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Last Updated: Friday, 8 April, 2005, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Kenya's coastal rebels
By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News, Mombasa

In Kenya, 23 members of the group now known as the Republican Council have appeared in court charged with promoting war-like activities and attempted murder.

The group, from Kenya's coastal region, wants some form of self-government after what they say is persistent domination by "upcountry" people (those from the rest of the country).

Last month, police acting on a tip-off ambushed them at Mulungu Nipa forest just outside Mombasa allegedly on a military training session, and shot dead five of their colleagues.

Hamza Ruwa Nzai (L), spokesman of the Republican Council, speaks to elders of the council
The Republican Council seems to offer solutions to Digo problems
Retired army Maj Ali Bafuti, who is alleged to have been leading the military training, was also arrested.

In 1997, dozens of upcountry people were killed following a flare-up of violence led by a gang of raiders who claimed to be defending the land rights of the Digo community.

Mzee Kassim's home, in Kinondo Kwale district on the border with Mombasa, is falling apart and the chickens and three goats are just about all the wealth he has to support his large family.

I counted eight children on my visit and some were away.

It is this state of poverty that is driving many people in this region to feel animosity towards the government and upcountry people.

Many of the latter have acquired land here and prospered in both business and agriculture while the Digo tribesmen who are behind this movement remain squatters.

And now some of them have pinned their hopes on a self-styled group of young and old people identifying themselves as the Republican Council to deliver them from their many problems.

Coastal state

The council is demanding its own state, basing their grounds on a pre-colonial era agreement between the UK government and the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The sultan then ruled the coastal strip which later became a British protectorate as Hamza Ruwa Nzai, one of their leaders now in hiding, told the BBC:

The issue is not seceding - the issue is implementing the safeguards that were agreed in 1963
Stambuli Nassir
Human rights activist and historian

"Do not be fooled by the government [into believing] that we are thugs, terrorists or we want to start clashes; we just want to return the country of Mombasa which was buried historically by the government of Kenya and our protectors - then the British government," he said.

Hamza says the coastal people were cheated of their rights to administer the region by the post-colonial government led by Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's founding president.

They now blame the UK government for turning a blind eye to an issue they initially agreed to defend.

Stambuli Nassir, a human rights activist and an historian based in Mombasa, says the troubles of the coastal region date back to Kenya's pre-independence set-up.

In 1963, when the British government decided to give independence to the colony, they sent a representative, Sir James Robertson, who collected the views of the coastal strip and emphasised that their institutions should be legally preserved if the strip was to be joined with the mainland, Mr Nassir says.

"The things to be safeguarded were the Kadhi's court [Islamic courts], administrative positions within the region and the freehold land title deeds to be honoured. But after signing this, Jomo Kenyatta forgot all about it - that where the trouble began," he said.

The Republican Council led by their President Omar Mwamndwazi - who is now in police custody - claims to be creating awareness among the local people with the sole aim of liberating them from domination.

It has sent a petition to Queen Elizabeth and the British government, seeking its intervention.

Violence v dialogue

Last month, one of their alleged awareness meetings turned violent when they were ambushed by police who claim they were holding a military training session for their armed wing.

But spokesman Hamza Nzai denies this:

"Nobody was armed, there was no gun... This is a rural area and some of the people who came to listen to us had their farm implements and that's why they had the machetes," he said.

Provincial Commissioner Cyrus Maina said they are still hot on the heels of the leaders of the Republican Council and are determined to prosecute them.

The police operation aimed at averting outright violence was similar to what took place in 1997 when dozens of upcountry people were killed or maimed by a group of armed raiders

It sparked anger among the local people who say innocent youth are being victimised.

These old men say the area has become a police city, their youth are being arrested indiscriminately and only the Digo community are being targeted.

They believe they are innocent and that this operation will only strengthen the arguments of the Republican Council.

Rather than secession, the only solution is to raise living standards for the coastal communities, says Mr Nassir.

"The issue is not seceding - the issue is implementing the safeguards that were agreed in 1963. Therefore there should be dialogue and given the fact that the coast is a cosmopolitan area, all the people should be involved in the talks, and the British government should be represented since it was a party to it all," he said.

Many may advise Republican Council leaders to seek the course of dialogue to address the present imbalances, but the misery of being helpless in the face of a starving family may just give Mzee Kassim different ideas.

Timeline: Kenya
05 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Kenya
07 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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