• The only trigger that Kenya shares with the rest is a historical injustice.
  • We need to develop the capacity to hold leaders to account.

By Maria Nzomo
A bill that seeks to split Kenya is underway, complete with names for the envisaged states.

The bill, sponsored by the National Super Alliance, wants 40 counties to form the Peoples’ Republic of Kenya.


Nairobi County, the home of Kenya’s administrative and economic capital, as well as the coastal counties of Mombasa, Lamu, Tana River and Kilifi are designated to be part of the proposed republic.


Equally, lake region counties of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Migori and Siaya are to be carved from Kenya.

Should the bill pass, only seven counties would remain as part of the original state to be called the Central Republic of Kenya. This would render CRK a minuscule landlocked mass, with GDP losses of more than 80 percent.

But seceding is not a walk in the park. One only need look at the August to November catastrophe attributed to the 2017 poll-related demonstrations, with the opposition claiming more than 100 people were killed by security agents.

A similar reaction was witnessed in previous secession efforts. The first was in the Northern Frontier District in the 1960s.

NFD had indicated intentions to join Somalia. President Jomo Kenyatta enlisted the support of the British to suppress the uprising.

The Mombasa Republican Council emerged in 1999, claiming to address political and economic discrimination against the region.


It intensified pressure for secession in 2008 under the slogan: “Pwani si Kenya” (The Coast is not part of Kenya). The government outlawed the group but the decision was later reversed by a court. Nevertheless, the government still retains a leash on the movement.

The recent secessionist talk has been met with a warning from the government.

Western envoys have also expressed displeasure and called for dialogue between the government and the opposition to resolve contentious issues, including efforts towards greater inclusivity and effective implementation of devolution.

Despite the standoff, it is notable that during his November visit to the United States, Nasa leader Raila Odinga steered clear of the debate. He, however, claims to be pushing for electoral reforms as well as social and political justice.

If this is the case, one can assume that the creation of a Nasa-led parallel governance structure in counties and the planned swearing-in of opposition leaders, is a strategy to bring the State to the negotiating table. However, this seems unlikely.


A closer look at history — the outcome and obtaining conditions in other African countries that have experienced secession — can inform us what could await Kenya in the event of State disintegration, especially the human cost and the deterioration of problems that triggered secession.

Similarly, we may wish to take some lessons from Europe and the former Soviet Union, which have experienced attempted and actualized secession.

Finally, we need to consider if a secessionist group in Kenya has the resilience and capacity to survive the combined hostility of the state and the global community.

It took more than 20 years of a brutal civil war for South Sudan to secede from the Arab-dominated north.

It required the support of the international community, premised on the principle of self-determination, for the south to gain independence in 2011.

South Sudan was heralded as a country with substantial natural resources that could have been tapped to transform the lives of its citizens.

Soon after independence, and before the construction of statehood through institutions and frameworks of governance, the country descended into war.


At the core of the conflict is the rivalry of President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

This has led to atrocities, attempted coups, mass displacements and destruction of economic structures.

With a population of 7.5 million making up the 10 ethnic groups, South Sudan is ranked by the World Bank as one of the least developed countries.

Illiteracy stands at 87 percent while mobile phone penetration is just 15 percent. In the meantime, the number of South Sudanese refugees continues to swell.

By December, Uganda was hosting about a million, Ethiopia 400,000 and Kenya more than 100,000.

Clearly, the South Sudanese have serious problems giving meaning to their struggle for secession. Citizens have little to be grateful for as they swing between death by the bullet, malnutrition or disease.

South Sudan is a towering example of why secession may not be the answer for long-standing deprivations unless it is accompanied by a radical transformational agenda.

As it stands, the historical injustices of South Sudanese have found a new home in the new country, with monumental intensity.


In 1993, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia through a UN-sponsored referendum after a 30-year war.

The country drew up a constitution in 1997, yet the framework of governance has not been implemented to date. Eritrea is a single party regime, with mandatory military conscription.

Fundamental freedom, including freedom of speech and of the press, are not guaranteed.

The media are controlled by the government and there is a low level of internet access. Eritrea’s agriculture has been ruined by a concert of drought and internal conflict.

In 2013, the UN Human Development Index ranked Eritrea the lowest in Sub-Sahara. In 2015, the UN accused President Isaias Afewerki’s regime of systematic and extreme abuses of the population that may amount to crimes against humanity.

Amnesty International said the country had at least 10,000 political prisoners while Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea last in its press freedom index for the eighth year running.


Thousands have made the treacherous journey across the Sahara and Med in search of better opportunities in Europe. For Eritreans who welcomed secession, aspirations that ignited their struggle have not come to fruition.

In Nigeria, the Republic of Biafra seceded in July 1967 and surrendered in January 1970.

Unlike South Sudan and Eritrea, the Biafran secession was neither recognized by the UN nor by most African countries. Though there was justifiable cause for secession, the option proved to be a poisoned chalice.

The two and a half years’ dalliance with secession was nothing more than a costly war, pitting Biafra against a well-equipped Nigerian military.

Nigeria imposed a blockade on Biafra, making it impossible to import food or have any meaningful relations with the outside world. This situation led to the deaths of more than a million people.

Somaliland is an interesting case. Having broken away from Somalia in 1991 after the civil war, the country is yet to galvanize international recognition.


The former British protectorate seceded after 30 years of unity attempts with Somalia failed. Somaliland has all that is needed to form a state: an elected government, a military, a territory, a currency and a flag.

The country has held six elections since 2001, ending in peaceful transitions of power. Despite this, the African Union does not support this secession on the grounds of the 1963 pact by the Organization of African Unity to retain the inherited colonial borders.

The global community has also declined to grant recognition to Somaliland.

The unhappy experiences with Eritrea and South Sudan and the likelihood of opening a Pandora’s Box for potential secessionists could have increased the undesirability of the breaking away option and greater push for dialogue.

Other cases examined earlier reveal additional elements that Kenya should consider. One is the tortuous nature of the journey towards secession, especially the human cost, which in the case of the Bougainville was about 20,000 lives in a decade, while Chechnya was an estimate of up to 50,000 dead or missing.

Catalonia has yet to calculate the human cost at the end of the confrontation with the Spanish Government.

Another factor that Kenya should note is the issue(s) that triggered secession in other countries.


The only trigger that Kenya shares with the rest is a historical injustice.

Except for the short-lived NFD scenario and the MRC’s Pwani si Kenya, the key issue has not been about a claim of a separate socio-cultural identity and territory.

Rather, it is historical injustices perpetrated by successive regimes; socio-economic and political exclusion and inequitable distribution of national resources.

These grievances should not seek the solution in secession but in a genuinely democratic and inclusive governance structure, under a selfless leadership.

We need to develop capacity to hold leaders to account.

How then should Kenyans respond to the calls for secession?

The reviewed scenarios in these articles indicate that breaking away is not necessarily a panacea for correcting historical injustices and human rights violations.

For secession to effectively redress the grievances that triggered it, it must be accompanied by strong democratic governance institutions and a leadership to match, to avoid rights violations like those experienced in South Sudan and Eritrea.


The Biafran case also demonstrates that if secession is not internationally and regionally recognized and is violently opposed by the incumbent administration, it can result in catastrophic loss of life.

The Somaliland case reminds us of the importance of regional and global recognition. After almost three decades since seceding from Somalia, Somaliland remains in limbo, unable to advance its national interests through international interactions.

On the other hand, suppressing secession without addressing the underlying grievances only serves to escalate, rather than resolve, the problem.

Indeed, empirical evidence has demonstrated that countries with long piled up historical grievances have a high propensity for the repeated emergence of secessionist tendencies that may be temporarily trampled upon but are likely to continue resurfacing with a greater vengeance unless and until the root problem is addressed.

Breakaway movements signal a brewing problem, which if left unattended, could trigger instability for the country and threaten the sanctity of the republic.

Maria Nzomo is Professor of International Relations & Governance & Director, Institute of Diplomacy & International Studies, UoN. & Ex-Ambassador of Kenya to the UN & WTO.


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