The struggle had to continue: Strategic lessons


We could have come out disillusioned, intimidated and with our spirits completely destroyed. Indeed, the first few months of prison were a fight for both physical and spiritual survival. Although many of us pleaded guilty to the charges levelled against us to escape the brutality of the torture chambers, the prison system had its own viciousness that a number of us were unable to surmount. They lost their lives to depression, loneliness and deprivation of basic requirements including nutrition and healthcare.

We could have come out of prisons as miserable losers – people who had dared to challenge the invincible, almighty autocracy of KANU and its potentates. Indeed, the intention of the state was to make us look ridiculous and foolhardy not only in the eyes of the public but also, and most critically and highly preferable, in the eyes of our families. The physical and mental pain inflicted through torture at Nyayo House was designed to humiliate us, to make us feel small and in the process show us the futility of our daring the might of the dictatorship.

But you can’t stop an idea whose time has come. Church leaders who previously were condemning our agitation for democracy and civil liberties had seen our point of view. Prominent lawyers and politicians who were previously speaking in fearful undertones were clamouring to be heard as they supported social, economic and political reforms. And the Kenyan media, which seemed not to have a soul of its own but followed the prevailing centre of power, realized that the majority of Kenyans was for change and therefore devoted acres of print and hours of broadcast to the struggle.

On July 7, 1990, barely a year since leaving prison, I felt triumphant – justified and exonerated. The reward for having been subjected to primitive torture for 49 days and having spent years in prisons was staring me in the face. I felt comfortable and happy even if I was still jobless and the prospects of getting a job were still hazy.

On that first Saba Saba day of 1990, I walked down the deserted main street of Nyeri town from the General Post Office. Just before I reached Osman Allu, I was confronted by none other than one of the goons who were torturing us at Nyayo House. I could never forget his short teeth. They reminded me of a saw blade whose teeth had been degraded by wear and tear. He tried to smile at me, but the anxiety in his face was unmistakable. I looked at him with pity. I did not say anything to him. I was feeling neither hateful nor vengeful. After a minute or so, he turned back towards Equity Bank and disappeared. I’ve never seen him again to date.

When I looked back at the encounter later, I felt I could see fear deep in his eyes. There was also disappointment. The dictatorship for which he had committed inhuman atrocities was crumbling. And here in front of him was one of his victims staring at him without fear or malice.

But were we victorious? That is a question that has bothered me to no end. It has become popular to describe our struggle as the “Second Liberation”. I don’t know the logic behind describing liberation in numeric values. It doesn’t make sense to me because I believe liberation is holistic. People are either liberated or oppressed. Liberation and oppression cannot be used to describe the same condition. Liberation struggles are not planned in phases – that we are going to fight until we get a new constitution, then pause and later launch another struggle for economic freedom and after that wage another phase of fighting for electoral justice. 

Indeed, unless one is describing the number of times a society has attempted to free itself and the achievements of each attempt, assigning quantitative descriptions of liberation struggles of an oppressed society is the excuse of those who fear admitting defeat. It is an attempt to create a false notion of freedom. Exchanging one set of rules or rulers for another does not constitute liberation. A society fighting to liberate itself cannot claim victory of any kind without removing or transforming the conditions that create the oppressor-oppressed contradiction.

Paulo Freire compares liberation with childbearing in which a new person is born. “The man or woman who emerges is a new person, viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the harmonization of all people. Or to put it another way, the solution of this contradiction is born in the labour which brings into the world this new being: no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed, but human in the process of achieving freedom,” says Freire in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Indeed, the false notion of liberation created by those who enumerate intense flashes or episodes of struggles, such as the Mau Mau war and what is popularly called Mwakenya, as first, second or third liberation is brought out each time I visit informal settlements, which is quite often nowadays because I associate closely with the Mathare Social Justice Centre. Even in formal settlements and work places, there are no signs of a liberated country. The economy is still designed to benefit a small class and to deprive and oppress the majority working class. Our culture still reflects a state of colonization. Instruments of authority, including the justice system, are still designed to protect a certain class of elites from the majority just like it was designed to protect settlers from Kenyans. And the political situation still discriminates against the majority of Kenyans.

In fact, it never occurred to those genuinely involved in the liberation struggle that they had achieved a situation when they could say that they had reached a quantifiable stage in the liberation struggle. There was no sense of triumph even when the street demonstrations culminated in the reintroduction of a multiplicity of political parties in the electoral process. The structures and mindset of oppression were still intact and the struggle had to continue.

However, strategic lessons had been learnt that would be useful to future generations of liberation warriors. Those who escaped imprisonment continued the fight and enlisted the support of others, some of them very influential locally and internationally. Instead of instilling fear, our arrests instilled caution in those who were determined to continue the fight. It forced them to modify their strategies to avoid arrest and torture. It made them tighten security around the underground movement and to intensify activities of the exiled community and those in the diaspora who believed in the cause of our struggle.

The exiles indeed did a lot of work to convince the diaspora that our country was on the path of self-destruction and recruited those who were willing to stem the downward spiral. Together they mobilized pressure from friendly nations and international organizations to declare Kenya a pariah state and to starve the dictatorship of the cash it was using to perpetuate itself.

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