Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 2

Coups, conspiracies and entrenching the culture of fear

The late Prof Wangari Maathai

The 4th excerpt from Prof Wangari Maathai’s autobiograpy Unbowed: One woman’s story.

Key message from today’s excerpt: no matter how strong and courageous you are, support and solidarity from like-minded people is priceless. Prof Maathai says:

“As I was carried out of the courtroom to an ambulance … I gained courage and strength from the women who wailed and wept around me. I was in physical agony, wondering the arthritis would ever let my legs carry me again. I saw a banner from the women’s rights group Mothers in Action that warmed my heart and helped me realise that no matter what happened to me, there were people who cared, who wished me well, and who understood what it meant to be a woman fighting for the future of her country [emphasis mine]. WANGARI, BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA, the banner said, YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN…”

A side-note on women: Poignant that practically on the eve of Prof Maathai’s birthday, in Nyeri – where Prof Maathai was born – a woman was stripped naked in public for being “indecently dressed”.

On to the 4th excerpt:

It was in this political climate that, on January 10 1992, a large group of us met to strategise on how to propel our pro-democracy movement forward. During the meeting, one of us was called to the phone and given information that chilled me to the bone: “We have learnt, reliably, that Moi wants to hand over power to the army,” the caller said. The coup was scheduled to take place at any time, we were informed. A government-sponsored coup would be the perfect way for President Moi to avoid having to face the electorate at the end of the year. It was possible that the rumour was started by the government itself to scare the opposition into silence and ensure that the authorities retained power. Nonetheless, I took what was said very seriously, not least because the person on the phone named me as one of the people targetted for assassination. This was not an idle threat. Not long before this, Bishop Alexander Muge  had voiced fears for his life after calling for civil rights in Kenya. He had died shortly afterwards in a mysterious car “accident”.

We decided to alert the media and went to the Press Centre. We issued a statement to the effect that if the President felt that there was a need for a change in government, he should call a general election and not turn power over to the army. We also alerted the press to the existence of a list of potential targets for assassinations.

The President denied rumours of the coup, and attacked members of FORD for associating themselves with what he termed “loose talk”. After we made our statement, we scattered. That afternoon, our phones started ringing with the news that all those who attended the press conference were being picked up by the police one by one and arrested. I decided to barricade myself in my home.

Soon enough, the police arrived. I refused to let them in. By the next day, news that I was under siege had spread and the press had begun to gather. From inside the house, I talked to as many journalists as I could, Kenyan and international, who had gathered around the compound (some had jumped over the gate), as well as on the phone. I told them about the rumoured coup and explained why we didn’t want power handed to the army. I spoke about how the 1988 elections had been rigged and how the President was nervous about holding elections because he knew he would be defeated. After some time, the police cut my phone line, and then I was frightened. I was alone in the house, surrounded. My connection to the outside world was gone. The rumours of the coup had set Kenyans on edge, including the security forces. I didn’t know what would happen next…

On the third day of the siege, the situation turned ugly. The locks on my doors and the steel bars on my windows must have annoyed the authorities greatly, since they acquired a pair of steel cutters from the army and went to work…Taking me by the arms, they walked me through the broken doors and past a crowd of supporters, pushed me into a car, and drove me to the police station. To my consternation, the officers left the house wide open…

The charges against me were serious: spreading malicious rumours, sedition, and treason, the last of which carried a death penalty. Thankfully by this time, I, as well as other targets of the regime, had a system whereby if I had been arrested or something had happened to me, people would spread the word to our supporters almost immediately. They would then inform the press and inquire why I’d been arrested and what they could do to get me released.

Nevertheless, it was a dark time. I was in jail again. I tried to sleep without any covers on the floor of a cell that was wet, freezing cold, filled with water and filth. I wondered whether the floor had been flooded deliberately. I was 52 years old, arthritic in both knees, and suffering from back pain. In that cold wet cell, my joints ached so much that I thought I would die.

The lights were kept on throughout so it was impossible to sleep. I was alone in the cell. I had no access to information or any idea of what was happening outside the bars of the cell. Denying me the ability to control what happened seemed to me to be the greatest punishment the regime could mete out on me.

By the time of the court hearing, my legs had completely seized up. Crying from pain and weak from hunger, I had to be carried by four strong policewomen into the courtroom…

Some judges were sympathetic to the need for greater democracy but either had to act as the system demanded for their own personal safety, or, less honorably, for their own personal comfort and privilege. In this case, the judge was fair, though he did require bail. He also demanded regular appearances in court that hampered my work and the work of my codefendants, who included the lawyers Paul Muite and James Orengo. Both of them, leaders in the pro-democracy movement, were also good friends. In those days, bail was often used as a way to curtail freedom and dissent, since it, or other deferred charges, made it impossible to travel and left you vulnerable to arrest at any time on numerous vague accusations of wrongdoing.

While my codefendants and I knew we were innocent of what we were being accused, we had no guarantee that we could be publicly vindicated. As I was carried out of the courtroom to an ambulance to take me to Nairobi Hospital, I gained courage and strength from the women who wailed and wept around me. I was in physical agony, wondering the arthritis would ever let my legs carry me again. Then I saw a banner from the women’s rights group Mothers in Action that warmed my heart and helped me realise that no matter what happened to me, there were people who cared, who wished me well, and who understood what it meant to be a woman fighting for the future of her country. WANGARI, BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA, the banner said, YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN…

[External pressure was also brought to bear on the government.]  The government must have listened to someone because in November 1992, the State withdrew the charges against all of us. There was, and never had been, a case to be made. We were free again and ready to continue our advocacy work.

END OF EXCERPT

So what was this immense and relentless external pressure that the government finally bowed and capitulated to? Get yourself a copy of Prof Maathai’s autobiography.

And as we laugh at the dark but very educative humour in the political satire of the XYZ Show ‘s 31 March 2013 episode (from circa 15:43), let’s also see those Xs via accidents (Bishop Muge) and detentions (Kenneth Matiba) for the terror they really were when Moi was in power. We may laugh about it now; it wasn’t at all funny then.

Next excerpt will be on how a part of Uhuru Park came to be called Freedom Corner, and why elderly women  in their 60s and 70s stripped (in protest due to police brutality, and of their own volition, not the violation and bestiality here). Some of these women feature in the short seven-minute video below, as does her daughter, Wanjĩra.

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About Njeri Okono

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

2 Responses to Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Wangari Maathai, in her own words – Freedom turns a corner: Part 3 | Njeri Okono

  2. Pingback: Mothers’ Day 2013 | Njeri Okono

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