Will DP Ruto Succeed in Unifying Coastal Communities? [opinion]

Deputy President William Ruto has a penchant for the Coast region. Since assuming power as Deputy President, Mr Ruto has made forays into the region in support of development projects, despite the fact that the Coast remains an ODM political zone. But Mr Ruto’s visits here have gone beyond developmental issues – he has repeatedly urged for political unity especially among the Mijikenda, who are numerically the majority in this region.

Mr Ruto’s message to the Mijikenda community and their leaders as 2017 approaches has been this simple: united you win, divided you lose. Mr Ruto knows why political unity works. He managed to unify the Kalenjin community in the Rift Valley and propelled them to national power. Besides, the Deputy President knows that the Coast region shares some similarities on matters marginalisation. Like the Coast region, the Rift Valley region has suffered land problems. Only political unity can help resolve some of these problems.

To press his unification message to the Mijikenda people and their leaders, Mr Ruto’s recent visit was focused on Kilifi and Kwale counties, both heavily populated by the Giryama, Digo, Duruma, Rabai, Chonyi, Kambe, Ribe, Jibana and the Kauma, who make up the Mijikenda ethnic group. He also visited Taita Taveta.

By skipping the neighbouring Mombasa county, the Deputy President was also sending another message that it is time to pay attention to the Mijikenda who, despite their numerical strength, they have failed to make an impact in regional and national affairs. In other words, the Deputy President feels the Mijikenda have been neglected not only by previous regimes but also by the ODM party to which they have overwhelmingly voted for.

The persons behind Mr Ruto’s crusade for penetrating the Mijikenda’s world are Malindi North Member of Parliament Gideon Munga’ro, and Kwale county women representative Zainab Chidzuga. Outside this region, the Mijikenda political unification crusade enjoys the support of the National Assembly majority leader Aden Duale. In the company of Mr Ruto, Mr Duale told Kilifi county leaders in one of the visits that Kilifi politics should not be run from Mombasa. This was in reaction to Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho’s earlier remarks rebuking Jubilee leaders visiting the Coast of destabilising ODM party leadership.

Mr Ruto’s attempts to unify communities in the Coast region, and in particular the Mijikenda may appear to serve his own interests, but it may as well benefit the communities in the long run. In fact, what Mr Ruto is trying to do is in line with the late Ronald Ngala’s clarion call for coastal political unity under Kadu in the 1960s. Mr Ngala’s Mijikenda slogan – Anji Ni Hiha Ra Fiho – which means unity is strength, served to unite the Mijikenda and other coastal communities. Over the years, however, after Ngala’s death in 1972, that clarion call dissipated and it has been so ever since.

With this unity lost, the Mijikenda have remained like sheep without a shepherd — isolated, confused, misused and politically directionless. This is what Mr Ruto is trying to do to restore the Mijikenda’s lost political glory. He may be doing this with an eye on 2017, but both parties may be winners in the long run.

In a way, the Mijikenda are victims of their own circumstances. They have been captives to ODM policies and programmes. In fact under ODM, the Mijikenda have marginalised themselves. The party leadership in Nairobi is aware that the Mijikenda are numerically the majority in the Coast region, yet they prefer to please Mombasa rather than the vast parts of the other counties. Despite devolution, ODM politics in the Coast region is manufactured and brewed in Mombasa. When Mombasa coughs, Kwale and Kilifi counties catch a cold. Mombasa county leads, others follow.

Here is another reason why the Mijikenda matter politically – the population of the Coast region is estimated at slightly over three million people. Of this figure, the Mijikenda number nearly two million people, enough to sway coastal and national politics if they voted as a bloc. The Giryama alone number about 750,000 people, which means they could provide the leadership needed to unify the Mijikenda and other communities in this region.

The biggest obstacle facing Mr Ruto in his crusade for Mijikenda political unification are the right local elected leaders to push his agenda. Mung’aro and Chidzuga mean well but the problem is that these two leaders do not have a viable political strategy to get things done. Their only strategy — KANU style — has been roadside declarations and public rallies to push the unification agenda. This strategy has had no impact on the ground.

Joho and his group on the other hand made surprising overtures as Ruto visited the region. The six governors signed a Memorandum of Understanding to launch the Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani initiative this August. The governors also attended all of Mr Ruto’s public rallies in Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta, dispelling the hitherto prevailing suspicion that they had been lukewarm toward the Jubilee government. They also declared their willingness to work with the national government. With this cleverly crafted strategy, the Joho group emerged winners.

Governor Joho must have been disturbed by Mr Ruto skipping Mombasa county during his visit in the region. By skipping it, Mr Ruto was sending a message that because of their numbers, the Mijikenda have political space to occupy in regional and national affairs. Joho promptly understood this and joined the Deputy President in the far flung county of Taita Taveta, where he teamed up with Governor John Mruttu to declare their preparedness to work with the Jubilee government.

In effect, this means that both the Joho and Mung’aro groups have now agreed to work with the Jubilee government. This is the position Munga’ro and Chidzuga have been pushing for, and by retracting their intransigence about the idea, the governors have lost.