Early last week, the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Nic Hailey, flew to Mombasa for talks with two secessionist governors Ali Hassan Joho of Mombasa and Amason Kingi of Kilifi.
That the secession talk has drawn the interest of Western powers was not lost on observers.
The five hour meeting drew in the European Union ambassador Stefano Dejak, Danish’s Mette Knudsen, and the French ambassador Antoine Sivan.
Later in the day, both Mr Hailey and Mr Sivan were photographed walking briskly at the public beach, holding their jackets over the shoulders.
They were accompanied by Mr Kingi and Mr Joho.
Together, the diplomats had a terse message: “Kenya must remain united”, but both Mr Kingi and Mr Joho said they would not back down.
Still last week, the influential British newspaper, The Times, reported that “Russia is suspected of spreading disinformation in Kenya by suggesting that the UK has been interfering in the African country’s elections” and that this was “prompting anxiety in the Foreign Office.”
The Times, quoting a senior Whitehall source, said that these “Kremlin dirty tricks” were the source of anti-British propaganda in Kenya – an issue that could turn the country into a playground of Kremlin-Whitehall tussles.
During the Cold War, such propaganda used by the Soviet Union to disgrace Western institutions was known as dezinformatsiya – and seems to have been revived thanks to fake news, provocative tweets and bald-faced lies.
But it is the secession talk that is perhaps sparking anxiety in diplomatic circles; the reason why Western diplomats decided to have direct talks with the governors.
Self-determination and secession efforts are usually long drawn, bloody and divisive, and Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala has said as much.
Kenya has tackled two secession bids and Britain has been at the centre of both. The first was the opposition to the inclusion of the 10-mile coastal strip into Independent Kenya and the second was the attempt by Somali population in former Northern Frontier District (NFD) to join the greater Somalia in 1963.
For starters, the coastal strip was once part of the Sultanate of Zanzibar and was administered as a British protectorate while the interior was a colony. This is the reason Kenya, until independence, was known as Colony and Protectorate of Kenya because it combined both.
The Arabs at the coast at the dawn of independence were agitating to join Zanzibar or create their own Mwambao and Jomo Kenyatta managed to lead his Kanu team in declaring that no part of Kenya would secede and he got the support of Sir James Robertson, the UK diplomat who was looking at the matter.
More than 50 years later, Mr Joho and Mr Kingi have started agitation towards secession, following in the footsteps of the Mwambao agitators and, of late, the lacklustre Mombasa Republican Council (MRC).
The worry is not so much that the targeted region will make Kenya’s hinterland landlocked.
While British commercial interests in the region are huge, and always inform the diplomatic relations with their former colonies, the most worrying is that a secessionist move, if it goes wrong, could turn a huge swathe of land into a tinderbox similar to other Indian Ocean flashpoints of Somalia, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan which have become solid networks of global terrorism, piracy and drug smuggling.
It is this bigger picture that is perhaps sending shockwaves to the diplomatic community – rather than the simplistic self-determination as propagated by Mr Joho and Mr Kingi, who graduated with a law degree in 1998 from the University of Nairobi.
Mr Kingi says that both him and Mr Joho “will stand firm and push for secession for us to achieve our ambitions of self-rule.”
The secession talk had been triggered early in the year by a National Super Alliance adviser Dr David Ndii who had written an article on a possible political divorce in a widely circulated article – Kenya is a cruel marriage, let’s talk divorce.
Another diplomatic fear is that the secession talk could awaken the ghosts of 1960s in the former Northern Frontier District (NFD) inhabited from 1900 by Somali herders looking for water and pasture.
At the onset of independence, the Colonial Governor Malcolm MacDonald was convinced that the region would have to go to Somalia, but the political circumstances dictated that he handles the matter cautiously lest it rocked Kenya’s move towards independence.
Again, both Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta were opposed to it and this is what triggered the long drawn Shifta War and unending instability in the North Eastern region.
The instability was worsened by the delivery of Soviet arms to Mogadishu which allowed the Somalia government to offload the old Italian and British arms to the guerilla movement and which led to serious clashes between the Shifta and the Kenya security. By then, Kenya army was made of 2,500 soldiers.
The coast of Kenya is a powderkeg of Islamic radicalism and any instability could throw another rim of the Indian Ocean into trouble and that is why Western diplomats have sought to air their views early.
Again, the entry of Britain, EU, the Denmark and France into the secession debate – and their opposition to it – follows the pattern of Western nations in addressing the African geopolitics.
Throughout the post-independent period, the Western powers have always respected the sanctity of colonial borders in Africa and the governors will have an arduous task pushing their separatist move minus support from Western powers.
At the moment, only two alterations have happened to the colonial map and include the division of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 and that of South Sudan.
But this Eritrean partition would not have occurred minus the support of United States which was looking for stability in the Horn of Africa – and also wanted to bury the last vestiges of Marxism in Africa.
Initially, the government of George HW Bush was opposed to the secession but by the time the talks on the future of Eritrea opened in London in May 1991 and amidst war, Washington surprised everyone by consenting to a referendum since the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam had become a source of instability.
As Mr Joho and Mr Kingi will soon find out, it requires more than local support to get their secession bid gain international acceptance. For Eritrea, the separatists were lucky to have waged their armed bid when the British were tired of Mengistu’s government.
This is today outlined in a new declassified Top Secret file that belonged to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In one of the letters, Mrs Thatcher had asked her Foreign Affairs advisor Charles Powell, on “how we could influence the unpleasant regime in Ethiopia.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reply was blunt: “We can’t... but we can make life hard for them in a number of ways. (This includes) support for the rebels in Eritrea who are already backed by the Saudis and Kuwaitis.”
The support for the armed Eritreans meant that Britain was approving their armed bid for secession and also their determination to overthrow the Mengistu government.
But this support was more complex than this – and if you read Mrs Thatcher’s letters, you find that Britain was also to “discourage the Saudis and Kuwaitis from giving the rebels further support” which would then give London a pivotal position in having sole say among the Eritrean rebels.
The next level was to get “The Ten” – these are most likely government critics – “to be more vigorous in criticising Ethiopian human rights record.”
First Year students of diplomacy and international relations can tell you that self-determination is not a walk in the park. Even with the British support, and despite the Eritreans winning the famous Battle of Afabet in March 1989 – where Mengistu soldiers suffered a chastening defeat with 15,000 fatalities and the loss of equipment – the creation of a new Eritrean nation had to wait.
Several international factors favoured the creation of an Eritrean nation – and which are missing in the Kenyan “Mwambao” context. The most important was that by 1990, the Soviet Union had all but ended its support for Mengistu’s regime and as such he lacked any international support.
Although Mengistu had in 1990 denounced communism in order to politically survive, that was too late because in May 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forces – supported by UK – advanced on Addis Ababa from all sides, and Mengistu fled the country with 50 family and Derg members.
He was granted asylum in Zimbabwe as an official guest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
The fall of Mengistu cleared way for a new nation after the Eritrean rebel leader Isaias Afwerki, now president, and new Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi agreed to separate during a London meeting chaired by Herman Cohen, the US diplomat credited with the creation of the Eritrean nation.
How far then can Mr Joho and Mr Kingi go without such international support?
The coast of Kenya is strategic to the US ever since President Moi met Ronald Reagan in 1981 and he traded US military access to Mombasa Portand Nanyuki air base for Kenyan access to US military equipment and training.
The British also maintain bases in Kenya and use the country as training ground keeping watch at first on communism and, of late on terrorism. Any secessionist should always keep that in mind.
The Eritreans know well the role that the UK and the US played in their secession.
It was during the peace talks organised by the US that Mr Afwerki said he would set up his own administration and the US, which does not support secession as a policy, surprised many after it threw its weight behind Eritrea.
But even this support had to await a United Nations (UN) decision to undo a 1952 mistake when the world body awarded Eritrea to Ethiopia as part of a federation. Ten years later, the UN had also allowed Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, to annex the province thus spawning the Eritrean guerrilla insurgency.
Thus, a UN Resolution was required with approval of the UN general Assembly.
The fall of Mengistu had given Eritreans a chance to discuss secession with the new Ethiopian government which was not opposed to it.
Again, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) accepted the legitimacy of the referendum and that is how a new nation was created without further drama. By then, 100,000 had died in the struggle but more importantly, it was the control of the Horn of Africa that the Western nations were looking for.
Ever since the Eritrean case, the only other country that has been created is South Sudan from Sudan in 2011 following a protracted armed struggle.
But this was brought about by war fatigue and various other factors that were at play in South Sudan. As one historian later observed, “both sides seem to have preferred military victory or political outmanoeuvring of the opponent over a peace agreement.”
The reason no nation has recognised Somaliland, despite the peace it enjoys having broken from war-torn Somalia is that it would open a Pandora’s box of separatist claims in the region: Puntland, Jubaland and Hiranland.
If Mr Kingi and Mr Joho think that secession would be an easy walk, they should read some bit of geo-politics in Africa and not rely on events in Eastern Europe.