Closure of freight terminals and coast politics

Sunday February 21 2016

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right) with Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho (second right) and other leaders during a rally to drum up support for the ODM Malindi by-election candidate William Mtengo at Ngala Grounds on February 8, 2016. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right) with Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho (second right) and other leaders during a rally to drum up support for the ODM Malindi by-election candidate William Mtengo at Ngala Grounds on February 8, 2016. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By NGALA CHOME

It was interesting to observe that a few days after President Uhuru Kenyatta ended his month-long tour of the Coast, two freight container terminals belonging to the family of Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho were closed.

During the tour, there was a public spat between the Mombasa Governor and Nairobi Senator Gideon Mbuvi Sonko at a ceremony in Shika Adabu grounds in Likoni where the President issued 5,000 title deeds to squatters on the controversial Waitiki farm.

Mr Joho decried what he termed the president’s “lack of courtesy” for initially snubbing him. But Mr Sonko claimed the president had chosen to snub the governor due to Mr Joho’s (and by extension, Coastal politicians’) “lack of respect”. 

The closure of the container freight terminals owned by Joho’s family has undoubtedly invited condemnation by the governor’s supporters, even as investigations by KRA and related court cases continue.

Last week, KRA said it had found more contraband at one of the freight companies.

The Joho family business interests are wide, and have made a presence at the port of Mombasa for years, cultivating official networks. In this way, the recent reshuffle at the Kenya Ports Authority and at KRA – which followed the closure of the container freight terminals and is aimed at boosting revenue and efficiency – threatens to curtail the extent of the Joho family’s accrued official networks. In a more exalted sense, this move threatens to injure the core of the economic base of the Orange Democratic Movement in Mombasa. 

Indeed, during the public ceremony in Likoni, President Kenyatta directly confronted coastal voters for having not voted for him in March 2013 despite mounting an aggressive campaign.

Across the coast, the distribution of the votes suggested that much of Jubilee’s support could have come from “up-country” voters, such as in Lamu West. However, in rural Mijikenda constituencies such as Magarini and Ganze, Mr Kenyatta faired poorly. In addition to a pre-established narrative against the Kenyatta family that originates from the Kadu and Kanu political rivalry in the 1960s, his failure to mobilise coastal votes was also as a result of the work done by Mr Joho’s political campaign.

At the centre of Mr Joho’s success at marshalling coastal votes for Mr Raila Odinga and Cord, and of the pre-established coastal narrative against the Kenyatta family, is the politics of land. It was not surprising that the handing over of thousands of title deeds to squatters in Likoni, and to squatters in Lamu County, invited controversy.

LOCAL POLITICAL NETWORKS

However, it is important to note that the title-issuing is in line with what were Mr Kenyatta’s campaign promises when he toured the region in the run-up to the 2013 elections and immediately after he assumed power.

But a number of factors seemed to have intervened to draw away this nascent coastal political support for the Kenyatta administration. First, in late 2013 and throughout 2014, terrorist attacks escalated at the Coast.

These attacks – which Somalia-based Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for – served in further aggravating the pre-existing faultline between coastal politicians and the Jubilee administration. 

When terrorists attacked Mpeketoni in June 2014, and more than 100 people killed, the government did not only claim that this was the work of “local political networks” – an indirect indictment against Cord – but the Lamu County Governor Issa Timamy was arrested.

This coincided with a heavy-handed approach by security forces targeted against Muslim populations of the Coast, in particular, the closure of mosques and massive arrests conducted in the months of February and November of 2014.

Second, and with differing expectations around the benefits of devolution, coastal county governors (except the county governor of Tana River), increased their demands for the allocation of more revenue to counties and for more autonomy.

Third, within those two years after the 2013 elections, senior coastal politicians were variously recorded on video issuing verbal attacks against Jubilee during political meetings.

Joho himself, on July 13, 2014, in a meeting that was also addressed by Mr Odinga, asked the president to respect elected coastal leaders. Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar spoke at length on February 13, 2015 about a list of coastal grievances against the government, including land and alleged extra-judicial killings.

It is under this context that the Nairobi Senator’s remarks regarding the “lack of respect” for the president were issued. More broadly, it carries weight to view the recent move against the Joho family business as a political upfront against Mombasa’s local political and economic bosses.

Chome is a research consultant based in Nairobi. [email protected]