"I was put in the basement police cells and woke up in a sea of water. I was naked and had been sitting in it all night. I stayed in that water for about one month."
Koigi wa Wamwere is one of Kenya’s best-known political prisoners. Author of several books, plays, and poetry, wa Wamwere was born to a poor family in a forest community, did well in school, and was awarded a scholarship to study at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1973. He returned to Kenya to work for democratic reforms, running for parliament in 1974, until his criticism of the Kenyan president and his government led to wa Wamwere’s arrest in 1975. He was held with no charges, no judge, and no jury for three years. Released in December 1978, in 1979 he again ran for parliament and won. He served a poor rural district for the next three years. From August 1982 until December 1984, wa Wamwere was again held in prison without charges. In June 1986, he sought exile in Norway. On a visit to Uganda in 1990, Kenya’s security forces crossed the international border, kidnapped wa Wamwere and detained him until 1993. Again he fled into exile. And again he returned to Kenya, where this time he was arrested on trumped-up charges that carried the death penalty. He was released on December 13, 1996, after domestic and international pressure on the government, to seek a treatment abroad for a heart condition. Wa Wamwere received a show trial and was sentenced in 1995 to four years in prison and six lashes with a cane. His lifetime of unrelenting activism for democracy and nonviolence has meant detention, torture, and imprisonment for much of his adult life. He has emerged from those experiences with a wisdom and a sense of peace almost beyond imagination. He later served as a member of the Kenyan Parliament from 2002 to 2007.
Human rights work is actually a struggle to preserve life, one I have been involved in for a long time. Consciously, I got involved in the struggle for human rights as a struggle for democratic rights, since initially I saw human rights as the cornerstone of democratic freedoms.
As a student at Cornell University in 1971 I began asking why Kenya couldn’t have those basic freedoms. I saw American life was a lot more open, that people could criticize their president and demonstrate openly. I encountered the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, of Robert Kennedy and his brother John F. Kennedy, and those of Malcolm X. They inspired me to fight; they completely changed my life—completely. I had gone to Cornell to study hotel management, but I instead learned about the struggle for human rights. Once that dream was implanted in my mind, I could not do anything but pack my bags and return home to start what was going to turn out to be a long struggle.
When I returned to Nairobi in February 1973, Jomo Kenyatta was still president and calling for his ouster was tantamount to suicide. Nevertheless, I started saying openly that things in my country were not going the right way. It was a shock for people at home to hear me speaking critically and overtly about what was going on. I was lucky to have the support of my brother, and we very quickly put together a team of five young men who shared our dreams of respect for human rights, equality, and an end to corruption. We did not know how to go about the fight, where to start. And I decided that the most definite means of exposing the problems was through the press. So I became a freelance journalist. I had a feature article every week, and each time I published, the police would come and take me to the police station and interrogated me.
People thought that what I was doing was sheer madness. The police would take me to the station, interrogate me, charge me, and then I would be taken to court. Then most of these cases would get thrown out. They would ask me to go home. I wonder what gave me the strength to go on; I guess the dream that I dreamt was so strong that it gave me a lot of energy to continue.
One article I wrote that attracted a lot of attention dealt with working conditions for forest workers. I was born and raised in a forest area, and my father and mother were forest workers, so I knew what I was talking about. It compared the treatment of forest workers in Kenya with similar workers in Tanzania. When the British were the colonial power here, all the workers between Kenya and Tanzania were treated more or less the same because the administration was identical. But after independence the Tanzanians were suddenly able to move forward whereas Kenyans remained just where they were. Besides writing, I went out and photographed the housing. The exposure of their working conditions made the government angry. One well-known official in the government, Secretary Shamala, said I should pack and move to Tanzania. (Years later, however, he defended me in my treason case.)
In another attention-getting piece, I wrote about tribalism as a part of the ideology of exploitation. Again, it made people very angry. It seemed wrong the way the government was discriminating against certain tribes while allowing others to feel the government belongs to them exclusively, but that point of view meant I was called a traitor. I then wrote about corruption in government-controlled companies, a major issue. What was happening was that people would collect money from peasants promising that they would buy land for them, and, in one typical instance, bought a big farm, only to afterwards throw the people out and keep the farm to themselves. And so I wrote about it.
Sometimes, I was risking my life to write about these things, but I wasn’t thinking of it as a risk. After a while, though, things got worse. I had to go into exile at one point, because the threats were serious. And even while I was in exile (in Norway at this point) they sent people to try and assassinate me.
The first time they sent two people, an Italian and the son of a Malian diplomat in Nairobi. They were searched in Sweden after the train crossed the border and the Italian’s gun was discovered so he was detained. The second hit man managed to make it to the Oslo train station. He had been given a Kenyan-Somali contact, but all Somalis looked the same to him, so the first Somali he saw he called over and said, "Here are the goods." The Somali thought the package was a kind of leaf that we chew to stay awake. But when he opened it, he saw it was a G-3 rifle with four hundred rounds of ammunition. He got the shock of his life. So he called the police. Then that man got arrested and finally confessed that he had been sent to come and kill me.
A little later they asked someone to hijack a plane I was taking from London to Tanzania. The man demanded to know, "What is my protection? What happens after the hijacking?" And they really couldn’t guarantee him anything. Strange, because when he first told me this story, I dismissed him. But then I realized he was telling the truth and I got the Norwegian police involved. We bugged my living room, then I invited him home to talk about it and be photographed by TV people. I said, "I think you are lying about all these stories," and he said, "How can I prove I am not?" I told him, "Let’s go to the police and report this." He said, "Let’s go to the commissioner of police." He told the commissioner, "Look, if you don’t believe me I’ll call the State House in Kenya." So he called and the operator knew him and put him right through. There was no way that kind of internal State House telephone transfer would have been made if they didn’t know him very well. It became a big diplomatic incident.
Another time they sent somebody who pretended to be a bishop. He said he was the former chairman of the National Christian Council in exile and dressed exactly the part. He really fooled me. At home we did not eat without saying prayers. He would say prayers, which made me very embarrassed when I found out he was a fake. At one point I asked him to speak to the BBC about the relations in Kenya and after the interview was broadcast the BBC called me. They said, "This isn’t Bishop X; the real bishop is complaining!" He ended up confessing, saying he had been sent by the State House and giving us numbers of his contacts there. These were direct numbers to the president. It turned out he had been promised three million shillings if he could assassinate or kidnap me.
Another time, when I went to Uganda to visit, I tried to contact people at home. During the day I came out of the hotel in a town which straddles the Uganda and the Kenya side of the border, and I didn’t know that security people go back and forth. That time I was in the company of somebody who actually, I think, sold me out.
I remember the day I was captured. It was July 1990. I noticed some people at the table, especially one woman who definitely looked Kenyan, looking at me. (Eastern Ugandans and the Eastern Kenyans have a complexion that is slightly different; Ugandans are darker.) Anyway, not a local person. I asked the innkeeper if Kenyans came there and I was told they did, so I decided to go back into the room. Later that night about five people, all masked, captured me. I never knew who they were. They kidnapped me from Uganda and brought me to Kenya. They first put me in prison, then went around to arrest my friends. My brothers were arrested, and we all were charged with treason. One thing I didn’t understand was why they didn’t kill me. I was put in the basement police cells and woke up in a sea of water. I was naked and had been sitting in it all night. I stayed in that water for about one month. About a foot of water goes into the basement cell. They could freeze that water, make it so cold that you froze and shivered uncontrollably, and then make it so hot you felt like suffocating. The changes in temperature gave me a lot of pain. Of course they didn’t give me food. I was only given something to drink when I was under interrogation. I spent a month alone in isolation. I was interrogated during the day. They threatened to throw me off the roof. It was very scary.
I was brought before this panel at one point and one of the men stood up and said, "Now you know we have you in our hands," and I just said, "Yes." He said, "Do you accept that we are stronger than you?" I said, "Yes, but only to the extent that you have the police, the army, and all this. But my ideas are stronger than yours. What I am fighting for is greater than what you are trying to protect, so I don’t accept you as my master." He said, "Look, I’ll give you a deal. I am stretching out my hand to you; if you shake my hand you can go home. If you can’t beat them, join them. That is what we are offering you. Shake my hand and you can go home with all your friends that are here." He put his hand forward and I said, "No." He said, "In that case you have to die." So I was blindfolded and handcuffed and returned to the cell. He said, "In a few days you will be taken to court and charged with treason."
Why didn’t I shake his hand? Because of my conviction that if I tried to make peace with these people it would be like making peace with the devil. Life is a permanent struggle between good and evil. In this struggle there isn’t room for neutrality. I couldn’t possibly see myself crossing the floor to the other side. I could never be at peace with myself. I would rather die.
My mother went around the country trying to find a lawyer to defend me and only Shamala would do it. It was very, very brave of him to agree; and eventually we were released.
In 1975, they rounded us up and detained us without trial. I stayed in prison until December 1978. Then I came out and ran for parliament from a constituency that needed someone to speak for the poor. President Moi then invited me for breakfast. Initially, he spoke well of me and, because he sounded like a person who wanted to make a break with Kenya’s past, I thought highly of him. I didn’t know it wasn’t going to last until we went to a rally somewhere and on the way back I remember very clearly people lining the road shouting, "Joshua! Joshua! Joshua!" Two days later, the president invited Jane, my wife, and me, for breakfast. He started telling me that he didn’t want me talking on behalf of the dispossessed and I should stop asking for better land distribution and for repeal of detention. He said, "Let sleeping dogs lie or you will be the one to lie." I told him I understood the threat. He said to take his advice or I wouldn’t get far.
Then I asked him if he remembered the meeting when people called him "Joshua." He pretended not to know what that meant. I told him that in Jomo Kenyatta, Kenyans had their Moses, who led them out of Egypt, but instead of taking them to the Promised Land, left them in the desert, when he died. I said, "Now Kenyans look upon you as their Joshua that will take them to the Promised Land. But you cannot take them to the land of milk and honey unless you give them freedom, unless you give them better wages, unless you give them land." I told him it was necessary to end the corruption. I told him he had led people to believe he would be a Joshua, and so he should not let them down.
And again I was in prison, from 1982 until December 1984. I left the country in 1986 and went to Norway until 1990, only to be arrested again in Uganda and in prison until February 1993. I returned to Norway and then went to Kenya that September and was immediately rearrested. This was the time of ethnic clashes, and we had started the National Democratic and Human Rights Organization (NDEHURIO) to fight for human rights, investigate human rights violations, and expose the role of the government in perpetrating ethnic clashes.
At this point, things became tougher. I was having breakfast with my friend and lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria at his home in Nairobi when we heard on the news that there had been a raid on a police station in a town a few hours away. Gibson said, "If you were in the Rift Valley, you could have been very easily accused of being connected with that raid." One of my friends said they could still do it. Gibson was very angry, since he believed that this was going beyond what they were capable of. But that Friday they did exactly what was predicted: they arrested me for the robbery on the police station, a complete frame-up.
When the police gave evidence against me in the witness box, they would give embarrassed smiles and look down. Some even admitted that their fabrication of the crime was shoddy and ridiculous. A lady in the Danish Embassy wanted to testify that we were together that night, at Gibson’s house, but was instructed not to by the Danish Foreign Ministry. There was lots and lots of pressure from the international community, from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights to Amnesty International.
But at this point, I had been in prison for two and a half years for treason, detained with charges, but without trial. They had me on death row and it was pretty clear that they were going to find us guilty. This was a classic mistrial. We could not give evidence in court. We could not cross-examine. Our lawyers were not allowed to give summing up arguments. This magistrate was behaving like somebody gone mad—although I sympathized with him because he exhibited a lot of sadness, as though he was being forced to do something he did not want to do. His children, his wife, and even his brother came to see me in the cells. It was a strange thing. Finally this magistrate decided to hand down the death sentence. But just then dictator Moi grew cold feet.
You see, I have always felt that there was always some coordination between Moi and military dictator Abacha of Nigeria in their determination to hold onto power and their joint defiance of world opinion against them. But Abacha was always the leader and when world pressure against him in the wake of his execution of the prominent Nigerian writer Ken Sera Wiwa led to sanctions and suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth, Moi, the weaker of the two, no longer had the guts to proceed with our executions. And so we got a jail sentence instead of a death sentence. So in a way, like Christ, the condemnation and death of many in Nigeria led to our own redemption.