NEAR the white beaches along Kenya’s coast where tourists sip cocktails in the sun, graffiti scrawled on walls proclaims “Pwani si Kenya” or “The coast is not Kenya”.
The Swahili slogans are a call by an outlawed group for the coastal region, including a booming tourist industry and Mombasa, Kenya’s oldest city and biggest port, to secede from East Africa’s largest economy.
The separatist message preached by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has spread through mosques, churches, markets, coffee houses, text messages and Facebook.
MRC wants the coast, where centuries of Arab trade and influence left their mark and minarets show the predominance of Islam, to have its own flag, currency and president.
The campaign taps into deep local grievances over land ownership and employment being in the hands of outsiders, who have settled at the coast over the years from other regions of Kenya, west of the contested coastal belt.
“I am coastal by birth and right, yet I can’t benefit from our own resources ... all the jobs are taken by them, people from upcountry,” Joram Kahindi, 26, and a father of three, said at a rundown barber shop north of Mombasa.
MRC supporters threaten to boycott and disrupt voting on the coast in national elections scheduled for March if their demand for secession is not met by authorities in the capital, Nairobi.
“The MRC threat is the single biggest risk in next year’s election,” said Mzalendo Kibunjia, who heads a national agency formed to reconcile tribes after the violence five years ago.
The outlawed group’s partisans, believed to number thousands, say while the coast is a jewel in Kenya’s economy, many locals remain jobless, schools and hospitals are run down and roads pitted with potholes.
If the coast were to secede, it would deny Kenya access to the Indian Ocean and transform it into a landlocked country. President Mwai Kibaki has flatly rejected the demand for secession.
Not far from Mr Kahindi’s barber shop, local businesswoman Phyllis Njeri, who is originally from central Kenya but has lived on the coast for more than 30 years, said she was afraid of becoming a target of the threatened MRC violence.
“Most of the local people at the coast support the MRC, and this makes us people from upcountry very anxious.”
The MRC, which says Mombasa would be the capital of independent “Pwani”, was outlawed in 2010 by Kenyan authorities along with 33 entities described as “organised criminal groups”.
It has asked Kenya’s courts to block the March elections and to reverse the ban on its activities, its leader said.
“There will be no peace, 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,” MRC chairman Omar Mwamnwadzi said, speaking at his home south of Mombasa.
He spoke in Swahili, the national language of Kenya, where English is used for business. Swahili originally developed on the coast and borrows words from other languages such as Arabic.
“We will not allow elections here. It will be mob justice using rocks. Many will die,” Mr Mwamnwadzi added.
MRC says it has documents of a 1963 accord signed by then Kenyan prime minister and later president Jomo Kenyatta granting Kenya a 50-year lease over the coast.
This would expire in June 2013, so returning the region to its indigenous people, the MRC argues.