Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 1

The push for political pluralism: Saba Saba, live bullets and  ‘political’ trees 

Today’s excerpt, the third, covers the early 1990s. Prof Maathai’s tribulations at the hands of the government continue, as she joins hands with like-minded pro-democracy forces in the struggle to liberate Kenya and Kenyans from the stranglehold of dictatorship, fear and politically instigated murders.

As you will see, which would be ridiculous and laughable if the implications were not so grave, even trees were apparently considered ‘political protestors’, with trees on the wrong side of the political divide being ‘punished’ and ‘persecuted’ for their apparent ‘political crimes’.

Today’s star quote from Prof Maathai that features in the excerpt below:

“No matter how much you try to destroy it, you can’t stop truth and justice from sprouting.”

In her time, history, proved her right. So today, let us seize these precious encouraging words she bequeathed to us, and know that they [will] still apply in our time.

My lesson from the good Professor’s recollections today is that no war is ever won in one round – it’s always, and only, won one battle at a time, and we’ve made immense progress since the dark 1990s Prof Maathai recalls in today’s excerpt, all thanks to those who fought for us.

And what can we learn from these unflagging and ‘unflagged’ champions of freedom? That with each battle lost, we must rise yet again to face the next one, because we must always, always, remind ourselves that the battle is not the war, and that the war is far from over, even as we will suffer numerous defeats in battle along the way on the march to eventual victory in the war. Be courageous, be courteous, and – above all – never, ever give up!

But enough from me: I bow before one so much better able to say it, because it is after all her story. Prof Maathai now ‘speaks’ to us in this 3rd excerpt from her autobiography entitled, Unbowed: One woman’s story.

Nobel Peace Laureate, the late Prof Wangari Maathai, in younger days. The April 1 2013 Google Doodle honoured her on the day that would have been her 73rd birthday. She will remain Forever Young, in the sense of never diminishing in our memories. Like the trees she left behind, she can only but grow and sprout seed, regenerating again and again. Her place and shining role in history are secure and immortalised for all the world to see (even if not Kenya).

It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don’t know who to trust, you worry that you, your family or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassination or targetted ‘accidents’ is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.

After February 1990 when the Times complex was effectively dead the government attitude hardened towards the Green Belt Movement and me, and its actions became even more hostile. That same month, Kenya’s popular foreign minister, Robert Ouko, who was considered a strong supporter of President Moi and was tipped to be his successor, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. I realised that I was now a political figure and that I had to take care, even as I couldn’t stay silent.

Far from suppressing the opposition, Ouko’s death and the government’s reaction only emboldened the pro-democracy movement. In May 1990, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga all called for the reintroduction of a multiparty system, holding a mass pro-democracy rally on July 7, even as the government had banned the gathering. The assembly descended into a riot when security forces attacked the crowd with live ammunition, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

Still, Saba Saba (7/7 in Kiswahili to mark the date of the rally) was a turning point in the history of the struggle for truly representative democracy in Kenya. It showed me quite clearly that the struggle for freedom in our country had not ended in 1963.

I decided to honour those killed on Saba Saba by planting a small grove of trees in Uhuru Park. Over the next few years, elements suspected of being sympathetic to the goverrnment periodically tried to slash the trees by slashing and even burning them. This kind of vindictive vandalism was common among the regime’s agents and supporters.

Yet, the trees, like us, survived. These trees, like Saba Saba, inspired me. They showed me that no matter how much you try to destroy it, you can’t stop truth and justice from sprouting. In August 1991, Oginga Odinga and others founded the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) as an opposition force to KANU, and invited many people active in the pro-democracy movement, including me, to join them. My work to protect Uhuru Park had raised my profile as an advocate not only for the environment but also for human rights. Although FORD was itself declared illegal, it scheduled a huge pro-democracy rally in Kamukunji Park in November 1991. The govenment naturally banned the event. Police officers cordoned off the park grounds, and when hundreds of demonstrators assembled despite the ban, they used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. At least two people died, and many opposition leaders and journalists were arrested.

The pressure, however, for multipartyism was too great, and in December, President Moi was forced to accept its reintroduction and schedule national elections for the end of 1992. While the government gave up its claim as the sole party, though, it only tinkered with political and constitutional reform, and retained laws giving the government disproportionate power. We still faced the risk of being arrested on trumped-up charges and without guarantee of trial. and it remained difficult to discuss the need for real democracy without being harassed or detained.


The next excerpt will be on the troubles that lie ahead for Prof Maathai on allegations of coup-plotting, for which she will suffer terror and brutality to the point of physical tears.

For additional glimpses into this dark and divisive chapter in our history seen through a contemporary window, and what was to happen to other pro-democracy leaders and advocates, see this story penned on Saba Saba 2012.

We must never forget.

And because I have again only presented part of Prof Maathai’s story above, do buy the book for the complete story, including her refusal to stay in ‘safe harbour’ in USA while on a visit there in stormy early 1990, despite being offered a job there in the interests of keeping her safe. She instead opted to return home to the ‘storm’ and continue the fight.

I salute her bravery, single-mindedness and incredible and undaunted determination. ‘Uncowered’ and unbowed she was.


About Njeri Okono

I am, therefore I write
This entry was posted in Governance, Human rights, Kenya, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 2 | Njeri Okono

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s