Mombasa is peaceful but tensions are simmering beneath the surface. Late last month, the coastal city was wracked by a wave of riots and violence after the Islamist cleric Aboud Rogo was assassinated in a drive-by shooting. Gunmen shot at Aboud Rogo's car as he was driving along the Malindi Road towards Mombasa, with his wife and child inside. Rogo was a suspected fundraiser and recruiter for al-Shabab and was due in court in October where he was to face weapons charges.
The assailants are unknown but there are many theories as to their identities. Followers of Rogo claim that he was the victim of an extrajudicial murder at the hands of Kenyan security forces. That theory, though dismissed by the authorities, seems to hold water for many who suspect government involvement.
In response to the killing, local Mombasan youth and Kenyan police forces engaged in deadly clashes in the streets, which left several dead. Since the incident, anti-government and anti-Western sentiments have continued to grow creating a potentially serious situation as the nation prepares for another ballot test.
At the root of the violence is an overriding suspicion of the state that has been simmering for a while now. Rogo's killing simply brought these tensions to the fore. For the past several years, security forces have been implicated in a litany of extrajudicial killings and illegal renditions.
In the past year alone, there have been reports of individuals disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Witnesses have come forward alleging that plain-clothes officers apprehended suspected al-Shabab members, never to be seen again. Samir Khan, a fellow hardliner associate of Rogo, was in fact seen again, but not alive. Days after being abducted in the Likoni area of Mombasa in April, his mutilated body was found in Tsavo National Park.
In fact, with a history of being implicated in extrajudicial killings and disappearances, the credibility of the state with regard to this issue is low. The civil society group, Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), claims that four individuals have disappeared in Mombasa after being arrested in 2012. Also, according to the chair of the Muslim Human Rights Forum, another group in Mombasa, previous inquiries into disappearances have yielded little in the way of justice.
The suspicion and resentment that coastal communities have towards the government in Nairobi is indeed rooted in other serious grievances. Among them are a few important charges.
First, coastal Kenyans charge that the Coast is deliberately underdeveloped in comparison with other regions. It is a known fact that there are not sufficient employment opportunities in their region, with a perception among locals that many of the few jobs are taken by politically connected outsiders.
Subsequently, the Coast region is well known to be one of the least developed regions in Kenya with a large population of disaffected youth and an increasing heroin abuse problem. Some even charge that the government in Nairobi deliberately flooded the region with heroin to weaken their communities.
Additionally, coastal Kenyans charge that the system of land tenure in the Coast region favours individuals from the interior of the country. Between this incursion of "upcountry" settlers and the tourist trade - which is intertwined with Mombasa lucrative sex trade industry - many coastal Kenyans feel exploited.
These issues were at the heart of the riots that struck the Likoni area in 1997 where violent gangs targeted upcountry immigrants leaving dozens dead. Tensions have also been raised in response to the recently announced port project in Lamu, which is seen by some as another exploitative project designed to enrich outsiders.
The Cafe: Has Kenya Moved on?
Since the riots in 1997, coastal-state relations have hinged largely on the escalation of anti-terror efforts in the region. Al-Shabab has increased its recruitment of young men in the coast, including Somalis as well as members of other ethnic groups.
Kenya is under heavy pressure from the United States to tighten its anti-terror measures, however, since 2003, security forces have been criticised for discriminatory policies towards the Muslim community.
The entirety of these claims has created an ethos of victimhood and marginalisation in the Coast region. In response, a number of active politically-oriented organisations have emerged in the coastal region that advocate on behalf of the largely Muslim communities of the coast. Organisations such as the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, MUHURI and the Muslim Human Rights Forum have created a robust civil society.
However, in this contested space, there remain secessionist demands. The main proponent of the secessionist agenda is the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), whose slogan "Pwani si Kenya" roughly translated to "The Coast is not part of Kenya", articulates their guiding principle. They contend that the cultural differences between the coast and interior, as well as the grievances of the coastal communities, are sufficient to warrant creating a separate state.
The MRC also points to a historical moment to justify the secession. During the 1963 Lancaster House Conference that charted Kenya’s independence, Zanzibari, Kenyan and British authorities negotiated that the coastal strip, then controlled by Zanzibar, would be integrated into Kenya. This negotiation, to the MRC, is used as evidence that the coast was never truly a legitimate part of Kenya.
The Kenyan government has been engaged in a standoff with the MRC since even before the recent turbulence in Mombasa. The MRC was created in 1999 and was subsequently designated as an organised criminal group by the Kenyan government in 2010. However, the High Court in Mombasa ruled that the MRC's ban was unconstitutional. The Kenyan government flatly rejects their claims for secession out of hand and President Kibaki declined to negotiate.
In the run up to the March elections, the MRC has openly threatened to boycott the election and thwart it from happening on the coast. MRC chairman Omar Mwamnwadzi told Reuters recently, "There will be no peace, this I cannot hide from you. The coast will have no peace at all. Voting in the coast will not happen if there is no secession… We will not allow elections here. It will be mob justice using rocks. Many will die."
Already, MRC members have been able to disrupt poll exercises in Malindi, north of Mombasa.
"The longer the Coast region lags behind the rest of Kenya, the more legitimacy secessionist demands will have."
The Kenyan government has much to do in order to stave off this threat to its stability and peace. The recent events in the coastal region point to specific steps that must be taken.
First, the government must convene an independent inquiry into the killing of Aboud Rogo and other terror suspects who have been murdered or otherwise disappeared. The Kenyan state must also rethink its role in the coastal region vis-à-vis its anti-terror objectives. It can no longer antagonise the communities of the coast through heavy-handed anti-terror policies.
Additionally, the government must make serious commitments to unravel the economic grievances upon which the secessionist argument is based. That means investing in the Coast region and creating jobs, increasing access to land for locals, creating more opportunities to the local entrepreneurs and ensuring a more responsive Kenyan state where concerns of the region can be sufficiently and reliably addressed.
This approach may also include engaging with MRC's leadership. The broader Coast region outside of the Mombasa district is indeed diverse, and the communities are not a cohesive whole. The recent wave of violence between the Pokomo and Orma in Tana River district demonstrates this inter-ethnic tension of indigenous groups of the Coast region.
Although it is likely that the MRC does not have the broad support to push forward a legitimate secessionist movement, they certainly are capable of stirring animosity and tension that could result in violence and weaken the states' position. The longer the Coast region lags behind the rest of Kenya, the more legitimacy secessionist demands will have.
In 2013, the world will be watching as Kenya heads to the polls, wondering if the country can avoid the violence that plagued the last one. When combined with continued security threats in the region, the recent events in the Coast demonstrate that more must be done to ensure peace and stability in the region.
Wossen Ayele is a researcher focused on East Africa and currently based at the Forum for Social Studies (FSS) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is a graduate of Yale University.
Follow him on Twitter: @wossen
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.