(Originally published in World Politics Review on August 17, 2012)
An ongoing standoff in Kenya’s Coast province between the central government and the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) could make the region a flashpoint for next year’s elections.
Formed in 1999 to address the region’s marginalization, the MRC was designated by the government as an organized criminal group in 2010. Claiming this action unconstitutional, the MRC filed a case with the High Court in Mombasa, which last month ruled in the MRC’s favor. Nevertheless, the MRC has maintained its threats to boycott and otherwise disrupt Kenya’s March 2013 presidential and parliamentary elections if its demands are not met. …
(Read the rest of the article on the World Politics Review website)
On Wednesday, the High Court in Mombasa ruled that the Kenyan government’s ban on the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) was unconstitutional. Established in 1999 to address the issue of marginalization of the Coast region by the central government, the MRC began to call for secession of the Coast region in 2008. This objective, which is based on what the group argues to be historical grounds, is reflected in their rallying cry “Pwani si Kenya” or “The Coast is not part of Kenya.”
The MRC’s grievances include a lack of employment opportunities in the region, issues with land tenure for the indigenous people of the coast (in contrast to title deeds issued to people who have settled there from other parts of Kenya), and the harassment and arbitrary arrests of its members by Kenyan security forces. Furthermore, given the role the region plays in contributing to the economic development of the country through revenues from tourism and the port of Mombasa, the MRC accuses the Kenyan government of being unresponsive to the region’s concerns.
The Court’s ruling lifted the ban imposed on the MRC’s activities by gazette notice number 12585 from October 2010, which declared the MRC, along with 32 other groups, to be organized criminal organizations under the Prevention of Organized Crimes Act of 2010. Later that year, the MRC filed a civil case with the High Court in Mombasa challenging the government’s ban. To date, the MRC has been the only one of these groups to challenge the state’s designation in court.
Citing a lack of evidence that the MRC had engaged in criminal activity, the Court accordingly declared that the government had failed to justify that the ban was justifiable and proportionate. However, the Court issued a caveat to its ruling, stating that it should not be seen as an endorsement of secession and dismemberment of the country, and warning that the MRC’s agenda must not incite war, violence, or hate speech. The Court observed that the group had the attributes of a political movement, and advised that it register as a political party and pursue its agenda through legal means. Kenya’s 2010 constitution offers a measure of devolution through which local grievances could be addressed, and elections in March of next year will be the first under this constitution. Nevertheless, the MRC believes that, even with increased local political representation as a result of the new constitution, elections cannot change the fortunes of the region.
Following the ruling, government officials with security portfolios met on Thursday to discuss the potential implications of the ruling for the security of Coast Province, amid fears that MRC grievances could make the region a flashpoint for the March 2013 elections. Kenya’s Attorney General has also announced the government’s intention to appeal the Court’s ruling, claiming that “the court decision failed to consider the legitimate constitutional concerns of the government in ensuring that any group or organization challenging the constitutional authority and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kenya cannot enjoy protection from Constitution.”
Regardless of how various parts of the government decide to move forward in the aftermath of this week’s events, the High Court ruling has a few key implications:
- The High Court ruling is a victory for the MRC, as it is now allowed to carry out non-violent political mobilization. However, it also potentially undermines the group’s claim that it cannot seek redress for political and economic wrongs within the framework of the Kenyan Constitution and thus needs its own state. This could create ideological conflicts that could fracture the cohesion of the movement around the idea of secession.
- Should the MRC continue to call for secession of the Coast, which I suspect it will, the Kenyan government will have to determine if this will continue to preclude opening a dialogue with the MRC – or more generally, with aggrieved coastal populations.
- What happens next will largely depend on whether either the MRC or the Kenyan government resort to violence. If the former resorts to violence, we will probably see the Kenyan security services responding in a heavy-handed manner, which could propagate further acts of violence on the part of the MRC. If the latter resorts to violence, this could also escalate the conflict, forcing legitimate socio-historical grievances to transform the MRC from a group that espouses non-violent protest to one that adopts more violent methods.
I hope to write on this topic in more detail in the next week or so – admittedly, I have left a bit out about the MRC, including allegations that it has an armed wing and has links to al-Shabaab. But for now, for further reading on the MRC I would recommend Emmanuel Kisiang`ani and Mashaka Lewela, “Kenya’s Mombasa Republican Council: liberators or nascent radical fanatics?” and Paul Goldsmith, “The Mombasa Republican Council Conflict Assessment: Threats and Opportunities for Engagement.” Also, when I was in Coast last month, I met a researcher doing fieldwork for a report on the MRC, so I’m hoping that in addition to these two sources, we will soon have another great resource that sheds light on the group and the government’s response to the situation as it continues to develop.