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MRC Chairman Released From Kenya Prison

Omar Mwamnuadzi (C), leader of the separatist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) arrives at the law court cells with members of the group at Kenya's Coastal region October 15, 2012.
Omar Mwamnuadzi (C), leader of the separatist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) arrives at the law court cells with members of the group at Kenya's Coastal region October 15, 2012.
Two leading members of a secessionist group in coastal Kenya are expected to be released Thursday from prison. The group's chairman has already been released.

Freedom for Mombasa Republican Council Secretary-General Randu Nzai Ruwa and Spokesman Mohammed Rashid Mraja was secured after Kenyan parliamentarian Mike Sonko paid the bond to secure their release.

Omar Mwamnuadzi, the MRC chairman, was released on Monday with his wife and two children.

MRC members imprisoned

The secessionist leaders have been in the Shimo la Tewa prison since October 15, when Kenyan police conducted an operation arresting 38 alleged MRC members.

Mwanahalima Bakari, a daughter of Mwamnuadzi, was at home during the police raid.

"They fired several bullets. They were aiming at people, even those walking outside our house as it was almost morning. They even killed some people," she said.

Nearly one month later, supporters of the separatist group gathered in a covered alleyway, awaiting news of their leaders' release from prison.

"To release them, that is good. Whatever we are doing here is advocating for peace and they are very good people to advocate for peace here," said Jimmy, a senior MRC official.

Land, unemployment issues

The MRC movement has found widespread support by articulating grievances about land and unemployment. On the coast, these issues cut across class, ethnic and religious lines.

The group cites the January 2013 expiration of a 50-year lease of the coast to Kenyan state, signed by the sultan of Zanzibar and Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, as grounds for secession. The Kenyan government does not recognize the document, however, and has cracked down on what they call a criminal organization.

Jimmy fears the government’s response could radicalize the group.

"As time elapses, then our youth will become furious, which we don't want," he said. "But, if they persist, this will be the case. It comes to a time where all of the leaders of this group will be arrested. Now, who will stop these youth from violence? Nobody."

Government's concerns

Although the MRC preaches peace, the government has accused the group of being a threat to national security. Last month, President Mwai Kibaki promised to take “firm and decisive action” against the group.

Coast Province Police Chief Aggrey Adoli is in charge of suppressing the threat.

"If the members of the MRC had a genuine cause to advance they could gather together, appoint a person who carries their ideology, who knows their grievances, elect him to the parliament, elect him to be the governor, elect one again to be senator and let them have all of the representative because they have got the ground," said Adoli. "But, when they opted to arming themselves, it became a national threat to security and that is why we resorted to allaying them in court."

Now, with less than four months remaining until general elections, concerns surround the group’s capacity to interfere with voter registration, set to begin in the coming weeks.

Questions around militarization

Despite police allegations, Abdullahi Halakhe, the Kenya analyst at the International Crisis Group, does not believe the MRC is militarized. But he said this could change.

"The most pressing issue right now is the capacity of this group to cause violence between now and elections and that they do," said Halakhe. "I am not convinced they actually have the capacity to secede. What I’m more and more worried about is the group’s capacity to cause violence before elections."

Halakhe pointed to two pending court cases that could further aggravate tensions between the MRC and the Kenyan state. In one, the government seeks to reinstate a ban on the group lifted in July. In the other, the MRC contests the authority of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to carry out elections in Coast Province. The rulings are expected in mid-December.