A High Court ruling in Kenya lifting the ban on the proscribed Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has raised alarm and anger on the part of the Kenyan government, but has delighted the group.
Declared illegal in 2010, along with 32 other 'organised criminal groups', the MRC has in the intervening period become bellicose and tenacious in its demands. It has also raised eyebrows with allegations that its members often engage in oath taking and military training.
According to the group, whose rallying call is Pwani Si Kenya (The Coast is not part of Kenya), its aim is to 'liberate' the indigenous coastal people 'from mistreatment and marginalisation by successive Kenyan governments'. It has also threatened to mobilise inhabitants of the coastal region not to participate in Kenya's upcoming general elections.
Their secession claims are rooted in historical events that culminated in the 1963 Lancaster negotiations for Kenya's independence. The group argues that the Kenyan leadership, the British government and the Sultan of Zanzibar signed agreements to grant the Coastal strip independence after 50 years.
This is, however, disputed by the Kenyan government and some legal experts. However, there are other grievances articulated by the group, including land matters and the dominance of the local coastal economy by people from other regions of the country, that resonate with the majority of Kenyans.
In its ruling, the court declared that the government had failed to produce sufficient evidence to link the MRC to violent crimes. It also urged the group to pursue its agenda, including that of secession, through political and legal means. In other words, the court requested the group to conduct itself in a civilised manner as the government had the right to invoke the law if the group engaged in any criminal activities.
The ruling has received mixed and sometimes extreme reactions in Kenya, with some praising the court for demonstrating its independence while others castigated it for stretching that independency a bit far. The Kenyan government has vehemently opposed the ruling, arguing '[a]ny group or organisation challenging the constitutional authority and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kenya cannot enjoy protection by the Constitution'. The government plans to appeal against the court's decision.
Among the issues worrying the Kenyan government is the implication especially for security matters. The fear is that it could set a dangerous precedent for other secessionist groups to emerge, and cause the other 32 outlawed groups, some of which are purely criminal in nature, to seek legalisation.
Paradoxically, the unbanning of the MRC may just give the Kenyan government the opportunity to engage the group in dialogue, something it could not do when the group was banned. While Kenya is unlikely to accede to the MRC's demand for secession, it needs to take the group's grievances more seriously, especially around land injustices and unemployment.