Government Response to the Problem of Secession: The Case of Kenya

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2012

14 Pages, Grade: C

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Government Response to the Problem of Secession: The Case of Kenya

Oscar Siema Mmbali

Graduate School of Public Administration

National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), Thailand


Secession is one of the major global challenges affecting both developing and developed nations, for instance Canada, China, Thailand, India, and Kenya. In developing democracies like Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, secession conflicts have largely hindered national development. This case study focuses on how Kenya has addressed the problem of secession since independence. The study highlights factors that contribute to the desire to secede, the context within which government has employed various policies to address the problem, the outcome of the policies, and the unresolved issues. The analysis shows that the threat to secede influenced Kenya’s government restructuring as well as limitation of human rights and democratic opportunities.


When Kenyans promulgated the new constitution on 27th of August 2010, it was a great relief for over 40 million citizens, besides the international community that had suffered the side effects of the country’s dark days of the 2007-2008 post election violence. As the leading economic hub in East and Central Africa, Kenya had revived the diminishing hope of the East African community, which relied on Kenya’s port for imports and exports. Kenya’s strategic point in Africa is of great international significance, given its role in the restoration of peace in Sudan, raising the new nation of Southern Sudan, and the rebuilding of Somalia. Since few nations in Africa undergo such life threatening political conflict, and successfully endure the challenges of political transition, Kenya had become a model for African nations with similar experiences.

Although Kenya had made such progress, the country still faced many political challenges. Among such challenges was the problem of secession. Kenyans soon realized that this was not a problem the government would wish away, when the Mombasa Republican Council, one of the 39 outlawed vigilante gangs increased its threats to secede. The Mombasa Republican Council was formed in 1999 with an agenda to push for secession. The organization believed that the coastal region is not part of Kenya. However, secession threats were not knew to Kenya. During the 1960s, Kenya faced a similar challenge from the Shifta movement, a militia organization in Northern Kenya that fought the government, in attempt to secede (The Standard, November 22, 2010).

The Problem

How has Kenya dealt with the problem of cessation over the post-independence era? What lessons can we draw from this experience?

Factors that Contribute to the Desire to Secede

The problem of secession is as old as the Nation of Kenya. Some of the factors that contribute to the desire to secede are: (1) the colonial boundaries; (2) ethnicity; (3) tension between Islam and Christianity; (4) socio-economic inequalities which have a historical and regional base; (5) harsh economic conditions; (6) unsettled natural resource conflicts; and (7) the availability of small arms which encourages ethnic conflict.

Secession: North Eastern Province of Kenya

Kenya was formerly a British colony until 1963 when the country got independence. Colonialism began with the 1884-85 Berlin conference, when the western European powers divided Africa amongst themselves. Kenya and Uganda existed as the British East Africa protectorate until 1920, when Kenya officially became a British colony. Local communities were not invited in the Berlin conference and were not consulted when the National boundaries were drawn (Ndege, 2009).

Immediately after independence, a movement of Kenyans of Somali origin living in the North Eastern province of Kenya began to demand Secession. They wanted to be part of Somalia.

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Source . (2012)

In an attempt to push their agenda, they formed Northern Province Progressive People’s Party (NPPPP). Back in 1946, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary had recommended that the Northern Kenya be part of Somalia, in order to form the greater Somalia. However, by 1963, the British government had changed its mind. It recommended that the process of decolonizing the Northern Kenya be negotiated through the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which was Kenya’s first ruling party. This decision was not accepted by the Somali community, because KANU favored a centralized form of government, while the Somali community favored the federalism with more political autonomy (majimboism). In 1963, the British government ruled that the Northern Province of Kenya was going to remain part of Kenya’s territory, according to the constitution. The Somali community was aggrieved and some of its members began the shifta movement. The shifta movement was a militia organization that organized and excuted guerrilla attacks on the police and government officials. This organization was also supported and funded by the government of Somalia .The North Eastern Province had been marginalized since the colonial period. The region is a semi desert, with limited economic opportunities and infrastructure. The inhabitants of the region are dominantly the Somali community. The Somali people speak one language, are largely Muslims, and share one culture. Pastoralism is the main socio-economic activity in the region (Whitaker, 2008).

The shifta war was driven by historical inequalities, as well as the ideology that Kenyan Somali people did not accept to be governed by an authority outside their clans. They believed secession would give them an opportunity to unite with Somalia. This was a critical threat to the new born nation. Kenya faced similar challenges in the western parts, where Uganda demanded an expansion of its borders based on the pre-colonial boundaries. Kenya had inherited a policy problem that was created by the colonial administration, and was always deferred for later action, until it was handed over to the first African government of Kenya. During the colonial period, the British government treated the northern Kenya as a buffer zone, and applied military control in the region, since the British government saw the Somali people as a security problem. Therefore, the British government did not create a Kenyan identity in the region. Instead, the government restricted the Somali migrations towards central Kenya and controlled the Ethiopian expansion towards Kenya. Somali people rejected a common identity with other Kenyans on the basis of their culture and religion. They saw themselves as Asians and therefore preferred paying higher taxes to the British government on the basis that the British classified them as superior to the rest of Africans. Since the Somali people were difficult to control, defied the British rule, and had access to fire arms, the British government introduced restrictions of movements. Somalis who wanted to leave North Eastern to come to Nairobi or central Kenya required a Visa. They also needed to come as servants of the White man (Ringquist, 2011).

During the entire colonial period, Somali leaders in North Eastern Kenya did not interact with the rest of the Kenyan leaders. This was because of their political reasons, as well as the colonial policy which did not integrate the North Eastern Kenya with the rest of Kenya or Somalia. Instead, it controlled the region as an isolated part of Kenya. In preparation for Kenya’s independence, the British government facilitated the Somali vote, to determine whether they wanted to be on the side of Kenya or Somalia. About 87% of the Somali people voted to unite with Somalia (Ringquist, 2011).

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Oscar Mmbali (Author), 2012, Government Response to the Problem of Secession: The Case of Kenya , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • Oscar Mmbali on 1/11/2013

    A great book, good for policy studies

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