Like most other Kenyans, I used to think that calls for secession by movements in the coastal region were ill-conceived because I believed that unity in diversity was preferable to unity in suffocating homogeneity, and that the breaking up of a nation into small economically unviable units was a misplaced concept; one that inevitably weakens these units and the states from which they secede.
But having lived in the region for some years now, I am now beginning to understand why secession is so appealing to so many people here.
Despite being among the most naturally endowed regions, the majority of people live in abject poverty. Government data shows that three of the six counties in the region, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale, rank among the poorest, the most underdeveloped and the most unequal in the country.
Furthermore, it is said that more than 60 per cent of indigenous coastal people do not possess title deeds to their land and that a sizeable majority live as squatters because their land was either grabbed or because the authorities did not recognise their rights to communal ownership.
The coastal people’s land-related grievances are multi-faceted, and the result of a series of land grabs by a variety of actors in different socio-economic and political contexts.
Noted land grabbers, include the Sultanate of Zanzibar, British colonialists and post-independence leaders and their cronies.
The 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report notes that “although land-related injustices have affected every part of Kenya, communities at the coast, especially the Mijikenda, the Taita and the Pokomo, have suffered the most and the longest”.
The report recognises that the process of land adjudication, consolidation and registration was not conducted in the region after independence, leaving many families without evidence of ownership of the land they occupied. This made their land more vulnerable to grabbing by outsiders, particularly politicians and their allies.
The issues of marginalisation and land alienation at the coast and other neglected regions should have been addressed by the 2010 Constitution and through the implementation of the TJRC’s recommendations, but there is little evidence of political commitment to resolve these issues.
On the contrary, there is a feeling among the locals that the Jubilee administration has adopted a piecemeal approach through the issuance of title deeds to some, rather than a more holistic approach involving comprehensive land reforms and consultations with local communities.
It has been argued that with devolution, the issues of underdevelopment and marginalisation will be resolved over time. However, there are some matters that even devolution cannot solve, such as the land issue and the poor quality education, which produces the lowest secondary school enrolment rates in the country.
The region lacks the capital and skills set needed to develop its counties.
The few people who manage to become doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and the like tend to leave the region and never come back.
Tourism is often cited as the economic lifeline of the coastal region, but it is worth noting that government data estimates that between 40 and 70 per cent of the revenue does not stay in the region or even in the country because of the package tours payments for airlines and hotels are made abroad.
Tourism is also seasonal and does not provide a steady or reliable source of income to the local population; in the low tourism season, or whenever there is a slump, as happened in the recent past after a series of Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks, entire households and communities suffer and poverty levels escalate.
When people don’t own the land they live on, their economic prospects are further diminished, which is why the land issue has become so critical.
Unemployment in the region is also made worse by the fact that the local economy has not been sufficiently diversified beyond tourism.
The recent calls for secession by Governors Hassan Joho (Mombasa) and Amason Kingi (Kilifi), among others, will most likely be rubbished by the authorities in Nairobi, but they cannot be wished away because such demands resonate with a lot of people and point to deep-seated grievances and historical injustices that have yet to be resolved, and which have been consistently underplayed by successive governments.