On the night of June 15, 2014- less than two weeks ago, witnesses observed several vans filled with men enter the town of Mpeketoni and stop at the local police station. Subsequent reports now claim that these same policemen had been notified of a possible attack upon the residents living in the area earlier in the day making what eventually occurred a most tragic event indeed. After the masked gunmen who carried AK-47’s and spoke Swahili secured the station they divided their original group of 50 into smaller units then headed off to terrorize the nearby neighborhoods of Mpeketoni and Kibaon in search of infidels; shooting those who declared they were Christians and sparing those who could recite verses from the Qur`an accurately. While some of these brigands engaged in cold- blooded murder others set fire to local hotels, restaurants, and an assortment of administrative buildings creating orphans and widows in their wake. Two nights later a group of similarly armed, masked men appeared in the villages of Majembeni and Poromoko intent on looking for Christians while setting the homes of many longtime residents ablaze. By the time this killing spree had ended 58 people lay dead and another 30 had been declared “missing persons”.
Then in the aftermath of this slaughter things became doubly confusing. At first local media attributed these horrific events to the Islamic terrorist organization al- Shabaab claiming that the Somalia extremist group had assumed credit for these attacks claiming they were in retaliation for the presence of Kenyan military in Somalia and for the wanton slaughter of fellow Muslims there. But then Uhuru Kenyatta appeared on national television to give a much different explanation of the massacres. He declared that the attacks were the work of disgruntled politicians and opposition parties living in Lamu Province instead. Men who had sought to do some ethnic cleansing of their own in retaliation for past grievances over property rights and illegal land transfers. Not only that, Kenyatta claimed that these attacks were purposely directed at the descendants of some 30,000 Kikuyus now living along the coast who had been brought there by his father in the 1970’s as part of the Lake Kenyatta Settlement Scheme. In order to house his Kikuyus, the first President of Kenya took ancestral lands away from the Oromos and the local Muslims living in the area at that time who had laid claim to this territory for centuries. According to Uhuru Kenyatta, these were revenge killings carried out by fellow Kenyans who wanted the Kikuyu off their land and out of their villages. The Kikuyu tribe is one of the largest tribes in Kenya today whose ancestral home is located in central Kenya at the base of Mount Kenya. And to prove this, by the following week Wednesday, June 25, 2014 the Lamu County Governor himself- one Issa Timamy was arrested on charges relating to these heinous attacks.
And things became stranger still as Kenyatta and other members of his cabinet hinted that somehow former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga was linked to these attacks. Cabinet Secretary of the Interior & Coordination of the National Government, Joseph Ole Lenku went as far as to blame the current opposition party, The Coalition for Reforms & Democracy (CORD) for the attacks knowing full well that Mr. Odinga is the current leader of this party. On Friday, June 13, 2014 Odinga held the first in a series of rallies planned throughout Kenya to force Kenyatta’s government to address three of the most critical issues facing the country as of 2014: the rising cost of living, the escalation of terrorism within the country, and the reform of Kenya’s present electoral body.
Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe from the Lake Victoria region, had failed at his third bid for the Presidency of Kenya during the March 2013 elections while Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu himself, had won the election. But with only a 50.5% margin of victory; he had not won this election by a considerable landslide leading many to believe that he was not the “people’s choice” as he’d previously described himself in campaign speeches.
In the 2007 Presidential election after running and losing to the incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, also a member of the Kikuyu tribe, Odinga refused to accept the electoral commission’s decision and riots soon erupted on the streets of many major cities pitting Kikuyus against Luos and Kalengins. Finally in order to restore peace to the country President Kibaki resurrected the position of Prime Minister for Odinga making him the second Prime Minister in the country’s history since its independence from Britain. But in all fairness, Odinga’s claims of political wrongdoings during the 2007 elections were proven to be valid. Uhuru Kenyatta, even though he is a standing President, has since been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is expected to stand trial for crimes committed during the 2007 elections where over 1,000 people died and thousands more lost their homes and were forced to relocate to refugee camps.
So who is really behind the senseless slaughter of local residents in coastal Kenya? Many Kenyans would tell you that the new and improved Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has had a hand in this brutal violence. This separatist organization was first established in 2008 as a platform for Muslims and Christians living along the coast especially in and around Mombasa to express their unhappiness with the substandard economic and social conditions they feel have been caused by the Kenyan government and their desire to secede from Kenya in order to create their own independent state. There is a catch-phrase in Kiswahili often bantered around the streets of Mombasa, “Pwani Si Kenya,” which means, “The coast is not Kenya.” Many residents there are convinced that the creation of a new country along the coastline would give the local tribesmen possession of their ancestral lands once again – those same lands that had been stolen away from them by any number of conquerors from the British and Persians to the Portuguese and Arabs.
The MRC is currently based in Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya and the oldest with a history steeped in warfare and violence. Recently the MRC reshaped itself aligning themselves to Islamic interests which has caused many residents of Mombasa to wonder if it’s also connected itself to Islamic terrorist organizations such as al- Shabaab or Kenya’s own al- Hijra as well? It’s common knowledge around the city that the current leadership of the MRC is being funded by wealthy and influential Arabs living in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It’s also no surprise that Yeman’s considered one of the foremost training centers for al- Qaeda-connected terrorists, Results of a current survey conducted by the researcher, Paul Goldsmith on the influence of the MRC found that the organization had almost “universal” support among the people living along the coast.
In July 2012, the current Chairman of the MRC, Omar Mwamnwadzi, made this dire prediction concerning the future of Kenya’s coastal belt. “There will be no peace, this I cannot hide from you. The coast will have no peace at all.” Although he was referring to the 2013 elections which did take place in Mombasa without considerable violence his warning has never appeared more true than in the year 2014. Mwamnwadzi also stated that the people of the coast have a perfect right to secede from Kenya now because Kenya no longer has any title to this 11.8 mile strip of land. He bases his claim on a June, 1963 accord document supposedly signed by then Prime Minster Jomo Kenyatta and Mohamed Shante, Sultan of Oman granting the newly independent country of Kenya a 50 year lease on the 19 km strip of coastline known as Zanj of which Mombasa is a central part. He also stated that the MRC is in possession of physical documents and signatures that prove his claim. According to Mwamnwadzi, Kenya’s lease expired in June of 2013 meaning that Kenya has no legal right to Zanj anymore.
Government officials have taken a different view of the situation especially their interpretation of the supposed lease. In their version the 1963 Lancaster Negotiations as they were called at the time, recommended that this same strip of land be made a permanent part of Kenya and that the Sultan of Oman was compensated with money and other favors for the transfer of his land at that time once all of the documents relating to the negotiations had been signed. But members of the MRC have remained firm on their intention to create a separate state in order to right the wrongs done to them over the past centuries. Their goal- to take back the land belonging to the indigenous peoples of the coastline from those who currently control it- namely people from “up country” ( inland Kenya) the bulk of whom are Members of Parliament and government officials living in Nairobi. They remind everyone that until recently only the President of Kenya could approve of the sale of beach property along Kenya’s 300 mile coastline and that Jomo Kenyatta appropriated large parcels of land along the coastline for himself as soon as he became President of Kenya. This same property continues to be owned by his descendants. And members of the MRC are correct in claiming that most of Kenya’s shoreline belongs to the political elite of Kenya rather than the people who’ve lived there for centuries.
There is a strong Islamic influence throughout this island city and the mainland coast evident in its architecture and daily routines. Although Muslims make up only 11 % of the total population of Kenya, 60% of them live along the coast. And so, delicate, white minarets dot the winding landscape while muezzins use loud speakers to call the faithful to prayer, (adhan) five times a day. According to historical records Mombasa is an ancient settlement founded by Shehe Mvita, a Muslim of great learning, in 900AD. Eventually his descendants transformed the city into what it is today. There are still direct descendants of Shehe Mvita living in Mombasa enough so, that they actually have been given a name- “ Thenashaw Taifa” or The Twelve Nations.. Control of Mombasa alternated between the Sultan of Oman and the Portuguese from1593 until 1824 then the British took over in 1826. The Sultan of Oman returned again from 1826 – 1887 and the East African Protectorate (Britain) from1887 until Kenya’s independence in 1963. For many years Mombasa served as the capital of the East African Protectorate until the British finally made their capital city Nairobi in 1906.
I visited Mombasa with friends during the summer of 2007, lived in a white, stucco villa located on Shelly Beach and can still recall how the sensual odor of fresh jasmine mingled with the scent of the Indian Ocean as I made my way through the small shops located around Fort Jesus. In my mind there is no finer city in the world and I can understand why its residents would give their lives to keep it that way. Which is why it bothers me greatly to think that Mombasa may never experience a peaceful day again- not until the government of Kenya really starts listening to its Muslim constituency?
Mombasa has been called, “Kisiwa Cha Mvita” in Kiswahili meaning “island of war”. This is an apt description lately whether because of riots between Christians and Muslims or violent retaliations by Kenyan police. Mombasa has been on the verge of revolution for a full decade now and it seems that the current violence has pushed it far closer to the “edge of no return” than ever before. In my previous blog post I discussed the formation of Kenya’s terrorist organization- al- Hijra and the reasons young Muslim boys are attracted to terrorist organizations in the first place. Kenyan Muslims have claimed for five decades now that they have been systematically swindled out of land and businesses by inland Kenyans especially politicians who own large shares in the many resort hotels lining the coast plus they see little monies from a most profitable tourist industry which fills only the government’s coffers. And although Mombasa is the major shipping port supplying all of East and Central Africa with goods, the port itself is controlled not by locals but by a government which excludes Muslims from its employ.
I think that if history has taught us anything it’s that happy people make poor terrorists. People who are respected by the community, have good jobs, earn enough money to make personal plans and fulfill their dreams don’t go around causing trouble. But them that have no hope of building a better future for themselves and no means of improving their lot in life- they’re the ones capable of carrying AK-47’s in the streets and hiding bombs inside matatus. Until the Kenyan government understands this nothing in Mombasa will change- in fact it will only get worse.
Give these boys good- paying jobs where they can master skills that expand their horizons and watch their attitudes change. Respect their choice of religion and culture by seeing to it that tourists staying in the many resorts clothe themselves decently when walking through the streets or visiting the local marketplaces. See to it that alcohol and drugs are kept away from children and adolescents- not sold out on the streets as so much candy like they are now. Help plan a peaceful future for these young men or they will plan a much more violent one for themselves. And intolerance will only exasperate the situation no matter your belief in the effectiveness of a heavy hand. People who have no reason to hope are a dangerous breed indeed – undeniably prone to anarchy. In the words of the conscience of 60’s, poet/ songwriter Bob Dylan “When you got nothing- you got nothing to lose.”
So who’s responsible for the massacre around Mpeketoni? What does it matter when the outcome’s sure to be the same? Whether or not the current killings are the work of opposition parties, Somali terrorists, or a disenfranchised Muslim population in the end more violence in response to these actions by the Kenyan government will only divide coastal loyalties further and push people into using more violence. The MRC claims that it has not yet joined forces with terrorist organizations but as more and more young men return to Mombasa from the training centers in Somalia thoroughly skilled in the art of terrorism and join the MRC what then?
On Tuesday, June 10, 2014 Sheikh Mohamed Idris chairman of Kenya’ Council of Imam and Preachers was shot to death by armed men driving by on motorcycles as he left his house to attend morning prayers. Idris had been threatened by members of al- Hijra and al- Shabaab for urging Muslim youth not to join with terrorist groups. He had been run out of the mosque he had served for the past 35 years by young men armed with knives because of his stand against violence and the fourth cleric to be assassinated in Mombasa in the past two years. Out of a total population of 1.2 million people now living in Mombasa, over 300,000 or 37% are Muslims. Their high numbers alone ensure that they can provide an unlimited amount of warriors willing to participate in open rebellion. Young Muslim men have demonstrated that they have become a force to be reckoned with and whether it’s due to their lack of education, meaningful employment, or zealous beliefs they will be the ones leading the revolution as Mombasa erupts and it surely will.
Kat Nickerson Kingston, RI