Mombasa Republican Council

Members of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) outside the Mombasa High Court during the mention of their secession case against the government.

| File | Nation Media Group

The origins and illusions of ‘Pwani si Kenya’ movement

What you need to know:

  • For 10 years, from 1953 to 1963, the Mwambao movement rallied in the Coast region.
  • Quickly, the Coastal People’s Party was formed and Abdullahi Nassir took its mantle.

Tears — some of joy, some of spite and some of fear mingled with rage — rolled down the cheeks of hundreds of Malindi residents as Ronald Ngala lowered the red flag of the Sultan of Zanzibar on December 1, 1961.

This was the culmination of numerous conferences and consultations in Kenya, Zanzibar and London.

Without those negotiations, a revolt led by Mwambao activists who fronted the idea that the coastal strip was not part of Kenya would have erupted just like the 1888 Abushiri rebellion in Zanzibar.

The phrase “Pwani si Kenya” (the coastal region is not part of Kenya) is not a new line in the Kenyan context, where there is some fragmentation and theories challenging the sovereign rule of inland Kenya over the coastal strip. But the lowering of the Sultanate flag was only part of a well-thought-out plan to bind the rebellious coastal residents to the soon to be birthed Kenyan State left under the care of leading inland politicians in Kanu and Kadu.

Proponents of the view that the coastline was not and has never been part of Kenya believe that one expediency — the 1895 treaty between the British and the Zanzibar Sultan — affirms their belief that they are a different people, belonging to a different sovereign state.

History records show that when the British colonists settled in Kenya, they were particularly piqued by the vastness of commerce along the coast. Mombasa proved to be a busy commercial trade centre and route that offered a favourable environment for trade between the Arabs at the coast and the inland folks.

But at that time, towards the tail end of the 19th century, the entire coastal strip was under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The coastline had been under Omani Sultans since 1840. Free movement existed between the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba and the “10 Mile Coastal Strip”, an area stretching from Vanga near the Kenya-Tanzania border to Kipini in Lamu, and the 10 nautical miles inland from that coastline, all of which was governed by the Sultan.

To get a hold over the coastal strip, it was agreed that the Sultanate would be paid an annual amount totalling 17,000 British pounds. Some 11,000 pounds would be for renting the strip while the rest would be three per cent interest on the 200,000 pounds that the Sultanate lent the British. Scholars discovered that the 200,000 pounds was never really given to the British, but rather the amount equalled the money that the Germans paid the Sultan. The annual rent was reduced to 10,000 pounds after the Sultan ceded Jubaland to the Italians in 1924.

A deal was struck that the coastal strip would be a British protectorate and the Sultan would still be the symbolic ruler of the region. But there was a caveat, that the buyers would maintain the strip’s Islamic practices and not interfere with the livelihoods of coastal residents. This was in 1895. Fifty years later, in the early 1950s, strife began.

Sultan Khalifa Bin Harub, an easygoing ruler who enjoyed playing golf and the finer things in life, was at the helm of Zanzibar when the tussle between his subjects and the British colonial masters, as well as the inland Kenyan leaders, was at its peak.

He symbolised the sovereignty of the coastal strip. His office, the Sultanate anthem and the flags all told residents in the coast — mostly the Arabs and the Swahili who were predominantly Muslims and the Sultan’s self-chosen subjects — that they were a sovereign people in their own state. 

This was evident in the Sultan’s 70th birthday in 1949, when his subjects issued clothes — red hats, T-shirts and ties that had yellow stars, just like the Sultanate flag — to emphasise that they were indeed sovereign. He died on October 9, 1960, leaving the troubled Kenyan coastline to his son, Sultan Abdullah bin Khalifa Al-Said. His son died less than three years later in Ugunja, Tanzania, and never saw the coastline ceded to Kenya a year later.

Avoid rebellion

As an act of expediency and to avoid any rebellion from the coastal folks, the Sultan’s flag would be raised from poles affixed to the ground while that of Britain would be hung from the top of their office buildings. This stemmed from ancient Arabic and Swahili culture that interpreted the flag’s hoisting seriously. If the flag hung from a pole dug in the ground, then whomever the flag represented, in this case the Sultan, was the ruler of the area.

Cognisant of this fact, the British agreed to hush any violence that could have arisen from hoisting their own flag from a flagpole and instead opted for the roofs of their offices. This compromise, however, over time, strengthened the belief that the Kenyan coastal strip was still under the Zanzibar Sultan.

The status quo remained, until it was apparent that the colonists were soon going home and that they were undoubtedly leaving Kenya to the Kanu and Kadu parties that were predominantly led by non-coastal people.

This was great news to the inland dwellers who had fought hard to gain their independence. But it spelled doom for the coastal folks, the Mwambao (Swahili word for coastline) residents. They felt that African-led self-government would not only do away with their sovereignty as a state under the Sultan but would also violate the Islamic faith and its teachings.

Rants that the coast is not part of Kenya then began. For 10 years, from 1953 to 1963, the Mwambao movement rallied in the Coast region. Quickly, the Coastal People’s Party was formed and Abdullahi Nassir took its mantle.

Together with the Arabs who dominated the Coastal League, Lamu-based Shungwaya Freedom Party, Malindi’s Kenya Protectorate Nationalist Party and the Bajuni people, who were also facing threats in Kenya’s tussle with Somalia over boundaries, the movement decided in earnest to prevent the enjoining of the Coast with mainland Kenya.

Most of the Mwambao members were predominantly Arabs and the Swahili. To deal with social complexities that arose from that fact, Mr Nassir involved more Africans in the movement.

The movement now pitted two sovereignties against each other; one a majority led largely by inland Kenyans who wanted the unification of the entire coastal strip to the mainland and the other composed of self-subjects of the dynastic Sultanate.

Soon, the two sides began clashing in the Coast. This was especially exacerbated by the fact that at least 4,000 mainland Kenyans were moving to the Coast annually beginning in the 1950s. This created a lot of friction and tension, with Coast natives believing that these newcomers would grab their lands and resources.

All along, the Sultanate loyalists had spread the notion that the inlanders lived parasitically off their labour. As such, they treated the “foreigners” with mistrust and always pushed them to return to “their country”.

Seeking to confirm the Sultan's "ownership" of the coast, the organisation also sought to revise the 1895 treaty to increase the 10,000 annual rent that had been reduced from 11,000 in 1915. They argued that the amount did not match "the present and potential value of this land, economically, politically, and strategically", and thus the Sultanate was not "enjoying the full benefits of its sovereignty over us".

Arabs from Zanzibar had established important political links with Egypt after the Second World War, and they used these ties to broadcast anti-colonial discourses on Egypt's radio airwaves.

The leading programme announcer on Egypt’s “Voice of Arabs”, Ahmed Said, celebrated Mwambao as an anti-colonial struggle:

"O! Arabs. News has reached us that an Arab Islamic Nation is being established in Zanzibar and the Coastal Strip of East Africa... It is our duty then to assist this blessed movement, so as to glorify it, support it and bring it up to join our Arab Procession... Arab Nationalism is penetrating the East African Jungle and Central Africa,” declared one of his announcements, recorded at Saut el-Arab on June 30 1956.

“The Arab League of Nationals on the one hand and the Arab Nations extending from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf on the other hand should help our Brothers in Kenya and Zanzibar.”

The year 1956 was full of intrigues. Whereas Mwambao’s status was going international, there was a matter known as the Suez Crisis. This affected the trade route for ships coming from the Mediterranean and the colonisers proposed that they establish a British naval base in Mombasa.

This development was contested heatedly by Kenya’s two Arab legislative council members, who said the Sultan’s sovereignty and Arab consent were being trampled upon.

Noting things were spiralling out of hand, Kenya’s governor then, Patrick Muir Renison, wrote to the Colonial Office. The Colonial Secretary, Ian MacLeod, contracted Sir James Robertson, the ex-governor of the Nigerian state, to form a commission of inquiry that would seek an amicable solution to the impasse.

The commission was to weigh whether the 1895 treaty should “be amended or abrogated in light of the constitutional future of Kenya and Zanzibar”. By 1961, the Robertson Commission had begun its meetings with locals after making several inquiries with the resident British officials in Kenya and Zanzibar. In October that year, tension on the coast was palpable.

Tomorrow:Read why the colonial authorities concluded the protectorate (the coastal strip) was not a viable autonomous entity, fallout at the Coastal Strip Conference and the unification of the Kenyan colony (mainland) and the protectorate.