Quality Time with Kenya's Secessionists

Kenya's MRC just want their piece of the pie.

Paige Aarhus

The Kenyan coastline is known for its endless white sand beaches, turquoise blue ocean, and a charming fusion of Islamic and British colonial architecture. Tourists come here for the cheap booze, attractive locals, and exotic scenery. What they may not be aware of is that many of the people serving drinks and changing towels are part of a massive underground secessionist movement likely to bring chaos and bloodshed in the upcoming presidential election.

The Kenyan government would like the public to believe that the Mombasa Republican Council on the country’s south coast is a gang of criminals and terrorists.

In reality, this outlawed movement is made up of young, poor, landless locals who are sick and tired of being marginalized by the government and brutalized by police. They’re ready to rumble this election season, planning to boycott polling stations in Mombasa and beyond, and they’ve promised trouble for anyone who tries to cast a ballot in the province.

The MRC is similar to Somalia's shifta militia (a group in the northeast that advocated for secession in the 1960s until the government violently stamped it out), and was among 32 others declared “illegal organized criminal groups” in 2010. Its leaders claim to be against violence, but the majority of its members are disenfranchised youth who are ready to take up arms.

Leaders of the MRC: vice chairman Ali Mwatembe, chairman Rashid Kivyaso, and spokesperson Mohammad Rashid Mraja

I had a chance to hang with the founders of the MRC recently. We met in Likoni, a tiny town outside the steamy port city, where I sat down with chairman Rashid Kivyaso, intense spokesperson Mohammad Rashid Mraja, secretary general Randu Mzai Ruwa, and assistant vice chairman Ali Mwatembe.

They agreed to meet because they want to air their many grievances to anyone who will listen. Much like their Somali counterparts in the northeast, locals here have a shared sense of profound marginalization, and for a long time no one has really given a shit.

“The coast people are tired of being ruled by the Kenyan government. Their wealth has been looted by the government ... This is the new colonialism,” said Ruwa.

Formed in 1999, the MRC claims that despite the Coast Province being a major contributor to the national economy through the Port of Mombasa and a booming tourism industry, the Coast people have yet to benefit from its resources. Politicians reserve the majority of investment in the area to new tourist resorts, with very little reserved for infrastructure and human development.

Although it’s the second-largest city in Kenya, Mombasa has no universities of its own. Students in the Coast Province routinely rank lowest in national exam results, locals seldom hold high-ranking government positions, and poverty and unemployment are endemic. Most importantly, the region’s popularity as a top tourist destination means that many have been bought or pushed out of their family’s land by foreigners and non-coastal Kenyan businessmen so another big resort can be built.

MRC members are also frequent victims of some pretty intense police brutality, and they are getting sick of it.

“We are pushed by the demands of the people. We realized that the government is not going to help. The law is applied differently against the local population here. The MRC was born out of harassment,” said Ruwa.

Ever since the MRC was outlawed, police crackdowns at meetings and oath-taking ceremonies have been frequent. At one such raid in October last year, police fired on the crowd, injuring many and allegedly killing a fisherman.

“We were told not to speak, and the youth resisted. Some started throwing rocks, and the police shot back,” said Mwatembe.

The leaders I met with were firm in their policy on non-violence, but they recognized that the youth who make up the majority of the group do not necessarily feel the same way.

“There is a large portion of youth who claim we are wasting time and we should take up arms,” said Mraja.

“If they start the war by themselves, we can’t stop them,” added Ruwa.

All MRC leaders assured me they are determined to exhaust all legal avenues to achieve what they want. A weird old treaty between the Sultan of Zanzibar and the Queen of England states that 10 miles into the entire stretch of Kenya’s coastline should be returned to the locals in 2013, though that will likely be ignored by the Kenyan government.

The group is also in the midst of filing a couple court petitions to decriminalize the group and block Kenya’s electoral commission from setting up polling stations during the next election.

But so far the process has been slow, it’s unlikely they will find success through legal means anyway, and if they don’t...

 “The MRC will not allow the voting process to go on. If the court process fails, there is no option but violence to stop people. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Mwatembe.

The MRC wants nothing but secession. That is its only goal—no compromises. But the legal battle is not going the way the group had hoped.

At the High Court of Mombasa the next day, MRC members were on site to await the latest developments of the two court cases. The process was delayed once again—the group has been waiting for two years to get a court date now—and a group of pissed-off-looking MRC members stood frowning around their lawyer outside the courthouse when I showed up.

“This is another example of delaying tactics used by the government to ignore our plight,” said Mraja.

In the park across the street, chanting and yelling erupted as about 250 people with painted faces and political signs made their presence known. I was pulled into the middle of it as Mraja got the crowd fired up, shouting slogans and jeering at a waiting truck of riot police.

“For the last year the MRC has grown in leaps and bounds, partially because the government has tried to silence it. Media attention has grown so much. Our press conferences used to be empty. Not so anymore,” said Mwatembe, who estimated there are now 2.2 million active MRC members in the province.

People are paying more attention because the Coast is a crucial area for vote-hungry politicians. A secessionist movement here is highly unlikely to succeed because the area is so valuable to the rest of the country, but that hasn’t dissuaded the MRC.

They want their own flag, currency, name (The Republic of Mombasa), and laws, and they want them by the end of the year. They haven’t decided on a system of leadership yet, but they are definitely thinking hard on it.

“We are simply the revolutionaries. The leaders will come later,” said Mraja.

The MRC is predominantly Muslim, and at one point advocated a return to Sharia law, though political pressure and Kenya’s recent incursion into Somalia to deal with Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab has led it to turn away from religious doctrines. Rumors that the group is secretly in bed with Al Qaida and Al-Shabaab have damaged its reputation. The MRC is trying to play its cards right.

“We do not have a religious stamp. We have learned our lesson from previous mistakes. We accept people from all religions and shun religious arguments,” said Mraja.

It’s a clever ploy, and one that will likely win them more supporters in the area. Also helping things are frequent incidents of police brutality—the aforementioned October raid, and a police roundup in December last year that saw dozens beaten, arrested, and humiliated by police.

Back in Likoni, I met with Mdune Julo and Mwana Siti, two locals who are still on the fence about whether they will join the MRC. They were at home on the night of December 18, one day after two local police officers had been hacked to death with a machete. Locals insist the murders weren’t politically motivated, but apparently the police weren’t buying it that night.

According to Julo, about 20 GSU paramilitary police officers showed up to the neighborhood surrounding the crime scene and started kicking doors in. He was just getting out of bed when police busted in and arrested him.

“They started beating everyone. They were looking for the MRC. They made us lie on the ground and beat us as we walked to the lorry,” he said.

Siti, a tiny, unassuming Muslim woman, said the harassment and brutality was something akin to that whole Abu Gharib thing—many of the detainees were still naked, and forced to sit on each other’s laps before frog leaping to the truck as police beat them. Siti said they suffered tremendous anti-Muslim verbal abuse.

“They pulled down my shop and they were beating people with the timber. The women were pulled out of the houses and made to watch,” she said.

“I will not vote in the upcoming elections as an act of defiance against the government,” said Julo.

Commissioner Aggrey Adoli

At the provincial police headquarters, Commissioner Aggrey Adoli said reports of police brutality are baseless rumors.

“We have not heard these complaints. These are just gossipers. People could have gone to the courts to complain. Right now we could be having an outcry. Even the raids were done in the daytime, but nobody reported anything,” he said.

According to Adoli, the MRC is a small and powerless group of rabble-rousers looking for attention and money, possibly retired government workers who didn’t plan properly for their future.

“It is not a threat as of now. The government has forces on the ground that deal with them,” he said.

 Adoli told me the group is motivated only by money, attracting only the poorest and most uneducated local youth. When Kenya’s new Constitution creates 47 individual county governments across the nation this year, the Coast province will have more of a say in where its money goes, he promised.

“They tend just to follow. We have told them they should wait for the country governments. Any threats made to other people will not endear them to economic development. The issue of land will be settled under the new constitution,” he said.

Adoli swears there have been no incidents of police brutality, arguing that they’ve simply been doing their jobs and maintaining law and order in the area.

“As you know, the MRC is outlawed, so there is no way they can claim legal assembly,” he said.

But it’s that kind of thinking that will cause trouble during elections, said Mwinyi Juma, director of local NGO Likodev.

Juma works extensively with the MRC to help the group work through legal channels and prevent violence, but it wasn’t always so. A series of clashes in the Kiambu district during the 1997 election saw Juma and fellow guerrilla fighters storm police stations with guns they claim the government had provided them to flush out local opposition.

Juma spent weeks fighting police in the surrounding jungle, and though he’s now abandoned his violent revolutionary tendencies, he sees history repeating itself this year.

“There are grievances that the government refuses to address. Their approach leaves a lot to be desired. Beating the youth without any reason is no tactic to take. That’s why we were in the forest in 1997 fighting with police. We started because of that,” he said.