Kenya Must Engage With Mombasa Republican Council, Not Demonise It

Mombasa Republican Council spokesman Mohamed Mraja shows journalists his bedroom in Kingo'rani, Mombasa after a police raid on 8 October 2012. [Photo courtesy of Daily Nation]

Mombasa Republican Council spokesman Mohamed Mraja shows journalists his bedroom in Kingo’rani, Mombasa after a police raid on 8 October 2012. [Photo courtesy of Daily Nation]

Longstanding, unresolved issues will present significant challenges in Kenya following this year’s elections.  The grievances of the coastal people, primarily represented by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) which is seeking to secede from Kenya, is one such issue.  The MRC argues Pwani si Kenya – the coast is not part of Kenya.

According to the MRC, it is not feasible for those they represent to get justice under the current Kenyan state. In response to the group, the Kenyan security apparatus over-reacted, particularly to the secession discourse, and quickly outlawed the group.

This perceived “persecution” only increased the group’s profile among the coastal people and the MRC responded by filing a case in the high court on 25 July 2012, calling for the court to lift the ban. The court ruled in favour of the MRC and said the ban was unconstitutional. The ruling, however, has not changed the security forces’ view of the MRC as a criminal group.

Several politicians during the elections courted the MRC, arguing that while their grievances are genuine, secession is not a solution, rather the solution is devolution, where resources and powers will be decentralised to the local authority under Kenya’s new constitution. But the MRC leadership argues that, in practice, the government is not committed to full implementation of devolution.

They cite for instance the fact that the Mombasa County commissioner is not from the coast as a clear demonstration of the government’s commitment to maintaining the status quo – one of economic and political marginalisation of the coastal people.

The MRC is a self-described social movement – not a political party, non-governmental organization, armed gang or a terrorist organisation. It came to prominence in 2008, although it existed in some form since early 1999. Unlike other groups that have emerged in Kenya, the MRC is largely composed of the poor of the poor and is largely a grassroots outfit.

While it is hard to ascertain the extent of the MRC’s following and support in the coastal region, the historical and contemporary grievances that they raise resonate with the majority of the locals.

Rationale for secession

Land is the anchor of the MRC’s discontent. While historical injustice around land is present in almost every part of Kenya, at the coast it is perverse. Sixty-two percent of people originating from other parts of Kenya and who settled in the coastal region have title deeds to the properties they own at the coast, compared to 38% of the indigenous population, according to the Coast Land Study 2011 report.

Closely linked to the land question is the economic marginalisation of the coastal region despite the region being a lucrative tourist hub. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’s 2007 integrated household budget survey ranks the Coast below all regions except North Eastern Province in rural poverty, and reports that urban poverty in Mombasa is higher than the country’s other major cities.


In the  coast region, more than a half million people were added to the ranks of the poor in this province between 1999 and 2005-06, according to the bureau’s constituency report on wellbeing 2005-2006. The poverty incidence for the province worsened from 57.8% in 1999 to 59.0 % in 2005-2006.

According to the Kenya County Fact Sheets published by the Commission on Revenue Allocation last year, the richest counties are  Kajiado, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Murang’a – mostly in the  central region, except Kajiado.

The coastal region’s infrastructure, like schools and roads, are in a deplorable state. Some of the region’s best performing schools in national examinations like Lukore Secondary School, Lunga Lunga Secondary School, Msambweni Secondary School, Kikoneni Secondary School, and Mazeras Secondary School are no longer performing well. Given the region’s economic significance, the discrepancies are particularly egregious. State neglect is one of the key reasons that is frequently cited.

The neglect of the region is undergirded by politics; there are few coastal politicians with a national profile. While the Coast is part and parcel of brand Kenya when it is advertised as a tourist destination, in reality, there is little that the region gains from being the epicentre of the lucrative tourism industry. There are no official statistics on this, but the majority of people I spoke with along the coast felt strongly about this particular issue.

And since most of the tourism infrastructure – hotels and tour companies are owned by people from outside Coast province, there is a sense of detachment from the local population.  Thus, the Coastal people feel that they are a cog in the industry’s wheel rather than a crucial stakeholder.

Aside from the above grievances, the MRC argues it has a legal basis for secession. They claim that the region was never a part of the British colony but a protectorate, while simultaneously also belonging to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. The ten mile coastal strip extending from Kipini in the North to the Ruvuma River in the South underwent a divergent cultural, religious, and developmental trajectory from the rest of the country.

Diverse proto-Swahili people were the first to inhabit the region, giving rise over time to an urban society with strong international linkages that dominated the coastal fringe. From the 1500s the region was administered with brute force by the Portuguese.

The coastal people enlisted the help of the Omani Arabs, who were able to expel the Portuguese in 1798. In the 1820s, when the Sultan of Oman later moved his headquarters to Zanzibar, he claimed control of the area. And throughout the colonial period the Sultan signed treaties with other powers as the ruler of the coast.

MRC and counterterrorism

Despite suffering terrorist attacks, Kenya has not been a big regional player in counterterrorism projects compared, for instance,  to Ethiopia and Uganda, at least overtly. That changed in October 2012, when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia to fight the militant group al-Shabaab following the group’s alleged cross border kidnapping of western tourists and aid workers.


The emergence of the MRC in the national media just around when Kenya was increasing its counterterrorism activities as well as Mombasa being considered a Muslim region made it extremely easy to conflate MRC with an Islamist movement. MRC is anything but; it has in its ranks both Muslims and Christians, as well as people who profess African traditional religions.

The Kenyan incursion into Somalia ended Kenya’s lone status in the region as the only country whose military never went to war with a neighbouring country and produced three effects.

One, Kenya became, in the eyes of al-Shabaab,  a legitimate target, as indicated by a series of grenade attacks on Kenyan soil claimed and/or associated with the group. Two, Kenya assumed a prominent role in the war on terror in the region and at home. And three, there arose the militarisation of law and order issues. The passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill 2012 can be seen through this lense.

While Kenya faces security challenges emanating from Somalia, especially al-Shabaab, as well as their local sympathisers, how the government has gone about dealing with the issue will be counterproductive.

Sending the military across the border to Somalia was a knee jerk reaction, and has not made Kenya any safer as illustrated by strings of grenade attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and attacks on security officers in the north-eastern region.

The upshot of blaming reflexively all these attacks on the MRC and al-Shabaab will only exacerbate the already tense situation between the Muslim community and the government.

Further, the recent upsurge in the spate of extra judicial killings of suspected terrorists along the Kenyan coast as exemplified by the killing of Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohamed muddies the waters even further.

Use of force

mrc-mombasa-memberInstead of attempting to address issues that the MRC has raised, or even engaging with the group, the government outlawed the MRC, stalling any immediate efforts of dialogue.  The instinctive reaction from the government and many Kenyans is to prevent dismemberment of the country at any cost, including the use of force.

This feeds into the efforts of Kenyan security agencies to conflate the MRC with groups like Mungiki and the Sabaot Land Defence Forces or SLDF, which were both labelled as threats to national security and were therefore harshly dealt with by use of force.

While using force may address short term potential security threats presented by MRC and others, in the long term, the use of force will only exacerbate the already tense political and security situation.

In the case of the Mungiki, their leaders were hunted down and killed by government security forces, but that did not make Mungiki disappear. Instead, the group mutated and diversified its violent portfolio. For instance, some members of the group have become debt collectors – if one delays paying your debt, they can collect for you at a fee, especially in central province.

More significantly, and in the case of the MRC, forceful intervention at the epicentre of Kenya’s tourism economy would not only be counterproductive, but ill-advised.  Tourism simply does not thrive in an insecure and uncertain environment.

The continuation of the MRC as a non-violent social movement cannot be taken for granted. While the group is an unlikely agent of emergent coastal nationalism, and has not yet mounted an armed struggle, the possibility, however remote, that the group could be hijacked by forces with ulterior motives, or emergent radical elements within, cannot be discounted.

A carefully prepared package of incentives that includes massive economic stimulus to address the genuine livelihood grievances raised by the group, genuine and deep engagement with the local religious leaders to pacify the potential violent elements of the group, and a sustainable, bold and real political will to solve the land question at the coast could avert potential violence at the Kenyan coast.

Images courtesy of Vice.

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