Words by Natasha Issa Shivji | 14 May 2021

At their birth, many post-independence nations in Africa saw the looming threat of secession, but calls for secession were dismissed as counter-progressive and as undoing the victories of the independence struggles. Yet secessionist movements persisted, and at every juncture where they surfaced they revealed grievances related to the material realities of the masses and the class contradictions left unresolved by independence struggles. In this essay I argue that while the political language, be it that of the nation or secessionist movement, is mired in contradiction, but rather than dismiss it we should think of it as offering insights into the crisis in social and economic relations.

In different forms, Kenya’s coastal peoples, in this particular case in Mombasa, have struggled for secession. The current manifestation of this movement has been the Mombasa Republican Council. One of the main contests has revolved around land, particularly the relationship to land, in particular the struggle over waqf endowments. The awaqaf agreements organize properties held by Muslims as endowments for the benefit of the community, or for the benefit of family lineages (extinction of right of property without transferring the property to anyone else). Most importantly the properties that are endowed cannot be owned by a third party and remain so in perpetuity with the funds from the property benefitting the community at large. The awaqaf agreements must be honoured in perpetuity to protect the property and land from arbitrary confiscation.

These waqf endowments have come to define the urban space of Mombasa. There have been attempts by the state to curb their historical development to fit in with the capitalist logic of accumulation. The colonial state sought to create the Waqf Commission Act in Kenya in order to capture the income derived from waqf endowments. The post-independence state maintained the Waqf Commission, which was seen as nothing short of corrupt, a vessel in which waqf incomes were used to line individual pockets. In many cases the Waqf Commission permitted, and in effect facilitated, the transfer of property and lands into the land tenure system, which transformed land into a commodity. In both instances, the funds used and generated from waqf endowments (meant to be used to maintain the endowment) were converted into “incomes” that the state would accumulate and administer.

This has been a major point of contention, prompting calls to reinstate waqf endowments as a form of resistance to the land grabs.

These calls emphasize a material history informed by Islamic principles unrelated ton colonial history, but which have their roots in the Sultanate of Zanzibar (1856-1964)—one of the first periods in which waqf endowments were introduced on the East African coast. A debate has ensued concerning whether it is beneficial to privatize and commodify waqf endowments by converting them under state institutions.

Waqf endowments have come to define the urban space of Mombasa. There have been attempts by the state to curb their historical development to fit in with the capitalist logic of accumulation

Proponents for the commodification of land argue for the maximum output and profit; they further argue waqf is an out-dated system that holds land, rendering it useless and denying an exchange value associated to it. There has also been a great deal of resistance to the commodification of land: it is argued that waqf is a sacred historical arrangement that protects the land for the benefit of the community and assists the poor, furthermore that it reaffirms a history that is unavailable to the rest of the Kenyan state, a history that belongs to the Islamic world.

Secessionists have taken up these arguments in their demands and grievances against the state. The struggle for coastal autonomy was first articulated in political terms during the move towards independence from the British. The idea of independent nation was at the forefront of negotiations and debates at the Lancaster House conferences (1960, 1962, 1963) in which Kenya’s constitutional framework and independence were negotiated. The Coast Peoples’ Party (CPP), one of the coastal parties claiming autonomy, argued that independence would improve the wellbeing of people belonging to a different geographic history, a history that the Kenyan government was not a part of.

In order to make this claim legible to the colonial state and to the nationalist movements, particularly the Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), CPP drew upon the 1895 agreement between the Sultan of Zanzibar and the British Government. In terms of the agreement, a ten-mile coastal strip that had never really been mapped out or properly demarcated was transferred to the British Government as a protectorate for an annual rent to the Sultan. This agreement was used as a peg upon which to hang the demand for coastal autonomy. The main argument was that the legal status of the East Africa Protectorate. The argument was that it was different from the rest of the British colony and upon attaining internal self-government the relationship between the interior Colony of Kenya and the coast changed given their differing legal status. Each should go their separate way, the CPP claimed.

KANU members vehemently attacked the coastal autonomists for delaying the process for full independence. They also accused CPP of harbouring an anti-nationalist sentiment and betraying the anti-imperialist cause by negotiating with the British regarding their status. While KANU waived the nationalist flag, CPP made a similar claim that they were in fact more nationalist because they did not distinguish between race, religion and ethnicity.

The secessionist’s argument drew strongly on the political ideal of nationhood. Interestingly, the use of the idea of an autonomous nation emerged at the same time as the 1895 agreement with the Sultan of Zanzibar for the East Africa Protectorate, and was used as a means to control the Muslim population and bring it under the colonial administration. In the late nineteenth century, the imperial powers were crippled by the so-called “Muslim problem” in East Africa, particularly as it related to labour and administration, but also the common cause proposed by pan-Islamism.

Pan-Islamism was a threat because it contained the germ of political centralization, albeit under the umbrella of the spiritual force of Islam rejecting centralization under the colonial state and the “tribalization” of its subjects. “So much so,” remarked a local Ugandan administrator, Captain Philips, “that in enquiring the tribe of the natives one is frequently met with the reply, ‘I am a Muhammedan’.”

Between 1913 and 1918, British administrators wrote several letters to the secretary of state colonies in Britain drawing upon the German experience to administer and control the Islamic tendency to venture into a political force in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these letters strongly recommend the need to “encourage strong and isolated tribal nationalism” and the “development of national feeling with its natural divisions, to develop deliberately the ‘insulating area’ between the great Muhammedan populations, to restrain by means of religious toleration and secular education the inroads of religious fanaticism”. The East Africa Protectorate was merely a tool in which the territorial nation was affirmed and the threat of an “Islamic” unity averted; it did not hold much value for the British in terms of the status it had with the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

Historical instances of nationalist sentiment in Kenya have been rooted in both systems of oppression and colonial division, and within the discourse of liberation. It emerged at periods of political contest as a tool of the state and a discourse of liberation. Perhaps these moments of political crisis to do with secession can open up questions about the nature of the nation-state in Africa, and what political claims to alternative geographies reveal about the trajectories of the nation in Africa and the antagonistic social relations it claims to encapsulate and unify.

Natasha Issa Shivji is a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Dodoma and doctoral candidate at New York University