The Undying Spirit of RPP


Release Political Prisoners (RPP) Pressure Group was founded in 1991. The original mission of the pressure group was to compel the authoritarian KANU regime under President Daniel Moi to release 52 persons jailed in the 1980s on “political’ charges – charges ranging from sedition, treason to being members of illegal movements. The founders of the pressure group were the mothers of these prisoners and organisers. With time, the organization redefined its mandate to include a wide range of struggles on human rights and good governance. It operated under the umbrella of Kenya Human Rights Commission, and later as the Release Political Prisoners Trust. In 2012, the organization was registered as an NGO as Rights Promotion and Protection Centre (RPP). Its vision was restated as the pursuit of a just and democratic society.

The organization was inspired by the spirit and activities of Kenya’s freedom fighters who rose against British colonialism in a bid to right the injustices around land ownership and use, freedoms, community co-existence, people’s rights, and people-centred governance and development. The freedom fighters sought to correct the ills that the scramble, partition and colonization of Africa in the 19th century deliberately institutionalized and attempted to legitimize.

When Kenya earned her independence in 1963, it was assumed that a democratization process would be a matter of course. Unfortunately, it was mired in oppression and repression perpetrated by the new KANU regime and its successive administration. The process was however unstoppable and ultimately shaped itself into the strident demands for multiparty democracy. In the early 1990s, the ruling party bowed to public and international pressure and repealed the infamous section 2A of the constitution, thus opening the doors to an invigorated multiparty system in the country.

The struggle for political pluralism had led to the killing, exile and imprisonment of many Kenyans by the establishment to protect its own position. The new political space enabled the ‘Mothers of Political Prisoners’, their relatives and friends to come together to demand for their children’s release from prison; especially since the government had ceded to the very reason for their incarceration. It was these mothers and other patriotic Kenyans who coalesced and developed the organization into the formidable Release Political Prisoners Pressure Group (RPP) in 1991.

From the onset, RPP decided to be the vanguard organization working for the release of political prisoners. It defined a political prisoner broadly to include any person who was in government custody for political reasons, or any individual or group of people who due to political mismanagement of the country, was in the bondage of economic deprivation and ignorance of their basic human rights. It set out to release such persons from their bondage.

Hunger Strike
The first major initiative of the new movement was the famous Mothers of Political Prisoners’ Hunger Strike that started on 28 February, 1991. After delivering a petition to the Attorney General demanding the release of their sons, the mothers proceeded to commence a hunger strike as they awaited action by the KANU regime. Originally, there were five mothers of political prisoners and another nine supportive women including Professor Wangari Maathai. Soon thereafter, they were joined by other mothers, relatives, friends and patriotic Kenyans. They camped at the Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park in Nairobi.

By the 3rd day of the strike, thousands of Kenyans and sympathizers had gathered at the Freedom Corner in solidarity and support of the striking mothers. Plans by state sponsored thugs to terrorize the women were unearthed by the newly formed RPP and thwarted. On the 5th day, a contingent of police officers was sent by the government to brutalize and disperse the mothers and the whole gathering. Many of the protesters were seriously injured, the mothers were rounded up and forcibly taken back to their respective homes. Undeterred; the mothers immediately regrouped and took shelter in a bunker at the adjoining All Saints Cathedral.

At the same time as their mothers, 12 political prisoners commenced their own hunger strike. On 7 March 1992, a group of women started a hunger strike in Mombasa in solidarity with the

The expanding hunger strike caught the attention of Kenyans and the international community; and pressure mounted on the KANU regime to release the prisoners. This state of confrontation continued for a year. Finally, the government bowed, and in January 1993, the last batch of the original 52 prisoners was released, save for James Apiny Odhiambo who would be released in 1997 after a protracted campaign by RPP.

The Second Phase of RPP
Immediately after their release, the political prisoners led by Karimi Nduthu joined other patriotic Kenyans to re-structure RPP to continue the struggle. It was agreed that the continuing tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and repression had to be confronted through a well-organized institution. The organization created a General Assembly, a Steering Council, and later a Secretariat. Karimi became the Secretary General and a leading light in the development of the pressure group until his brutal murder by the regime on 24 March 1996.

Spirit of Volunteerism
Due to the commitment of its members, volunteerism was the largest resource and a culture in the organization. With small donations from well-wishers and dedication, commitment and self-sacrifice by its members, RPP managed to hold workshops for community awareness and mobilization. It was at first hosted by the founding chairperson, Njeri Kabeberi, in her office at Continental House, then later by a member, Njeru Kathangu, at Uniafric House. The initial secretariat was managed by Munga Gathogo with the support of members. Members went out on assignments to conscientize and mobilise the people on their rights and the struggles for liberation. These members did not ask for or get any payment. Rather, they contributed what they could; labour, intellect, space, time and money. With these resources, RPP established itself as a formidable force in the country. It drew the attention of the international community to the lot of repressed Kenyans; and initiated a national rights awareness campaign in independent Kenya in areas where no one else had ventured before.

RPP started its operations without any donor funding. Between 1991 and 1997, resource mobilization was focused on members and individual supporters who would step in and give what they could. This was not accidental, but a deliberate position agreed upon within the organization. The idea was to stay independent and stay clear of any conditions and contradictions that may come with funding especially by international donors. In 1997 however, it was agreed that principled partnerships with donors was acceptable and advantageous. The organization was able to secure funding from the Danish International development Agency (DANIDA). It became possible to hire office space, establish an elaborate secretariat, and engage in programmatic implementation of her engagements. Three programmes were established: Legal Affairs Programme, Civic Education Programme and the Pull Yourself Up Programme.

In all the programmes and projects that RPP implemented then and later, it sought partnership with other civil society organisations, umbrella bodies and even some strategic government agencies and departments. In this regard, grass root organisations such as Mau Mau Kimerera, Karangatha Open Forum, Kiambu People’s Forum, Kabete Human Rights Watch, Limuru Farmers Welfare Association, Katelembo landless and peasants, Mwea Rice Farmers, Small Holder Tea Farmers and Workers, Laikipia Human Rights Forum, Kuresoi Human Rights Watch Group; and national organisations such as Kituo cha Sheria, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Ilishe Trust, K-Hurinet, Citizens for Justice, People Against Torture, and umbrella bodies including the Anti Torture Consortium.

Ukombozi songs
Music had been a major tool for mobilization since the days of the hunger strike by the Mothers of Political Prisoners. It became ingrained in the activities of the organization. The songs that had been composed over time were recorded and produced for distribution in cassettes as part of the publicity material.

Cultural Activities
These were varied activities organized around important days including Kimathi Day 18 February, Mothers’ Day on 3 March, Karimi/Human Rights Defenders’ Day on 24 March, Mau Mau/Mashujaa Day on 20 October. During these events, marked in various areas around the country, RPP and its affiliates commemorated/celebrated the dedication and achievements of the various outstanding players in Kenya’s progressive history of liberation from the colonialists to the neo-colonial era. These culminated in a major 5-6 day event dubbed ‘Cultural Week’ held towards the end of every year. During the week, representatives from all the areas where RPP had worked across the country would congregate, review, celebrate and rejuvenate the struggle through art – music, dance, drama, display of visual articles – and speeches by various activists. Cultural activities always drew the wrath of the Moi-KANU regime, and were often disrupted. It is worth noting that it is RPP that spearheaded the change from Kenyatta Day to Mashujaa Day in the national calendar through its cultural activities and other strategies.

Economic Assistance
Another approach that RPP adopted was to assist ex-political prisoners who were being economically undermined by the government through acts of commission and/or omission. A programme was designed to advance modest interest free loans for these persons; the project was known as Pull Yourself Up.

RPP found it necessary to develop a project that would carry out research in areas of interest. This initiative would also inform other programmes on other areas and methods of intervention. Its mandate included publications and periodicals, the newsletter Mtetezi, calendars, booklets, catalogues of political prisoners and updates of prison conditions.

Sample Publications

  1. Mtetezi: RPP Newsletter 1997 – 2008
  2. The Patriot: A profile of Karimi Nduthu 1998
  3. The Burning Bush: Dedicated to the men and women who toil daily in the fields to grow Tea (1999)
  4. Nyimbo za Ukombozi: RPP Vol. 1 (Songs)
  5. RPP Brochures
  6. Leadership from within: People’s power in action 2001
  7. The Irrigation Act: An instrument of Agrarian Tyranny – Dedicated to the Patriots whose blood and sweat fuelled the Resistance against Agrarian Tyranny in Mwea. 2001
  8. Voices behind the Bar. 2002
  9. Repression of the Right to Life and Security: Pre and Post 2007 Elections Preliminary Report.
  10. BloodBath! Wanton Violation of the Right to Life and Security in Kenya. 2008
  11. RPP Photos from 1991- 2008
  12. Exertions on Protecting Right to life and Security in Kenya © 2008
  13. Promoting & Protecting The Rights Of Human Rights Defenders Copyright © 2010 ISBN No. 9966-05-367-0
  14. Gods work-Extra Judicial Killings in Kenya 2012
  15. Simplified Police Acts 2012
  16. Strategic Plan 2012 to 2017

Third Phase of RPP
The 2002 Elections ushered in the Narc government after Moi and Kanu left the scene. This political breakthrough had a major impact on RPP as it brought with it the illusion that the new government was pro-people and hence there was no need for continued organising and human rights work. Consequently, the fighting spirit within communities, the civil society, and even within the organization itself waned. A move to cooperate with the government took centre stage. There was lower emphasis on linkages with the people and advocacy. Donor funds and members’ contribution and spirit of volunteerism dwindled drastically.

By 2005, it was clear that a small group comprised of volunteers in the Secretariat and backed by some members of the Steering Council were keeping the organization from imminent collapse.

Closure of the Organization
RPP shifted to its last location at Kipro Centre on Sport Road off Ring Road Westlands in August 2014. Unable to raise funds to support office rent and administration services, the organization closed on 31st January 2017. The property and materials of the organization were then secured for safe custody among the last members of the secretariat , namely Gitau Wanguthi, Mungai Mbuthi and Kimani Waweru.

Fourth Phase of RPP
In July/August 2020, RPP’s property, resources and memories were salvaged and stored at a common public place at Wangige town, Kiambu County. Looking through the pictures, records, videos, songs, press – cuttings, books, and many more in the custody of RPP, they bring an immense sense of pride in the memories of patriotic and progressive struggles for our country. RPP was the cradle of people’s struggles against dictatorship.

The idea is to revive RPP as a Resource Centre for patriotic and progressive people’s struggles and social movements in the past, present and future. An archive for liberation songs, books, documents, videos, memories, etc. To redo and remix liberation songs, capture the fading memories, legacies and visions of comrades in video, print, art, online, digital, much more. This would be a suitable role for RPP as a resource centre in securing the legacy and posterity of people’s struggles and social movements this country.

As put by the writer Milan Kundera, in his book, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”

Historical Connections
In August 2020, as a gesture of patriotic solidarity to immortalise the memory and struggles of RPP, Leah Wanjiru Mungai, well known as Mama Gicheha, one of the freedom mothers at Freedom Corners on behalf of herself and her sons Ndungi, Waruiru, Gicheha, Kang’ethe, her daughter Hannah, and other family members allocated a building and a compound near their home in Kibichiku, next to Kibichiku Secondary School, for the establishment of RPP Resource Centre.

“RPP was scattered. We don’t know where our people are. What is happening? If this will help to bring back the spirit of RPP, take it, free of charge. I say again, I don’t want any payment. Take it!” She said while handing over the building and the compound.

The old building is itself a historical relic. According to Chiteshi Osundwa and Waruiru Mungai, it’s where they used to print the earlier Mwakenya publications with a cyclostyling machine. Tirop remembers the house as it where he used to live with the late Gicheha after his release from prison. Gicheha, a son of the family, had returned from political exile in Tanzania.

The building rests on a compound of about one eighth of an acre that is free for use as RPP Resource Centre. It’s another exciting phase for RPP. It’s the living spirit of RPP coming full circle again. It’s the revival of the movement as a Resource Centre.

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1 Comment

  1. Githinji Kamotho

    Greetings to all.
    First and foremost thank you for reviving RPP we cherish the effort, kindly in the history of RPP you forgot to indicate how the late Willy Kimani joined RPP fresh from University and mentored him.I will be interesting to see a research of all the RPP comrades how they have changed their respective communities and their current political and social view especially under the proposed BBI.
    Asanteni sana.