Kenya’s separatist Mombasa Republican Council, which says it has 2 million members seeking self-rule in the country’s coastal region, called for a peaceful boycott of next year’s general elections.
The vote will be the first since 2007, when a dispute over the outcome triggered ethnic clashes in which more than 1,100 people died and another 350,000 were forced to flee their homes. The government in October announced it would take tougher action against the MRC as it sought to allay concerns the group may instigate a repeat of the violence at the March 4 vote.
“We will boycott the elections,” MRC Secretary-General Randu Ndzai Ruwa said in an interview on Dec. 24. “We don’t have a plan to disrupt anything though because it would result in the loss of life and property.”
The MRC says the coastal region, which serves as the main gateway for East African trade, has been marginalized from centralized power in the capital, Nairobi, leaving its residents poor and jobless. The MRC wants indigenous people to have more control over the port of Mombasa, East Africa’s biggest, and reap greater benefits from beach-tourism revenue as well as investment in titanium, iron-ore, gold and oil exploration in the area.
“The region has been marginalized and it’s lagging behind in terms of development compared with other regions,” Ruwa said.
Almost 1.4 million people in Kenya’s Coast Province, or about 60 percent of the population, live in poverty compared with the national average of about 53 percent of people who are too poor to pay for basic goods, according data compiled by the country’s statistics bureau and the World Bank.
Kenyan police have arrested senior MRC members including Chairman Omar Mwamnwadzi since the government crackdown began two months ago. The authorities have recovered weapons including grenades and bows and arrows during several raids.
The group, whose motto is Pwani Si Kenya, or ‘The Coast is Not Kenya’ in Swahili, is a social movement and doesn’t have an armed faction, said Ruwa. “We don’t have a military wing and we have not endorsed any military group,” he said. “The police are being used to silence us.”
The group’s demands date to a 1963 lease agreement signed at Kenya’s independence by then-Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and his Zanzibari counterpart, handing Kenya control over an almost 20-kilometer (12-mile) wide coastal strip, according to the Institute for Security Studies. The MRC says the 50-year lease, which according to the Pretoria-based institute isn’t mentioned in documents charting Kenya’s independence, elapses next year.
A three-judge panel in a Kenyan court this month blocked the group’s bid to stop elections on the coast, saying the MRC is unregistered and therefore has no legal foundation to try and bar elections on the coast.