are seeking alternative routes for goods from the East – alternative to routes controlled by the potentially hostile Ottoman Empire. A chap by the name Vasco da Gama navigates around the African continent and stops at various points along the Easy African Coast and paves the way for Portuguese rule. The Swahili Muslim residents, fed up with Portuguese brutality and Christian influence, seek the help of the Sultanate of Omani who, after routing the Portuguese, promptly settle and expand their rule.
Through a combination of subterfuge and military conquest, dominion over the East African coast, and by extension, the Kenyan coast, changes hands several times in a span of five centuries – from the Portuguese to the Omani/Zanzibari Arabs to the Mazrui Swahili clan to the British imperialists, and finally to the independent Kenyan state.
One of the more idiosyncratic events at the height of the scramble for Africa towards the end of the 20th Century was the carving out of a strip of land – 10 miles wide and 750 miles long along the coastline from the mouths of Rivers Tana in Kenya to Ruvuma in northern Mozambique. The two super powers of the day – Britain and Germany –decided this was how far the Sultan’s influence extended. This was typical imperial mischief because, in reality, judging by slave outposts, the Sultan’s influence extended all the way to present day Democratic Republic of Congo. In a clear case of bribery, they pretend to ‘lease’ or to ‘buy’ the ten miles strip of land from the Sultan of Zanzibar in return for access to the vast interior. Why didn’t they simply take it by force, you may ask? Multiple treaties between Oman and other powers made that option risky.
Just before Kenya’s independence, the pretence was continued with an agreement between Jomo Kenyatta and Sheikh Muhammad Shamte Hamadi, the prime minister of Zanzibar. This agreement pretended to confer the 10 mile coastal strip and its inhabitants – so called Sultan’s subjects – special status. This was a display of realpolitik by Mzee Kenyatta.
Incidentally, the Mijikenda, broadly speaking, wanted to be integrated into the rest of Kenya. The Arabs, and to a lesser extend the Swahili, wanted the ten miles coastal strip to either be given autonomy or split to join the sultanate of Zanzibar.
And now the MRC folks say Pwani si Kenya. Okay. But who does Pwani belong? Does it belong to Jamshid bin Abdullah, the last Sultan of Zanzibar, or Qabus ibn Said Al Said the current Sultan of Oman? Does it belong to the Swahili or the Arabs? What about the Mijikenda? And is Pwani the ten mile strip, or does its boundary extend all the way to the far reaches of, say, Taita Taveta county more than 200 miles away?
History is full of cautionary tales, and the saga of the 10 mile coastal strip is certainly one of them.
The lesson is this: when power and greed encounter weakness, the result is human tragedy. Every time.