Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August 2014, 11:05 GMT

Kenya's coastal separatists - menace or martyrs?

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 24 October 2012
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Kenya's coastal separatists - menace or martyrs?, 24 October 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/508e7f292.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Kenyan security forces are conducting a wave of arrests of members of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), who are accused of incitement and acts of violence. Below, IRIN offers an overview of the coastal secessionist group.

What is the MRC?

Formed in the late 1990s, the group aims to counter decades of the perceived marginalization of the coastal region's indigenous population, which it says successive governments have done nothing to address.

The MRC remained largely inactive until 2008, when it gained widespread publicity due in large part to a new slogan emblazoned on caps and T-shirts: "Pwani si Kenya", Swahili for "the coast is not Kenya."

Leaders claim a membership of 1.5 million. One independent analyst told IRIN 100,000 was a more plausible figure.

In addition to calling for secession, the MRC has urged its followers to boycott the general election in March 2013.

Are their grievances valid?

After independence from Britain in 1963, large chunks of land across the country, including the Coast Province, were appropriated by the government. Plots were often distributed to outsiders in a corrupt system of political patronage, and many residents ended up as "squatters" on land they considered their birthright.

Around 80 percent of the coastal population lacks titles to the land on which they live.

Randu Nzai Ruwa, the group's secretary, told IRIN before his recent arrest for incitement that he had no faith any government in Nairobi would work to reverse this "injustice." "We will solve it alone," he said.

Although Kenya's coast is a pillar of the country's tourism industry, many residents believe few of the benefits of the sector accrue to them.

Is secession a realistic goal?

Separatist aspirations on the coast date back to the run-up to independence from Britain in 1963 (a 10-mile strip of land had until then been leased to Britain by the Sultan of Oman and Muscat), but that year's Lancaster House Agreement saw it integrated into the new Republic of Kenya, an arrangement that cannot be altered without changing the constitution.

The MRC claims to have a copy of a separate 1963 agreement under which the strip was leased to - rather than incorporated into - the new republic for 50 years, at the end of which term - in 2013 - it would be returned to its inhabitants. Hence "Pwani si Kenya."

"Secession is a long-term political project, and I am not entirely sure that the MRC - despite the rhetoric - are interested in secession," said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, Horn of Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"The critical thing is not whether MRC can or has the capacity to secede, but how genuine the issues they raise are and the best way to solve them," he added.

While the MRC's grievances about marginalization and land rights are shared by many on the coast, numerous residents told IRIN they favoured neither secession nor an election boycott.

What is MRC's legal status?

Murky. In 2010, the government declared the MRC, together with 32 other organizations, illegal on grounds that they were never properly registered and were bent on engaging in criminal activities. In June 2012, the group managed to get that declaration overturned by the High Court, which deemed it unconstitutional. The ruling called on the MRC to register as a political party and to cease its calls for secession.

Four months later, despite being a subordinate entity, a magistrate's court in Mombasa, instigated by the state, outlawed the group and ordered police to arrest its leaders for belonging to a banned organization.

The police have explained that their crackdown is also the result of MRC's alleged involvement in criminal activities, such as incitement to violence and perpetrating violence, including killings.

Is the MRC armed?

Not according to Ruwa, who told IRIN the group lacks the resources to purchase weapons even if it wanted to.

But the police insist some MRC members do have weapons; its leader, Omar Hamisi Mwamnuadzi, for example, is in custody on a possession charge. They further allege the group has conducted military training in Kilifi District and has tried to recruit children as fighters.

Police said dozens of youths armed with machetes and clubs tried to prevent Mwamnuadzi's arrest. In the ensuing altercation, two MRC members were shot dead. A local official who allegedly led the police to Mwamnuadzi was also killed.

Police have also said the MRC was behind a recent mob attack on a cabinet minister, whose bodyguard died in the incident. The MRC denied involvement, but Ruwa and spokesman Mohamed Mraja were subsequently charged with incitement.

A November 2011 report, commissioned by the Kenya Civil Society Strengthening Program, said there was no evidence of an armed MRC wing but warned the group could acquire arms in the future.

Does MRC have links with Al-Shabab?

Security agencies say the MRC could be receiving funding from Somali insurgent group Al-Shabab. They also allege that around 1,000 Kenyan youths recruited into the ranks of Al-Shabab in Somalia have returned to Kenya to join the MRC.

Its leaders have denied any involvement with Al-Shabab.

ICG's Halakhe said claims of such a link reflected "ignorance of the complex nuances of the group's dynamics."

Victor Bude, a political science lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said that even though widespread frustration on the coast makes it a fertile recruiting ground for radical groups, the allegation that MRC is affiliated with Al-Shabab was largely "meant to shore up public support for the crackdown."

What are the possible effects of the crackdown?

Greater security, as far as the authorities are concerned.

But some analysts told IRIN the crackdown could backfire, winning the group more support and increasing already worrying levels of violence in the region.

"These arrests of MRC leadership and members are counter-productive because the government is essentially making them martyrs. The initial blunder of banning the group increased its profile," Halakhe said, adding that dialogue - an option ruled out by the government - was the best way forward.

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