The mothers’ hunger strike that captivated a nation and bequeathed us freedom

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The newspaper clippings are now yellowed with age. It’s been more than 30 years since they captured the hunger strike by mothers of political prisoners, and especially the unforgettable incident on 3rd March 1992.

I only mention the clippings as a nod to how the years have passed, also because that is how we did it in those days. Google Drive and other cloud storage to digitally store documents and memorabilia were still 20 years away.

The newspaper cuttings have nonetheless aged well, and the incident they record since regarded among the most politically impactful in Kenya when defiant and deeply angered mothers shed their clothes to national and international shock.

Many young people, like the youngsters in my extended family, born around 1992 and after may probably do not know much about the incident, or how it contributed to multiparty democracy and the political freedoms we enjoy today.

The young people, who constitute 75 per cent of the national population under 35 years old, may therefore not fully appreciate how the incident contributed to the subsequent defeat of the authoritarian regime of President Daniel Arap Moi ten years later.

This therefore is a rehash of what transpired that day in March 1992. Reading from the newspaper clippings, the recollection will be in the vein of the description once attributed to journalism “as the first rough draft of history.”

For five days, beginning 28th February 1992, the mothers had been camped at a spot in Uhuru Park where they commenced a hunger strike in their campaign to release political prisoners. The vicinity of that spot in the park would come to be known as Freedom Corner.

Leading the mothers’ campaign was the late Co-ordinator of the Green Belt Movement, Prof Wangari Maathai, after having presented a Petition to the then-Attorney General, Amos Wako, demanding the release.

The Petition listed 52 political prisoners, among them students, journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates incarcerated for perceived anti-government statements, ideas, and actions.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission reminds us that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the political atmosphere in Kenya was characterized by brutal government repression and terror.

Under the de-facto single-party rule of President Daniel Arap Moi, any form of political dissension was swiftly met with government interrogation, detention, and torture, using the justification of the Public Order Act, the Chiefs Authority Act and the Sedition Law.

A peaceful hunger strike, the mothers estimated, would be the most effective campaign devise to bring to the Government’s attention the plight of their imprisoned sons and have them released.

A green-and-white striped tent to shelter the mothers was donated and set up. A routine quickly took hold with members of the public keeping the mothers company in solidarity.

The public also contributed money, water, fruit juices and glucose to keep the mothers’ strength up.

By the fifth day of the strike, on March 3rd, the Government had had enough. The hunger strike was succeeding in attracting much unwelcome national and international attention.

Media reports record the arrival of the riot police contingent at the early afternoon that day. Media accounts however differ on how the commotion started.

A version by Daily Nation vividly relates how the chaos started and the brutality that set it off.

A group of policemen charged the tent with batons and started beating the women.

Teargas canisters were lobbed into the tent, setting off a stampede that added to the chaotic melee that ensued.

Some mothers bled profusely from the beatings, as others choked on the teargas fumes to unconsciousness. Others fainted after being trampled on in the stampede.

It still rankles to recall the brutal violence visited on the women as they wailed and screamed:

“Uuii! Uuii! Hii ni serikali ya aina gani inapiga akina mama! Tuue! Tuue sasa! Tutakufa na Watoto wetu! (What kind of Government is this that beats women! Kill us! Kill us now! We shall die with our children!)”

In the meantime, some policemen were viciously clobbering Prof Maathai. Her screams, journalists report, could be heard in the distance all the way to All Saints Cathedral.

By the time the police were done, Prof Maathai was unconscious and being hurried to the hospital, along with other injured or unconscious women.

It was at some point during all this that some mothers stripped to unleash a terrible curse among the Agĩkũyũ, baring their nudity on someone who has seriously wronged them.

The police shielded their faces at the sight of the naked women, the report says, as they retreated and strategically positioned themselves to prevent people from entering the Freedom Corner.

One poignant moment was when an exhausted and half-dressed 70-year-old mother raised her hands in a victory sign and shouted at two police officers training their guns on her:

“Ndathai rĩu mũkene. No mũmenye atĩ kĩhoto kiunaga ũta mũgete! (Shoot me so that you are happy. But know that will to justice breaks even the sturdiest bow.”

For those unfamiliar with Gĩkũyũ idiom, kĩhooto could mean a winning argument, impeccable reasoning, or justice. Thus, the proverb in the defiant mother’s telling could be interpreted to mean, “No weapon is mightier than the will to justice.”

At 3 pm that day, notes the newspaper, Mr Githinji Wang’ondu, a member of the Release Political Prisoners pressure group, informed the mothers of a Government statement broadcast by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation ordering them to immediately end their hunger strike.

“We will only move from this place when the Government brings our sons here!” the women replied.

The mothers would however be evicted from the park later that night. They would find refuge at All Saints Cathedral the following day.

Yet their campaign would yield results.

Among the first political prisoners to be released three months later in June 1992 were Kang’ethe Mungai, Karimi Nduthu, Tirop Kitur. They had served only six years of about 15 – year sentence in Naivasha Prison.

The trio had been part of a militant wing of Mwakenya accused of subversive actions, including derailing a goods train in Gilgil.

The mother’s campaign, in effect, was impactful in two respects. Their brutal beating not only humanised their pain gaining them wide public support, but crucially infused emotional value to the overall national struggle for democracy. This served to deepen international sympathy.

In this manner, the campaign reinforced ongoing international pressure on the Moi regime for political reforms, contributing to the 1992 Constitutional Amendment that would reduce the Presidential Term to a maximum of two terms. Section 2A of the Constitution had been removed the previous year allowing multiparty democracy. Ensuring limited presidential terms was requisite if democracy was to be assured before the subsequent multiparty elections later in 1992.

The mothers’ campaign would last 11 months up to January 1993. But their action forever ended the streak of political prisoners and guaranteed freedom of association to organise politically. Subsequent amendments in 1997 before the elections that year repealed all the major oppressive laws in Kenya’s Constitution.

The repealed laws included the Public Order Act which allowed detention without trial and the Chiefs Authority Act which restricted freedoms of association. The Sedition Law, which proscribed reading material or utterances considered anti-government, was also removed from the Penal Code.

It was only after repeal of the laws that the last of the political prisoners were released, many by the end of 1997. The most prominent among them was Apiny Odhiambo who was serving a life sentence for his participation in the 1982 coup attempt. Some political prisoners however were convicted of criminal offences, extending their stay in jail.

Annulment of the repressive statutes is significant. It hinted at a march towards entrenching accomplishments including the political freedoms we enjoy today. And, as the Kenya Human Rights Commission explains it, the accomplishments were possible because of the momentum set by the mothers when they began their very “simple” hunger strike on 28th February 1992—a momentum that continued until Kenyans gifted themselves with a new Constitution in 2010.

Gitura Mwaura is a writer and development journalist

Twitter: @gituram

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