What’s Next for the Kenyan Coast?

Security forces patrol the streets of Mombasa after rioting last month. (Photo: BBC)

Mombasa recently made international headlines when the city, commonly associated with the tranquility of paradise-like resorts, erupted in vicious violence after the killing of a radical Islamic cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed. Rogo was suspected of links with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda. He was killed in broad daylight by unknown assailants in a drive-by shooting.

Coming to Mombasa merely a month after these events, I expected the city to feel on edge, anxious. But surprisingly I found nothing of that sort: life goes on as usual, from hawkers lining narrow, ancient streets of the Old Town to sun-worshipping tourists lining white sand beaches – although in somewhat lesser numbers due to security concerns.

On the surface of it, the unrest was a simple case of ill-targeted revenge. The culprits in Rogo’s assassinations remain unclear. Muslims, who constitute the majority of Mombasa’s population, blame the police, given that Rogo was on the U.S. and UN sanction lists for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, the police claim that al-Shabaab killed the cleric “to galvanize support among the youth.” Whatever the truth, disaffected Muslim youths turned their anger against Mombasa’s Christian population, looting stores and burning churches. But was there more to it than religious fervor?

On the way to a hotel I asked my taxi driver Antony if he was here during the riots. “The shooting happened almost right in front of my eyes,” he says. I was driving a mzungu (foreigner) along Malindi Road and saw the police and ambulances. My passenger pulled out his phone and found out from the news what happened.” Antony thought the riots that ensued were political, instigated by supporters of the separatist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) and Somali militants. Rose, an office worker I later spoke with, said the riots were mostly an excuse to loot – and she believed drugs were involved to push young people toward violence.

The riots subsided after a few days but the underlying religious, ethnic, and economic issues that caused them are yet to be resolved. There has been some progress on the security front at least. Last Friday, African Union forces, including Kenyan troops, captured Kismayo – a key port in Somalia that for several years had served as a safe haven for Somali pirates and radicals infiltrating the Kenyan Coast through the porous border. But al-Shabaab is far from surrendering and if the disturbances spill over to Mombasa, tourists – who comprise the backbone of the economy here – may be scared away more permanently.

The influx of Somali money into the coastal region has had other adverse economic effects. Although in the short term it fueled a construction and real estate boom, as the international crack down on al-Shabaab continues, many projects remain half-finished with their sources of funding drying up. Meanwhile, property prices in the Coast have skyrocketed over the last few years, pricing many locals out of the market and creating added incentives for already abundant fraud when it comes to property titles.

In fact, property is a key concern on the minds of everybody in Mombasa. Because of the complicated history of Portuguese, Omani Arab, and British rule, followed by decades of using land as political patronage after Kenya’s independence, the Coast has one of the most complex and confusing property systems in the country. Here is one example: just recently a court ruled, after 21 years of litigation, that the influential Mazrui family – descendants of Omani Arabs who ruled the coastal strip from the 17th century until about 100 years ago – is still entitled to 9,000 acres of land that has already been distributed by the government to some 10,000 people, who now face eviction.

Many people in the Coast don’t have titles to their properties; many plots have several competing titles, often counterfeit. This creates great risks for businesses, especially small ones, who don’t feel secure in their possessions. To help address that, CIPE has been working with the Institution of Surveyors of Kenya (ISK) to create a simple manual for small and medium-sized enterprises that outlines different types of property transactions, their estimated time and cost, and other practical considerations to ease formal land registration, sale, and rental.

On September 27, CIPE and ISK held a workshop in Mombasa with representatives of various local private sector organizations to introduce the manual. Such initiatives are needed, said one of the participants, to make small businesses more aware of their rights. “Owning land in Mombasa is like sitting on a time bomb – if you don’t have proper knowledge and documentation, someone else may show up and claim to own your property.”

Al-Shabaab and MRC capitalize on such feelings of insecurity. Together with a pervasive sentiment among the locals that Mombasa is not getting its proper share of the nation’s wealth (especially considering that much of it is generated through its busy port), resentment against the government fuels support for radical movements, especially among the jobless young.

The struggle for hearts and minds of the Coast residents is on. As the general election approaches in March 2013, the new county system that it will introduce gives some hope that devolution of power from Nairobi will bring more attention to local needs and greater government accountability. At the same time, al-Shabaab radicals and MRC separatists call for a boycott of the election and advocate the region’s secession.

Can the new county system deliver when it comes to physical security, secure property rights, and better business climate to support job creation? Or will Mombasa continue to be a ticking time bomb, ready to ignite from another spark? Time will tell, but the region’s future vitally depends on the answer.

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