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Trailing Mombasa Republican Council top brass: underground operation not for faint-hearted

By - | May 21st 2013
Some of paraphernalia recovered from a witch doctor suspected to be administering oaths to MRC members. [Photo: Standard]

Our writer Paul Wafula recounts the travails he went through as he sought to meet leaders of the audacious group

As I left Nairobi for Mombasa early this month, I knew that an investigation on unmasking the Mombasa Republican Council was not going to be easy.

But nothing had prepared me for my first meeting with the top brass of the group.

“How many are you in the car. Do you have a policeman with you?” a man who refused to introduce himself asked as soon as I picked my phone on my third day of the investigation.

If there was time when I wanted a source to call me for a story, this was it. I had been expecting the call for more than 48 hours and I was starting to think of a plan B when it came.

“Where is your friend who called us yesterday? Is he with you? Are you sure you don’t have a policeman with you?” the voice went on. He was asking for my colleague Ngumbao Kithi.

I immediately handed my phone to Kithi and after some conversation in Giriama, he shook his head and handed the phone to me. Clearly, the voice on the other side was not yet convinced that we were just journalists. A few minutes later, the phone rang again and this time, it was a different number.

“Be at Ukunda at 2pm. We will call you,” the voice said and hung up. At the agreed time, we arrived in Ukunda. After waiting for a few minutes, I decided to call that number, and it was picked by a different person. He gave me directions. We drove to a hotel in South Coast. At the hotel, the watchman refused to let our car in. After some time, a man in his early 30s, who would pass for a cleaner, emerged.

“Nyinyi ni wale wanahabari?” (Are you the journalists?). He asked and when we responded in the affirmative, he hopped into our vehicle and asked us to drive. Clearly, our driver was lost for words because he did know where to go. Nevertheless, he reversed the car and we headed back to town.

Unlike other militant groups that have uniforms, identifications like hairstyle, tattoos or live in the bush, MRC members cut the image of the common man on the street.

The group enjoys an identification challenge like that of Somali militant group Al Shabaab. No wonder it is difficult for police to crack down on members of the group, because unlike the top officials who are known, members are just normal people, living the basic lives of an average resident of the coastal region.

Another day

As we drove on the main street, our host seemed to study us carefully and after some time, he calmed down.

“They came like you and as soon as he showed up, he met a bullet at the door,” he said.

“I am still young and I have a family. I still want to be alive after you publish the story,” he said.

We ended up at another hotel. Minutes into the interview, a man dressed in a dark suit arrived.

Immediately, one of the officials of Mombasa Republican Council pointed towards his direction and asked us to exit.

“He is an intelligence officer and he has arrested me more than twice. Please let us find somewhere else or we have the interview another day. We must be careful,” the MRC official said. We found another place.

In the course of the interview, we asked them to officially introduce themselves and prove they were MRC members. We learned one is a treasurer and the other the spokesperson of a branch in Ukunda. To prove, they gave us contacts of head officials, including the treasurer and the secretary general, whom at a later meeting corroborated details of our discussion.

During the investigation, we met more than 15 members of the group from various branches. An attempt to visit Mr Rashid Mraja, the group’s spokesperson at Shimo la Tewa Prison was, however, rejected by prison officials. The officials said the prison has a new administration and the case is too sensitive to allow us meet him. We were asked to wait for him when he appears in court for mention of his case.

The Mombasa-based imam has been the main voice of the group that has been at loggerheads with the State. The investigation also led us to meet several clerics, most of whom preferred to remain anonymous.

“I am usually given a short notice for a meeting with the top leadership, which mostly happens in the deep of the night. The last meeting we had I was asked to hoot twice when I arrive at the bushes, not to carry a gun, police or anyone else in the car,” a source who runs some of the errands for the group said.

What stood out as we sifted through their side of the story is that officials have a strong belief in their cause.  Most of them have memorised documents and large chunks of paragraphs from different agreements signed between Kenya and British government as well as the Sultan of Oman, some dating as far back as 115 years ago.

Some of the officials also freely quoted page numbers and who signed the various agreements and the dates.

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