A three-judge bench has ruled that the Mombasa Republican Council is not an illegal group according to our constitution. The judges went a step further and advised the MRC to establish itself as a political organisation recognised by the law and agitate for their demands within the constitution. In my understanding this ruling means the judges recognise the issues MRC raises as being legitimate. They also recognise MRC's constitutional right to organise around such causes and agitate against the government, within the law.
This ruling has made me wonder what would have happened had we had such a constitution in the late 1980s. This is when a group of young Kikuyus in Rift Valley province, most of whom were dependants of victims of Kenya's post-independence socio-economic and political disenfranchisement, organised themselves into an informal tribal grouping. These youths were all in their late teens or early twenties and were initially brought together by the Rift Valley-based tribal clashes that occurred before the 1992 general election.
This group organised under the quiet guidance of local elders from their community, who helped them tap into cultural rites such as oaths and female circumcision. The group grew from a few hundred individuals into tens of thousands of members, and structured itself into a well organised cadre of young men and women. In 10 years they had established powerful socio-political networks with roots in Nairobi and Central province, in addition to their base in Rift Valley. However, during the period and over the next 15 years they would become one of the most ruthless criminal outfits in Kenya, and be literally hunted down by security agents. Twenty-five years after it began no one considers Mungiki a group with any legitimate grievances.
So what happened?
First, the group was gradually infiltrated by agents of the same forces they were agitating against, who then directed them into short-term criminal and/or political activities. Once they got into crime, their criminal activities were (aggressively) introduced to the public sphere through what seemed like dedicated media space, as they were 'exposed' as a criminal gang 'hiding' under historical issues. In some cases when the public did not seem convinced of their guilt it even looked like they were 'given' space to commit more crimes until they got so audacious as to think they could get away with anything.
This then created public outcry against them that the government used to set up what the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial killings called 'hit squads'; specialized crime-fighting units meant to deal with 'the menace' through whichever means possible, human rights be damned. A public argument was also introduced that since the gang itself does not 'observe human rights' then neither should the police when dealing with their members. How are criminals expected to observe human rights?. This led to scenes like a former internal security minister publicly stating that extra-judicial means would be used to deal with 'Mungiki' suspects; and not be challenged (except by a cowed civil society). The general public, including parents and relatives of Mungiki members actually supported him! Clearly whatever legitimacy the causes Mungiki initially pursued might have had, no longer applied.
There certainly are deep inequality issues at the coast; just like in Central, Rift Valley and many other parts of Kenya. But MRC must learn from the past. They must watch what happened to Mungiki (over 25 years) or SLDF (a lot faster). They must consider carefully the current response from government figures on the court rulings; statements by the acting Internal Security Minister at a press conference stating that this ruling should not be used to justify criminal activities despite there being no link whatsoever between its decision and support for crime. They must listen carefully when the acting Head of the Cabinet indicates that he does not recognize the court ruling and will continue treating MRC as an illegal group. They must remember that we live in a country where suspects of crimes against humanity can publicly campaign to be President whilst arguing they are innocent until proven guilty; but anyone suspected of being 'Mungiki' would usually be shot dead.
They must also accept that anyone advising them to call for secession and/or boycott political processes has started them off on the wrong path. They must realize that they are not the first group to start 'well' and with public support, but get 'misdirected' into criminal acts which contaminate their cause. They must remember that public support is fickle; celebrating with them today and cheering as their leaders are ruthlessly eradicated tomorrow. They must be smart and use the new constitution, which gives them space to agitate against the government, legally. Finally, for those sections of government that seem to choose which court decisions to agree with and which to ignore; they must be careful they do not set a precedent for other Kenyans to do the same.