The government’s recent move to open talks with the secessionist Mombasa Republic Council (MRC) has been seen as a major victory for the group craving official recognition.
MRC, which mobilises largely around the land grievances in the Coast region, has been listed as an outlawed group.
But in a surprise turn of events on Thursday, Coast Provincial Commissioner Ernest Munyi led a high-powered security team to Likoni to meet members of the group in what observers interpreted as a change of tack on the part of the government.
“The hardline stance which the government took on the emergence of this group has backfired,” said an analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
During the Thursday meeting, the PC called for dialogue to chart a cause of action through the mediation of the Muslims for Human Rights (Muhuri), the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) .
“It is time for the sake of peace to bring the MRC, local MPs, Muhuri, NICC and TJRC to seek a lasting solution to their issues,” he said.
This was a major climb-down from the PC’s position on May 6 when the administrator vowed to crush the group after the Likoni MRC branch chairman Rashid Kivyaso presented him with a memorandum.
Last Sunday’s confrontation between the police and a group of youths identified with MRC at Shika Adabu village in Mombasa had sparked fears of a repeat of skirmishes similar to those that occurred in Likoni in August 1997.
The Likoni attacks, which mainly targeted people perceived to be from outside the Coast region, left 89 people dead and more than 80,000 displaced.
Last week, MRC youths engaged police in running battles after the latter tried to disperse about 1,000 people who had gathered at Vijiweni to be “educated” about their land rights.
Some people at the gathering wore T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Pwani si Kenya” (Coast is not part of Kenya) and carried placards.
The organiser, Mr Suleiman Mwagandi, told the gathering the region had been marginalised by successive governments and it was time they sought self-determination.
He claimed documents in the organisation’s possession indicated that by 2013 the government of Kenya should return the region to its indigenous people after the expiry of a 50-year “lease” agreement signed on October 5, 1963.
The agreement was said to have been signed by the then Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and his Zanzibar counterpart Mohamed Shante.
The group also cites other agreements allegedly signed in 1890 and 1895. In a telephone interview, Mr Mwagandi blamed the police for the Sunday fracas, saying the gathering was “peaceful” until the police arrived and forcefully broke it up.
“Our meeting went on well until the police accompanied by the area chief appeared, and after a bitter exchange they surrounded us before hurling teargas canisters at us,” he said.
Although MRC’s manifesto spells out the group’s concerns as administration, land and settlement, education, finance and health, its latest stand on next year’s General Election has rubbed many of its admirers the wrong way.
The group has been telling its members to burn their national identity and voter cards, arguing the polls will be a Kenyan affair. The group claims to have more than 100,000 registered members in the Coast region.
The 21 MPs from the region are believed to be reluctant to speak against the group for fear of losing grassroots support in their constituencies.
Trade minister Ali Chirau Mwakwere, Tourism minister Najib Balala, Fisheries minister Amason Kingi and Likoni MP Masoud Mwahima have urged the government to ‘listen’ to the group, saying they had genuine grievances.
During the Mombasa Show in August, a man linked to MRC shouted the “Pwani si Kenya” slogan as President Kibaki delivered his speech.
On Thursday, the PC cautioned the group’s members against engaging in ‘unlawful’ activities that could breach the security and peace in the region.
He warned that security agencies would not tolerate criminal activities.
Mr Munyi told MRC members not to destroy their IDs, saying this would be contravening the law which requires Kenyans above 18 years to possess the documents.
The meeting with MRC notwithstanding, the PC said the government still regarded the group as outlawed as indicated in the Kenya Gazette notice issued in October last year.
He explained that as agents of the government they were waiting for the court decision for guidance on how to treat the movement.
The administrator said the government was investigating an incident in which Bakari Mwakunyapa, 22, was reportedly killed by police over claims he was an MRC member.
But in a telephone interview, MRC spokesman Mohamed Mraja dismissed the government’s move to open dialogue with the MRC, saying it should first remove the outlaw tag for them to talk freely with the government organs.
In his speech at the PC’s function, Dr Ahmed Yassin, an NCIC commissioner, said they were ready to hold talks with MRC for the sake of peaceful co-existence.
Muhuri’s director, Mr Khelef Khalifa, appealed for patience as an amicable solution was being sought.
“We cannot hide that the fact that coastal people have suffered historical injustices since independence and it is time they are resolved once and for all,” he said.
But Likoni MP Masoud Mwahima weighed in with the shocking claim that the movement had held about 130 meetings in the province without causing any violence.
Mr Mwahima criticised the police for using excessive force to quell the Sunday meeting, saying this only served to increase the popularity of the group.
But Shika Adabu councillor Khamis Gugu said the government should immediately release all the arrested MRC members as ‘goodwill’ for the intended dialogue with its organs.