A secessionist group that was formerly outlawed in Kenya has been granted legitimacy by the country's high court, setting the stage for a political battle that could threaten Kenya's stability.
The Mombasa Republican Council was deemed a "criminal group" just two years ago, according to the BBC. The organization aims to take control of the region surrounding the coastal city of Mombasa, arguing that the indigenous population there should not be under the jurisdiction of the Nairobi government.
But the court on Thursday said that the MRC had not engaged in criminal behavior.
"The court has been able to deduce that MRC is a political movement," said High Court Justice Francis Tuiyot. "The court therefore grants the MRC a chance to enjoy their political right. They should organize and register as a political party."
But the government in the capital city of Nairobi is loath to even entertain the idea of secession. Mombasa is popular with international tourists; its white beaches and luxury hotels have helped the Kenyan economy despite a slow drop-off in recent years.
And with a pivotal election coming up in a matter of months, the powers that be in Nairobi could certainly do without additional challenges the MRC is sure to bring.
Things Fall Apart
Kenya is riven by ethnic differences, and that tension erupted into violence in January 2008, just after the hotly contested 2007 presidential elections. In that race, Raila Odinga mounted a strong campaign against the incumbent Mwai Kibaki.
Kibaki is of the Kikuyu tribe, the largest ethnic group in Kenya -- it comprises about one-fifth of the population and has often been accused of monopolizing political power. Odinga, of the Luo tribe, used ethnic stereotypes to rally popular opinion against Kibaki. But when all the ballots were counted, Kibaki was declared the winner.
In response, post-election unrest quickly turned violent. About 1,500 people died in the country-wide conflict. Many protesters claimed electoral fraud, pointing to wide discrepancies between exit polls and official results.
To ease the violence, it was soon announced that Odinga would serve as prime minister in an uneasy coalition with Kibaki. That arrangement persists to the present day, but a new presidential election scheduled for March of next year will determine whether Kenya's ethnic tensions have subsided since the violence of 2007-2008.
The situation on the coast is a similar but separate conflict. The MRC calls for secession on more than just ethnic grounds -- there, even language and religion set them apart from the vast majority of Kenyans. Many coastal-dwellers speak Swahili, even though English is Kenya's official language. And Islam is prevalent there, even though most Kenyans practice Christianity.
The division has been apparent since Kenya's independence from Great Britain. According to Reuters, MRC members maintain that Nairobi controls the Mombasa area only by virtue of a lease that was signed almost 50 years ago and will expire next year. The government denies this, but does acknowledge that the coastal region was once ruled by a Sultan on the archipelago of Zanzibar, and was annexed to Kenya upon independence in 1963 -- it is clear that the Mombasa region's colonial history differs from that of Kenya as a whole.
That's why MRC supporters in and around Mombasa feel that they should have more rights to the land they call home. They complain that people from other parts of the country have moved in to take advantage of opportunities there, and that those Kenyans now exercise undue influence over property rights and local businesses.
Now that the MRC is legal, some are concerned about their intentions -- especially with national elections just around the bend.
Before MRC's legalization was announced, the group's chairman Omar Mwamnwadzi told Reuters that he would fight tooth and nail for regional autonomy.
"There will be no peace," he said. "This I cannot hide from you. The coast will have no peace at all. Voting in the coast will not happen if there is no secession. We will not allow elections here. It will be mob justice using rocks. Many will die."
There are also worries about the MRC's possible link to Al Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group that is based in neighboring Somalia. In October of last year, the Kenyan government sent troops across the border to help combat the insurgency -- but that hasn't stopped Al Shabab attacks from spilling over onto Kenyan soil.
Mwamnwadzi says that there is no connection between the MRC and Al Shabab, emphasizing the fact that the MRC movement as a whole does not have religious aims.
"We are Muslims, Christians and pagans who want social justice," he said.
But it remains possible that Al Shabab could gain a toehold of influence near Mombasa, and there are some reports of interaction already taking place between the terrorist group and MRC activists.
A Warm Welcome?
Even if secession -- or threats of it -- don't impact Kenya's national security, it is sure to affect its economy. Mombasa's tourist appeal is threatened by this conflict, and for a country where tourism accounts for about 10 percent of a slow-growing GDP, any secessionist clashes could have a significant impact.
Mwamnwadzi seems unfazed. "If tourists see chaos in this country, surely they will have to stay home," he said.
For now, the government in Nairobi is determined to continue its resistance toward MRC demands. Attorney General Githu Muigai told the BBC that the administration is gearing up to submit an appeal to the court's decision.
"Any group or organization challenging the constitutional authority and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kenya cannot enjoy protection by the constitution," he said.