By Kisiangani Emmanuel and Lulu Saida
It was former Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi who, at a meeting of African and Arab leaders in October 2010, warned that Southern Sudan’s independence would spread like a ‘disease…to all of Africa…’ While South Sudan’s secession shook the perceived inviolability of Africa’s colonial boundaries, it has yet to trigger off new separatist claims or intensify existing ones across the continent, at least not in the streak of Gadhafi’s premonitions.
In Kenya, however, a group calling itself the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has in the recent past stirred a level of uneasiness with its insistence on seceding from the rest of the country. Ironically, the group became much more tenacious after they were declared one of the 33 ‘illegal organized criminal groups’ by the Government of Kenya in October 2010. Before that, they had only been waging a low-level secession campaign for over a decade. Their main grievances revolve around perceived wrongs, especially land injustice, committed against the indigenous coastal people, so the group aims to ‘liberate’ these people from alleged mistreatment and marginalisation by successive Kenyan governments by establishing an independent state at the coast. They thus demand a referendum on the issue.
While the group claims to be non-violent, their activities have increasingly raised concern particularly given allegations around oath taking and illegal military training by the group at Mulungunipa forest on the Kenyan South Coast. The situation is compounded by suspected links between the MRC militia wing and criminal activities in the coastal city of Mombasa. The group has also threatened to mobilise Kenya’s coastal people not to participate in the much-anticipated next general elections, on the pretext that the coast is not part of Kenya.
In November last year, a petrol bomb suspected to be from the group was hurled at a crowd at the coast during grassroots elections for one of the main political parties in Kenya, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM). On the eve of the elections, the group had circulated leaflets reading ‘Pwani hakupigwi kura zo zote’ (There will be no voting of any kind in the coast region). The bomb, however, failed to explode.
While the group’s strength is yet to be established the question is: What motivates its geopolitics and ethno-nationalism? Lea Brilmayer observes that when a group seeks to secede, it is claiming a right to a particular piece of land and one must, therefore, necessarily inquire into why it is feels it is entitled to that particular piece of land. The MRC’s clarion call of ‘Pwani sio Kenya’ (The coast is not part of Kenya) is based on historical circumstances. This can be traced to a ten-nautical mile (19 km) wide strip known as Zanj, established in November 1886 by a German-British border commission along the East African Coast. This strip stretched from Cape Delgado (now in Mozambique) to Kipini (now in Kenya) and included the current towns of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and several towns in what is now Somalia. Back then, the strip was under the influence of Zanzibar, itself controlled by the Sultan of the Persian Gulf state of Oman, Seyyid Said. In 1887, Seyyid Said leased sections of Zanj to the Imperial British East Africa Company and subsequently entered into agreement with the British government to have Mombasa as a protectorate under the British. Coastal people were therefore rendered as squatters on their own land.
The story continues in 1962 when Kenya was about to gain its independence from Britain. Debate then ensued about whether or not the Coastal Strip should exist as an independent entity, to which the Kenyan leadership, argued that it could not. Given the strategic importance of the port of Mombasa to Kenya and the East African region, the Kenyan leadership recommended that the Sultan of Zanzibar be compensated instead and the region be made officially a part of Kenya. This agreement was signed in 1963 during the Lancaster negotiations between the British and the Kenyans.
The MRC, however, maintains that then Kenyan prime minister, Jomo Kenyatta, and his Zanzibar counterpart, Mohamed Shante, signed a separate 50-year lease agreement for the Kenyan Coastal Strip to be integrated into Kenya. To them, the Coastal Strip remained an independent entity that is supposed to be returned to the indigenous coastal people by 2013. It is on this basis that the MRC claims that the coastal strip is not ‘in need of any Kenyan protection’ and that they need a referendum to decide whether to secede from Kenya.
Broadly, the land problem took a new dimension in Kenya after independence when the government transferred all land ownership to government and gave sections of the land left by the British to individuals who were not original area residents. The elite and influential people in government too capitalised on their patronage to register themselves as owners of the land at the coast and in other parts of the country. Much of this land at the coast has either been left idle or used for speculative purposes. It is for these reasons that people at the coast remain squatters and accuse the Kenyan government of marginalization, discrimination and neglect.
The MRC argues that despite the fact that the coast is a major contributor to Kenya’s economy through tourism and the port of Mombasa, locals in the region remain some of the poorest people in country. They thus maintain that they should not be considered as rebels since their agenda resonates with majority of the people at the coast. Indeed while majority of the group’s grievances draw sympathies from the local population, it is not quite evident that MRC’s call for secession enjoys similar popular support.
The MRC’s talk of secession has, however, not gone down well with the Kenyan government, which has maintained that the group’s motives are parallel to the stability and unity of the country. The Kenyan government has cited Article 3(2) of the constitution, which outlaws any attempt by anyone to form a government that is not inline with the country’s new constitution. It has also cited articles that negate any attempt to change the territory of Kenya and argued that MRC’s grievances should be channeled through the new constitution that provides avenues to deal with past land injustices including the codification of Kenya’s National Land Policy.
The government has also stated that the MRC’s grievances are encompassed in the soon to be established devolved system of government, which provides for the right of communities to manage their affairs and further their development. The whole issue mirrors the contradictory relationship between the right to self-determination as enshrined in international law and the principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity, which too have been core values of international law.
It seems unlikely that the Kenyan government will accede to the MRC’s demand of secession in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless dealing with the MRC may not be as simple as seems given the life cycles of similar groups in the region that are founded on genuine grievances and which over time grow into terrorist or criminal organisations. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, for instance, emerged out of perceived historical injustices and marginalisation but failure to address the factors that underlined the group’s emergence and resort to military solutions, catalysed the group into a “monster” and a regional problem that remains unresolved today. The same trajectory can be said of Mungiki in Kenya, which developed in a similar manner.
Given allegations that MRC might be receiving support including funds from top businessmen and politicians in the region (Mombasa) eyeing political offices in the upcoming elections and the fact that the group has, too, received public support including from religious groupings, it is imperative that the Kenyan government ensures proper planning to respond to MRC; but more importantly, the Kenyan government needs to take the group’s grievances more seriously. While the government seems to be softening its hard stance against the MRC with Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently calling for dialogue, ultimately, a lasting solution to the MRC and to similar groupings lies in governments establishing inclusive and participatory processes that ensure fairness in the distribution of national resources.
Dr Kisiangani Emmanuel is senior researcher, Institute for Security Studies, Nairobi, and Lulu Saida is completing her International and Communication Studies at Monash University, Malaysia.