The crowd across the street from the High Court of Mombasa erupted in jeers and shook their fists in scorn as the Kenyan security lorry crawled up the avenue in front of them. Camouflage-clad security members responded with grim, unmoved expressions.
On February 14, hundreds of Mombasa Republic Council (MRC) supporters had gathered outside the court hoping the judicial decision about MRC’s legal status would deliver them some concessions, but were left severely disappointed. The judiciary postponed the rulings to legalise the MRC and prevent electoral activity in the coastal region, as they have done dozens of times previously.
After decades of coastal neglect, leaders in Nairobi are now facing an emboldened movement that appears to be gaining irrevocable traction. The recent rise of the outlawed Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), the organisation spearheading the secessionist drive, has emerged as a significant burden for the Kenyan government as it struggles to revive a struggling economy and quell ethnic tensions in the face of impending national elections.
But while Kenya’s coastal secession drive has gained significant momentum recently, the political environment has yet to reach combustible levels.
“We have rogue leaders in power, leaders that are greedy and corrupt. If their claim that the MRC violates the law is true, why must they inhibit the judicial system themselves?” Wilson Amani, an activist who researches land ownership issues for human rights groups in the Mombasa vicinity, told Think Africa Press. “They have no agenda for the coast. They only want votes and exploitation.”
Although the majority of Kenyans and nearly all political figures denounce the Mombasa independence, the grievances that plague the coastal region cannot be disputed. Despite a wealth of natural resources and a vibrant tourism industry, the coastal region suffers from the some of the most abject poverty in Kenya, as well as inferior infrastructure and endemic land ownership issues.
“They [the MRC leaders] address pertinent issues for coastal people. That’s why they are getting support. They are talking about marginalisation,” said Mwinyi Juma, director of Likoni Community Development Organisation (LIKODEV), a network of development organizations based south of Mombasa. “The coast is very marginalised. There is the issue of unemployment. There are the land issues. These are the grievances that coastal people have been crying about for years.”
MRC leaders cite the disparity between colonial accords and deals struck in the post-independence era as evidence of the secession movement’s legitimacy. In 1890, the British monarchy acquired the coastal strip from the Sultan of Zanzibar and gave the region protectorate status. However, after Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s independence hero and first president, claimed the reigns of power in 1963, he incorporated the coastal area into Kenya.
The cultural disparities are all too visible. The coastal population is largely Swahili and Muslim, while inland Kenya is an amalgam of ethnicities with a predominant Christian affiliation.
“They [government officials] are colonising the coast region. The coast is not Kenya but they are treating it like Kenya,” said MRC Secretary General, Randu Nzai Ruwa, in a café across the channel from Mombasa island. “We can form our own government and run it very well. We can just stay as neighbour countries.”
MRC leaders deny the group has any religious foundation; rather, they represent the entirety of the coast and all the included minority communities. Group spokesman Mohammed Rashid Mraja emphasised their inclusive nature and dispelled allegations the MRC has links to militant groups, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“The MRC does not have a religious stand,” said Mraja, dressed in a beige Muslim gown and an embroidered skullcap, wearing an unkempt, patchy beard and a stony expression. “We accept all religions and shun debate over whether there should be a religious foundation.”
It is nearly impossible to gauge the precise level of support for the MRC and the secessionist agenda considering much of the coastal population live in remote regions and have minimal engagement in political activity. But MRC leaders suggest that membership levels have recently exceeded two million.
Membership requires candidates to pay a small fee, receive an identity card and volunteer to travel the coastal region, educating the local population on their plight and the path forward. Recently, however, MRC leaders have been prioritising the prevention of electoral activity along the coast as they believe engaging in the process would give it false legitimacy. The high court’s postponement indicates MRC may not get what it wants through judicial recourse so MRC leaders are advocating a voter boycott, a prospect poised to irritate national politicians seeking votes in a highly populated region.
“We are disputing the electoral body’s activities because if we accept that, we are accepting being part of Kenya,” said MRC Secretary General Ruwa. “[If that is not successful] we will not vote. We have an argument with the government.”
But some prominent coastal leaders, despite acknowledging the dire need to address the injustices suffered along the coast, denounce the secessionist drive. Kenya’s recent constitutional modifications, they say, provide the necessary instruments to confront the government on those issues.
“Instead of encouraging people to not participate, the MRC should be asking people to participate more so the people can elect officials who sympathise with their plight” said Mombasa native Hassan Omar Hassan, a former commissioner of the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights.
Hassan predicts that voters will go to the ballot box when national elections are held. The date of parliamentary and presidential elections remains a matter of debate rooted in constitutional ambiguity, but will be held some time between this summer and March 2013.
But poor living conditions coupled with police brutality threatens to give support to a voter boycott. On December 17, a police officer was killed south of Mombasa in a crime that observers say lacked political motivation. In the wake of the incident, however, security forces stormed homes in the vicinity and, according to local resident, 36-year-old Mdune Julo, beat neighbourhood residents, arrested dozens and accused them of being MRC militants.
“As coastal residents, we are tired. We are tired of oppression, the lack of freedom and opportunity,” said Julo, who says he was dragged out of his home, beaten and detained. “Maybe it’s the only organisation to represent us. I will not vote in elections as a show of defiance.”
Police brutality is pervasive throughout Kenya. Coastal security has, however, targeted MRC meetings in crackdowns that have led to multiple deaths in recent years. The government deems the MRC an organised crime entity, providing justification for outlawing the group and raiding its meetings.
“As you know the MRC is outlawed according to the Kenyan Constitution,” said Coast Police Commissioner, Aggrey Adoli, in his Mombasa office. “So they cannot claim they are legally assembling and we are obstructing their meeting.”
The MRC has not been concretely implicated in any violence, despite the government ban. That is poised to change, however, should negotiations not begin and grievances continue to go unaddressed. MRC leaders insist on exhausting all legal avenues before taking up arms while admitting segments of the group have been pushing for a more militant approach. An uprising has a degree of popular appeal and, should it spark, MRC leaders fear they will lose control.
“We don’t fear to die. We shall fight. Justice will be done,” said 54-year-old Khalifani Bakari Manyenze outside the High Court to an eruption of applause from the crowd of 50 people encircling us. “We shall not tolerate this anymore. Anything can happen this time.”
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