Secessionist winds blow on Kenya’s coast

Regional outfit gains popularity as it fights to carve out a new state along Africa’s resource-rich coast

Secessionist graffiti in Likoni
'The coast is not Kenya,' reads secessionist graffiti in Likoni, south of Mombasa [Brian Dabbs/Al Jazeera]

Mombasa, Kenya – Flanked by dozens of men in the shadow of a reaching cashew nut tree, Fatuma Bakari Gure, a diminutive mother of six, says the time has come to shed the shackles of a distant Nairobi government.

The mildew-stained village mosque and dilapidated playground bear witness to the poverty of sun-soaked, resource-rich coastal Kenya. Locals, she says, can no longer endure their legacy of hardship: nearly 50 years of post-independence exploitation.

She is speaking about an emboldened secession movement along the Kenyan coast, led by a fringe group called the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), and a looming armed struggle.

“I want our own country right now, not even later today,” says Gure from her Bara-Arabu village, 10 kilometres south of Mombasa, donning a vibrantly colored jilbab, the common coastal dress for females. “The MRC is not advocating violence but the government will bring it. If there is violence we will respond with violence. We can’t leave our people to suffer like that.”

As Gure flashes her MRC membership card, featuring her name next to the MRC’s palm-tree-emblazoned logo, she rants about endemic land theft, resource exploitation and employment discrimination, orchestrated by government agencies and prominent Kenyans from inland areas. The villagers nod in universal agreement, periodically chiming in to defend her claims. In remote, underdeveloped areas of the 500-kilometre stretch of Kenyan coast, such as Bara-Arabu, the MRC’s skyrocketing popularity is matched only by a pervasive distaste for the Kenyan government.

“We are 100 per cent positive we can lead this country,” says 52-year-old Bara-Arabu villager Abdullah Chidundu. “Once when have independence and our resources, we can take over governing the coast.”

Coastal struggle

The government has a real incentive to talk. This is not capitulation to an illegal, criminal group.

– Abdullahi Halakhe, International Crisis Group

Originally founded in 1999, the MRC has grown substantially over recent years, opening regional offices throughout the coast and enlisting civic leaders of varied faiths and backgrounds to spread its secessionist message. MRC leaders are targeting a coastal swathe, between the Tanzanian and Somali borders and 300 kilometres inland, as their future country. In July, a Mombasa court ruled to legalise the group, overturning a 2010 ban.

But the MRC’s refusal to discard its Pwani si Kenya (“the coast is not Kenya” in Kiswahili) slogan is causing prominent political figures to distance themselves. State officials so far refuse to negotiate with the group. Kenyan Attorney General Githu Muigai filed an appeal this month against the Mombasa court ruling.

Despite the obstacles, the MRC has now managed to position secession calls at the forefront of national discourse. As tensions rise in the lead-up to the 2013 general election, analysts say the coast may be headed for turmoil. Although MRC leaders denounce violence, the group wields only limited control over droves of impoverished, angry youths. Coastal instability is poised to disrupt an already fragile economic and political landscape in Kenya, an important regional force in East Africa.

“The government has a real incentive to talk. This is not capitulation to an illegal, criminal group,” says Abdullahi Halakhe, a Nairobi-based Kenya expert at the International Crisis Group. “A state needs to know when to use force and not use force. The key overriding issue is to not have violence at the coast during elections.”

Halakhe said the government should make strategic concessions to deliver greater coastal representation in state agencies operating there, which are largely dominated by inland Kenyans. But the most significant grievance pushed by the MRC revolves around land ownership. Because of a long campaign of coastal land-grabbing, the vast majority of locals lack title deeds, making them squatters on their ancestral land. Poverty rates are rivalled only by severely neglected northeastern Kenya.

MRC officials cite a long list of dubious historical agreements to justify separation, culminating in a 50-year lease agreement allegedly signed between the Sultan of Zanzibar and Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta prior to Kenya’s 1963 independence. After expiration in 2013, the coast would gain autonomy, according to MRC officials. Some historians and government officials, however, claim the 50-year lease agreement is a forgery.

‘We don’t want chaos’

Since Kenyan multi-party politics re-emerged in 1992, each election season has brought conflict to the coast. MRC officials are currently seeking a court-issued ruling to ban electoral activity in the province. That decision seems likely to fail, considering the new Kenyan constitution, a document praised by the international community, bans secession. As a contingency, MRC followers intend to boycott the poll, a move likely to be resisted by an often-abusive Kenyan security apparatus.

“MRC followers are not criminals. They are waiting for justice,” says MRC leader Bishop James Christian [Brian Dabbs/Al Jazeera] 

“If they don’t rule with justice, there will be many problems because there are many unresolved issues. But we don’t want chaos,” said MRC Chairman Omar Mwamnwadzi, surrounded by MRC leaders under a thatched canopy at his rural home south of Mombasa, the MRC heartland. Dressed in a white Muslim gown and a fur hat, he kneaded a handkerchief as goats trotted aimlessly past an open fire pit in the courtyard. 

Following a disputed presidential poll in 2007, Kenya erupted in chaos that claimed roughly 1,200 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. Five years later, Kenyan society remains sharply divided along ethnic lines. Four Kenyans currently face war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for roles in the violence. Lingering ethnic tensions and the MRC’s emergence represent arguably the most significant threats to stability this electoral season. Should violence return to the coast, the reverberations will be felt beyond Kenyan borders.

“The port of Mombasa is the artery of the region, not just Kenya. Its importance impacts the region all the way to northeast Congo … [Poll violence] would be a huge blow economically,” said Halakhe, noting skyrocketing prices in the region following the 2007 vote.

Local entrepreneurs say they are already noticing a deteriorated business climate. 

“Once we have things like the MRC business suffers. The dollar shoots up. Tourists don’t come … It’s going to be quite rough,” said Nairobi-native Muraya Thomas, a port customs-checking business owner. “They don’t want to work for land and jobs. They want to take it. That’s the bottom line with the MRC.”

‘Waiting for justice’

In the lead-up to nationwide polls in 1997, coastal Kenyans killed scores of inland Kenyans, including police, in a politically driven campaign to displace domestic migrants. In a country awash with illegal firearms and makeshift weapons, inland Kenyans residing around Mombasa claim their lives are, once again, at stake.

“We are so worried about the elections next year. There are people saying if we vote they will start fighting,” said David Wamanje, a 33-year-old security trainer and native of western Kenya. Speaking in his one-room home down a labyrinth of dirt alleyways in Likoni, an MRC stronghold across the Mombasa channel, Wamanje revealed a bow and arrow and machete allegedly confiscated from area youths last month.  

“People are very worried. Some have already started moving back up country (inland). Others are moving to other areas around Mombasa,” he added. “Security is increasing but they are changing locations so they can be free.”

MRC officials call for international mediation in their struggle, akin to the role foreign power-brokers played in delivering South Sudanese independence last year, while admitting the process may be long and arduous. From a leadership standpoint, however, the MRC remains ostensibly devoted to non-violent tactics.

“We are avoiding bloodshed. That’s why we are going through the law,” said MRC leader Bishop James Christian at his church north of Mombasa. “MRC followers are not criminals. They are waiting for justice.”

Source: Al Jazeera