A recent statement by Kenyan Minister of Justice Kiraitu Murungi that it is ”no longer necessary” for the country to establish a commission to investigate atrocities committed under previous governments has been greeted with both outrage and delight.
The promise to set up such a body, modelled on South Africa’s internationally acclaimed inquiry into rights abuses that occurred during apartheid, was one of the key pledges made during the current head of state’s campaign for office. President Mwai Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) were elected to power in December 2002.
Speaking on national television, Murungi declared that Kenya’s past — during which state opponents and political rivals were murdered, tortured, detained without trial and made to disappear without trace — should instead be probed by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNHCR).
However, the KNHCR lacks the resources to conduct a full-scale inquiry into violations that have taken place in Kenya since the country received independence from Britain in December 1963. It was subsequently ruled by the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), first under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta — then Daniel arap Moi.
Unsurprisingly, Kanu — now Kenya’s official opposition — was elated at Narc’s apparent abandonment of its pre-election promise.
”We need to rebuild Kenya rather than focusing on revenge and witch-hunting,” declared the party’s leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta.
But, activists might argue that this forward-thinking approach will forever risk being tripped up by the past until a number of killings are properly accounted for, and torture victims given a public forum to speak of their experiences at places such as the notorious Nyayo House. (This government building, in the capital, Nairobi, served as a venue for the torture of government opponents during the Moi era.)
The fatal shooting in 1965 of Pio Pinto, a trade unionist and journalist who had opposed Kenyatta’s allocation of land to political allies, is one such killing. At the time of his death — in the driveway of his home in a Nairobi suburb — Pinto had been lobbying for land to be given to poor Kenyans.
In 1969, influential politician Thomas Mboya was assassinated.
Legislator Josiah Kariuki, who famously coined the phrase that Kenya risked becoming ”a country of 10 millionaires and 10-million beggars”, was murdered in 1975.
”When Kibaki spoke at Kariuki’s funeral, he said that Kenyans would one day know who killed him, even if it took 100 years to find the truth … Two-and-a-half years into his presidency … we have heard nothing from Kibaki about this,” says Dominic Odipo, a political consultant in Nairobi.
Two years ago, a government-appointed task force canvassed Kenyans about whether they believed a truth, justice and reconciliation commission was needed in the country. Those interviewed overwhelmingly supported the initiative, and in October 2003 the task force recommended that a truth commission should be established by June of the following year.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, paid a visit to Kenya in support of the initiative, as did persons who had participated in various South American reconciliation processes.
And, in a now ironic statement, Murungi renewed his government’s commitment to install a commission that could look into Kenya’s ”ugly past”.
But, says Kang’ethe Mungai of the Release Political Prisoners pressure group, ”As soon as Kibaki formed his government, it was clear that he would not establish a truth commission. Otherwise, why then did he appoint the perpetrators of the crimes associated with the former regimes?”
In particular, Mungai points to the reported attempt to bring Nicholas Biwott, a former Cabinet minister, back into the government. Often described as Moi’s closest confidante, Biwott has been linked to the 1990 murder of Robert Ouko — then foreign affairs minister. Ouko’s mutilated and charred body was found at the foot of a hill in western Kenya.
A recent parliamentary inquiry found that the Moi government planned and carried out the murder, and in a report issued last week, legislators recommended that several former and current officials — including Biwott — should be investigated in connection with Ouko’s death.
Biwott dismissed the recommendation as an ”absurdity”, after having refused to participate in the inquiry.
Kibaki also risks being tainted by his association with Moi, having served as vice-president under the former leader during the 1980s.
”Moi and his whole Cabinet, including Kibaki, knew exactly what was happening in this country. We all knew!” Joseph Njoroge, a former political prisoner, has claimed.
”The police shocked me with electricity, and sprayed me with icy water from a powerful hose. They starved us … We prisoners were forced to eat our faeces to survive.”
If Kibaki doesn’t fear his past being put under the microscope by a truth commission, speculation is rife that other members of his government do — and that they have moved to put a brake on the probe.
As KNHCR chairperson Maina Kiai has commented: ”Those who contributed to a decay of human rights … continue to wield great power in Kenya.”
Moves are now afoot to make sure that Kibaki pays the ultimate political price for his government’s failure to take account of past abuses.
At a book launch last month, activists pledged to work against Narc’s return to power in the 2007 general elections.
The book, Never Again: Profiles in Courage, is about persons who have undergone human rights abuse at the hands of Kenyan officials. — IPS