The MRC is a self-described social movement. It is not a political party, an NGO, an armed gang, or a terrorist organisation. It came to prominence in 2008, although it has existed in some form since early 1999.
While it’s hard to ascertain the exact extent of their following and support in the region, the historical and contemporary grievances they raise resonates with the majority of the coastal people. Their grievances mirrors the primary structural drivers of conflict that led to the conflagration of 2007-2008 following the disputed presidential elections; land, economic equality/marginalisation, and youth unemployment
This has helped the group to attract supporter along the coast even amongst those who do not necessarily share their secession discourse.
Land is the flagship of their discontent. Studies reveal 62 per cent of outsiders who have settled in the coastal region have title deeds to the properties they own, compared to 38 per cent of the indigenous population.
While historical injustice around land is present in almost every part of Kenya, at the coast it is uniquely egregious because land and economic marginalisation assumes a distinct accent.
For instance, the integrated household budget survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2007 ranks the Coast province below all provinces except North-eastern in rural poverty, and reports that urban poverty in Mombasa is higher than the country’s other major cities.
Instead of engaging the group, the government chose to ban the group, stalling any immediate efforts of dialogue.
Most Kenyans welcomed the ban- the government was showing it will not countenance dismemberment of the country. Maintenance of the unitary at all cost enjoys a broad support.
Coupled with Kenya’s massive counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and the subsequent first time grenade attacks on Kenyan soil, which were mostly blamed on Al Shabaab, deployment of force against the MRC would have popular, despite a tenuous link between the two groups.
Though, security agencies, as well as the media, deliberately conflated the MRC with Mungiki, Sabaot Land Defence Forces, and Al Shabaab. The subliminal message being, all of these groups required force, and ultimately the same would be true of the MRC.
But unlike these other groups the MRC sought a legal redress after the ban, and the court argued the ban was unconstitutional; MRC was the only group that contested their ban in a court.
In addition to filing a case regarding their ban, the group also filed another case in court asking to be granted the option to secede. The court ruled against it. While the constitution doesn’t rule against secession, the threshold for secession, which is through a referendum, is so high the group will not attain it.
Additionally, unlike other groups, the MRC is operating from the epicentre of Kenya’s tourism industry, and any forceful intervention would not only be counterproductive, but ill-advised. Tourism is already struggling because of travel advisories by western countries and the current economic downturn in Europe and the United States. Additionally, unless cleverly retooled the Kenya and the Western countries post elections 2013 will not be entirely rosy, especially in the event the Supreme Court rules Uhuru was duly elected president.
The MRC argues it has a legal basis for secession; the coast was never a British colony but a protectorate, while simultaneously belonging to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. The ten mile coastal strip extending from Kipini in the North to the Ruvuma River in South has undergone a different cultural, religious, and development trajectory from the rest of the country.
The continuation of the MRC as a non-violent ‘social movement’ cannot be taken for granted. The group has so far emerged as an unlikely agent of coastal nationalism, and has not yet mounted an armed struggle, the possibility that it could be hijacked by forces with ulterior motives or emergent radical elements within, cannot be discounted. Further, the government’s use of force against the group could only harden the resolve of the hard-core members of the group that could advocate for violence.