How Kenya got The Ten-Mile Coastal Strip

Written by | Quick Reads

The ownership of Kenya’s coastline has been a matter of contention since the Sultan of Zanzibar officially signed it away in 1963. The claims for secession are often accompanied by the history of the great Zanzibar sultanate which once stretched to what is today the Kenyan coastline.

What complicated matters for Kenya in 1963 was the effect of the Anglo-German Treaty of 1886. In the 1886 pact, Britain and Germany outlined their spheres of influence in East Africa. Noting the key position of the sultan of Zanzibar, both European powers agreed to allocate him the famous ten mile coastal strip that stretches from Kipini to Ruvuma River. The Germans opted to pay for the right to use the coastline on the German East African section. The British, on the other hand, paid an annual rent of 11, 000 pounds.


This arrangement worked for more than two decades. When Britain decided to elevate Kenya from a protectorate to a colony in 1920, the treaties that the Sultan had entered with other powers came into focus. The shrewd Sultans’ of Zanzibar had entered into parallel treaties with the United States of America and France.

There was no way Britain’s plan to annex the Kenyan coast, which would have resulted in a map close to today’s as early as 1920, without causing an international conflict with her allies.


To skirt this potential international conflict, Britain’s administrators sought and found a quick fix solution. In it, the ten-mile coastal strip was declared a protectorate while all the land from it stretching inwards became the colony. This set the stage for the risk that Kenya would become a nation without a coastline since the ten-mile coastal strip was governed, at least in theory, as a protectorate and not as part of the colony. Until 1960, Kenya was officially known as the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya.

Knowing full well the implications of being incorporated in a majority African nation, the Arab minority population at the coastline lobbied for secession back to Zanzibar. Another option they presented was to secede and create an autonomous Mwambao territory, calls that would recur four decades later.

The incoming independence government was presented with a problem almost similar to Britain’s in 1920 only it was more than existential. The Mombasa port served the Great Lakes region, Sudan, Northern Eastern Tanzania, and most importantly Uganda. The port itself had been built with money from the Kenya Colony and in practice, the entire strip had been governed as part of the colony.

It was at the first Lancaster House Conference that the complication of the coastline became Kenya’s Pandora’s Box. This informed the decision to hold two parallel Second Lancaster House Conferences; one for the colony and one for the protectorate. The British government appointed Sir James Robertson, the former governor of Nigeria, to find a solution the coastal mile issue.

His report noted that the Sultan’s role was not what it had been pre-1886. The Sultanate was now a nominal, emotional role, and could thus be ignored. Incorporating the coastline would not present any administrative problem but including it in Zanzibar would complicate the future of East Africa. He, however, recommended a compensation of 675, 000 pounds to be paid to the Sultan for his loss.

To the claim by the Mwambao United Front that the coastal strip has only been linked to Kenya for the convenience of Administrators, Kenyatta declared that “Any move to separate the strip from the colony would be resisted without reservation.” This candid assertion was further supported by Robertson’s report, and especially his observation that the Arab population now represented only a small minority on the coastline.

pwani si kenya

Graffiti by the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) which claims ‘Pwani si Kenya’ (The Coast is not part of Kenya)

The first agreement was thus signed in London on 5th October, 1963. It outlined the freedom of worship and the position of Kadhis within the Kenyan judiciary. The follow up agreement signed on the 8th of October, 1963 between Kenyatta, the Prime Minister of Zanzibar and Sultan Seyyid Jamshid bin Abdula stated in no less words The territories comprised in the Kenya protectorate shall cease to form part of His Highness dominions and shall thereupon form part of Kenya.”

According to Dr. John Mwaruvie in The Ten Miles Coastal Strip: An Examination of the Intricate Nature of Land Question at Kenyan Coast, it was this latter quick fix solution that laid the background for the land issues present at the coast to this day. The pact between the Prime Minister of Zanzibar and President Kenyatta guaranteed “land ownership to sultan’s subjects at the expense of African inhabitants who for many centuries had remained as squatters.”

The issue of the coastlines true owners remains to this day but it is more complex than just Kenya and Zanzibar. The ancestors of the Swahili preceded the Omani Arabs at the coast, and integrated with each other as the Sultanate changed hands. The question of land ownership was further complicated by the entry of more players and investors at the coast in the years after independence.

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Last modified: November 6, 2017