Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council
: The Coast calls for freedom

By Parselelo Kantai in Mombasa

Posted on Thursday, 17 May 2012 12:52

A rapidly growing civil society movement is championing the disinherited indigenous people of the Coast and demanding secession.

A photo of a young man, his back to the camera, wearing a black T-shirt with the words Pwani si Kenya (The Coast is not Kenyan) launched the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) into the national political consciousness. Those words have become the rallying cry for a movement demanding a peaceful secession from Kenya.

“Our main issue is land. For the Kenyan state to correct past injustices will be a tall order. In our view, such a correction would cause bloodshed. We don’t want bloodshed, so we have chosen secession as the only alternative,” says MRC ­secretary-general Randu Nzai Ruwa.

Founded in 1999, the MRC aims to address political and economic discrimination against coastal peoples. The ethnic clashes in the Likoni area of Mombasa before the 1997 elections highlighted the marginalisation and land disputes along the coast. President Daniel arap Moi’s government declared an amnesty but sent in troops who ransacked villages, raped women and rounded up youth from the Mijikenda community. “We started meeting. We wanted to take up arms and go to the bush. We realised the government was not going to address our problems,” says Ruwa.

They opted for dialogue after they discovered documents showing that the coast had been subject to a 1895 treaty between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar. The treaty conferred protectorate status on a ten-mile coastal belt running from Witu in the north to Vanga in the south. Formally the dominion of the Zanzibari sultanate, it had been leased to Britain. Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta signed documents incorporating the coast into the newly independent republic, but only under specific conditions.

“We have written to the Queen, the President of Kenya and the Prime Minister telling them of our intentions and asking for an audience. Only the British High Commissioner in Nairobi has replied,” says Ruwa.

Instead, the MRC found itself among a government list of banned groups in 2008. The MRC went to court to contest the ban in 2010, a case that has been adjourned on numerous occasions while the government continues to harass MRC supporters. The press often makes unfounded claims of the MRC’s links to Al-Shabaab and other militias.

Indigenous coastal people are among the worst off in Kenya: five of the 15 poorest districts (now counties) are in Coast Province. The coast lags behind in education, health, employment and industrialisation, yet it contributes massively to public coffers through tourism and Mombasa’s Kilindini port.

Political recognition

Starting with Kenyatta in the 1960s, the political elite have taken large tracts of beachfront land for onselling, conversion into holiday homes or developments with foreign hoteliers. Kenya’s coast is the playground of rich, white jet-setters and their Kenyan counterparts, but it is also home to a deeply impoverished indigenous population.

Taking advantage of a legal lacuna, the Kenyatta government refused to issue land titles to indigenous people and instead settled its own ethnic constituents as well as the new elites. Today more than 80% of Mijikenda and Swahili coastals are squatters on their ancestral lands.

Since registering as a civil society organisation, the MRC claims to have recruited two million members in 18 months and to have more than 200 branches. Independent assessments say registered members are far fewer.

The MRC is now strong enough to prompt recognition from prime minister Raila Odinga and other mainstream politicians who promise to talk to its leadership. Any talks will be testing. “The peaceful manner in which we’re proceeding doesn’t mean we’re cowards … if our claims are not addressed, we will use any means necessary to press our case,” says MRC spokesman Mohammed Rashid Mraja. ●

This article was first published in the 2012 April edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

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