Kenya@ 52: Recalling the country’s human rights struggle


By Caroline Theuri

Last year Kenyans celebrated 51 years as a republic on December 12. And even as we commemorate our 52nd anniversary, a combination of historical ethnic fault lines appear to deny Kenyans full human rights the foothold needed to entrench them. Given the current human rights struggle, it is only best to recapture some of the gloom and doom of the colonial era.

Historians feel that these struggles did not start yesterday and that scenario where the country has operated like a police state every time there was a serious demonstration by human rights groups ought to end. On March 3 1959, for example, 11 Mau Mau detainees at Hola camp in North Eastern province were beaten to death by the British colonial wardens as 22 more were injured in what became known as the Hola Massacre. This was the time of the anti-colonial guerrilla campaign.

The colonial government denied the torture and deaths, only stating that the men had died from poisoned water in a cart. What is still a puzzle is the Coroner’s report which revealed differently, indicating they had been violently mistreated. The detainees were given digging assignments to be completed within three hours, failure to which they would be severely beaten.

That day, 200 detainees were divided into two equal groups. One group was ordered to take up shovels and dig six cubic metres of soil. The detainees refused and sat down. They were then surrounded by three hundred wardens and policemen, and ordered to lie down, after which they were clobbered, with some dying on the spot. The rest were taken to hospital.

The Holla Massacre ignited several debates of the gross human rights violations of the British’s age-old colonial policy and thus their own citizens and Kenyans were largely affected. Once the massacre prompted a controversy, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lennox-Boyd, offered to resign. He, however, opted for an enquiry to establish the conditions at all detention camps. It is perhaps easy to see why several cabinet ministers offered to resign there afterwards.

Democratic constitutions cite human rights as characteristic to all people irrespective to nationality, sex, ethnicity, colour, religion, language or station of life. Lack of these rights opened the way for a rebellion in the early 1900s, when the coastal Girima community revolted against colonial repression led by female leader Mekatilili wa Menza. The colonial administrators had forced them to pay taxes, supply ivory to them and supply free labour to government projects and plantations.

In another instance, author Robert Press in his 2006 book, “Peaceful Resistance” recalls how about 2,000 angry Kamba farmers marched to Nairobi to protest against British policies that limited the number of cattle that could be on their land. In a rare case of success, the Governor agreed to their demands. That was way back in 1938.

Later, in the 1950s, as part of the Mau Mau movement, one female leader, Esther Mugunyi, organised the escape of a group of imprisoned freedom fighters. They were later captured and tortured, but their true identities were never revealed. Indeed, the Mau Movement is significant for prompting the colonialists to change their stance of restricting the African Kenyan population’s access to fertile land.

The majority of the members of this movement came from the Kikuyu ethnic group, and many of them began to reject constitutional politics as a means of redress for their grievances. The movement began punishing those Africans who were loyal to the colonial government. The Lari Massacre of 1953 is an example, where Mau Mau fighters assaulted the loyalist village of Lari. 500 people were killed in the ensuing retaliatory measures.

The human rights struggle clearly continued even after Kenya gained its independence in 1963. In 1977, author and a leading human rights advocate and current linguistics Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote two literary works critical of the then Jomo Kenyatta government: “Petals of Blood” and “I Will Marry When I Want.” Kenyatta responded by jailing him. In prison, he continued to write of the oppressive regime and the government refused him to return to his teaching position at the University of Nairobi (UoN). Ngugi would go to exile in 1982 and only returned in 2004.

In 1982, then President Daniel Moi made Kenya a de jure one-party state, thus proscribing the opposition. During this time there was increased political repression.

For instance, crackdown on political opposition, press harassment, detention without legal redress, torture and infringement on habeas corpus (where detainees could not seek relief from unlawful detention) were reported by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Release Political Prisoners. Human rights became a long running issue regionally and internationally. Underground press, such as Mwakenya, flourished, providing information to people to achieve political rights and demand for change.

Godwin Murunga in his book, “Kenya: The Struggle for Democracy”, cites lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria and the current Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi as among those that fled to the US to escape persecution. Mukaru Ng’ang’a went into exile after he commented on the possibility of linking the murder of former Foreign Affairs Minister the late Dr Robert Ouko to the government in 1990.

The world only came to know of Kenya as a police state through Umoja Kenya, an organisation of Kenyans in exile in Denmark, USA, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. In 1989, they produced “Moi’s Reign of Terror”, a publication that recorded the massacres, murders and other human rights violations under his regime, which they backed up with evidence of those murdered. Though circulated in the underground for fear of repression, its contents were raised by the United Nations, the United States and by MPs in the House of Commons in the UK.

In 1997 retired President Moi was forced to tone down his hard line stance following pressure from civil society and international community over his regime’s gross violations of human right – between 1991 and 1997, the World Bank had reacted by suspending aid worth billions of shillings and issued the conditions that the Moi regime had to implement human rights policies, good governance and avoid corruption.

The press was also muzzled to the extent that they had to stop playing their gatekeeper role – if a journalist was seen to favour the opposition, s/he would be arrested on charges of sedition. The opposition, however, would protest through demonstrations such as the Saba Saba rally in July 7, 1990 despite President Moi’s quickness to retaliate – police were often used to harass opposition leaders. For instance, if caught sowing objective information about human rights, one would end up in the notorious Nyayo House torture chambers – where the Special Branch was housed.

In another instance, historians argue that KANU goons drove the Kikuyu out of their homes during the 1992 elections to prevent them from voting; they were replaced with the President Moi’s supporters. Kenya had thus become like other countries that were undemocratic such as Cuba, North Korea and Iran.

Even after Moi left and Kibaki took over, human rights violations continued. In 2003, Kibaki expelled thousands of Kalenjin farmers who had “illegally’’ settled in Molo district, where conflict had been a mainstay since 1992. The motive was to reclaim land perceived to be stolen by the Kipsigis in 1997. The success of these prior struggles culminated in the promulgation of the current constitution in 2010.

Whether the politicalisation of human rights will continue being a challenger remains to be seen especially given the fact that some human rights group are seemingly viewed as non-patriotic going by the fact that they are always against the government. But what is clear is that the government is not doing enough to tackle human rights violations, even as the constitution is replete with provisions regarding their safeguard.



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