Also referred to as the Release Political Prisoners Trust at some point, the organization was inspired by the spirit and activities of Kenya’s freedom fighters who rose against the British in a bid to correct the injustices around land ownership and use, freedoms of the person, community co-existence, people’s rights, and people-centred governance and development. The people sought to correct the ills that the scramble, partition and colonization of Africa in the 19th century deliberately institutionalized and attempted to legitimize.
When Kenya earned her independence in 1963, it was assumed that a democratization process would be a matter of course. Unfortunately, it was mired in oppression and repression perpetrated by the new KANU regime. The process was however unstoppable and ultimately shaped itself into the strident demand for multiparty democracy. In the early 1990s, the ruling party bowed to public pressure and repealed the infamous section 2A of the constitution, thus opening the doors to an invigorated multiparty system in the country.
The struggle for multi-partyism had led to the killing, exile and imprisonment of many Kenyans for political reasons. The new political space enabled the ‘Mothers of Political Prisoners’, their relatives and friends to come together to demand their release from prison; especially since the government had ceded to the very reason for their incarceration. It was these people that coalesced and developed, in 1991 into a formidable Release Political Prisoners Pressure Group (RPP).
Establishment of a Clear Mandate
From the onset, RPP decided to be the vanguard organization working for the release of political prisoners. It defined a political prisoner broadly to include any person who was in government custody for political reasons, or any individual or group of people who due to political mismanagement of the country, was in the bondage of economic deprivation and/or in ignorance of their basic human rights. It set out to release such persons from their bondage.
The first major initiative of the new movement was the famous Mothers of Political Prisoners’ Hunger Strike that started on 28 February, 1991. After delivering a petition to the Attorney General demanding the release of their sons, the mothers proceeded to commence a hunger strike as they awaited action by the KANU regime. Originally, there were five mothers of political prisoners and another nine supportive women including Professor Wangari Maathai. Soon thereafter, they were joined by other mothers, relatives, friends and patriotic Kenyans. They camped at the Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park in Nairobi.
By the 3rd day of the strike, thousands of Kenyans and some foreigners had gathered at the Freedom Corner in solidarity and support of the striking mothers. Plans by state sponsored thugs to terrorize the women were unearthed by the newly formed RPP and thwarted. On the 5th day, a contingent of police officers was sent by the government to brutalize and disperse the mothers and the whole gathering. Many of the protesters were seriously injured, the mothers were rounded up and forcibly taken back to their respective homes. The Mothers were undeterred; they immediately regrouped and took shelter in a bunker at All Saints Cathedral adjoining Uhuru Park in Nairobi.
At the same time as their mothers, 12 political prisoners commenced their own hunger strike. On 7 March 1992, a group of women started a hunger strike in Mombasa in solidarity with the Mothers.
The expanding hunger strike caught the attention of Kenyans and the international community; and pressure mounted on the KANU regime to release the prisoners. This state of confrontation continued for a year. Finally, the government bowed, and in January 1993, the last batch of the original 52 prisoners was released, save for James Apiny Odhiambo who would be released in 1997 after a protracted campaign by RPP.
REORGANISATION AND THE 2ND PHASE OF RPP
Immediately after their release, the political prisoners led by Karimi Nduthu joined other patriotic Kenyans to re-structure RPP to serve the new dispensation. It was agreed that the continuing tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and repression had to be confronted through a well-organized institution. The organization created a General Assembly, a Steering Council, and later a Secretariat. Karimi became the Secretary General and a leading light in the development of the pressure group until his brutal murder by the regime on 24 March 1996.
Volunteerism and Optimal Utilisation of Resources
At its inception, RPP faced serious challenges of resources. Due to the commitment of its members, volunteerism became the largest resource and a culture in the organization. With small donations from well-wishers and dedication, commitment and self-sacrifice by its members, RPP managed to hold workshops for community awareness and mobilization. It was at first hosted by the founding chairperson, Njeri Kabeberi, in her office at Continental House, then later by a member, Njeru Kathangu, at Uniafric House. The initial one man secretariat was manned by Munga Gathogo. Other members went out on assignments to educate people on their rights and on patriotism. All these members did not ask for or get any payment. Rather, all contributed what they could; labour, intellect, space, time and money. With these resources, RPP established itself as a formidable force in the country. It drew the attention of the international community to the lot of Kenyans; and initiated a national rights awareness campaign in independent Kenya in areas where no one else had ventured before.
RPP started its operations without any donor funding. Between 1991 and 1997, resource mobilization was focused on members and individual supporters who would step in and give what they could. This was not accidental, but a deliberate position agreed upon within the organization. The idea was to stay independent and stay clear of any conditions that may come with funding especially by international donors. In 1997 however, it was agreed that a principled partnership with donors was acceptable and advantageous. The organization was able to secure funding from DANIDA. It became possible to hire office space, establish an elaborate secretariat, and engage in programmatic implementation of its work. It established three programmes: the Legal Affairs Programme, Civic Education Programme and the Pull Yourself Up Programme.
Working in solidarity with other Kenyans
In all the programmes and projects that RPP implemented then and later it sought partnership with other organisations, umbrella bodies and even government departments. In this respect, grass root organisations such as Mau Mau Kimerera, Karangatha Open Forum, Kabete Human Rights Watch, Limuru Farmers Welfare Association, Kuresoi Human Rights Watch Group; and national organisations such as Kituo cha Sheria, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Ilishe Trust, K-Hurinet, Citizens for Justice, People Against Torture, and umbrella bodies including the Anti Torture Consortium.
The Legal Affairs Programme
Legal affairs entailed working towards securing the freedom of activists and citizens who got arrested while engaging in activities around human rights. Volunteer members, and employees in the secretariat who were drawn from the membership, would:
- Make visits to prisons and supply need items including medicine and toiletry while displaying solidarity and empathy
- Attend court sessions for known political prisoners to make the point, through numbers and branded attire, that the case was identified as political
- Meet court expenses including bail
- Offer legal assistance through organizing and coordinating representation by volunteer lawyers
It is important to note that in the course of their work, RPP members were arrested time and again, and were also treated as political prisoners.
The Civic Education Programme
This was the programme that sought to connect the organization with the communities across the country. It had a two-pronged approach:
- General awareness workshops. These were community sessions to discuss and raise awareness on human rights in general, the history of oppression and concomitant struggles in Kenya, the rights of the particular community in relation to their economic activities and the options available to address those issues. The workshops were not events, but processes of engagement with farmers and workers in sectors such as tea, coffee, cotton, dairy farming, and also estate workers in sugar and sisal farms. These sometimes led to other activities including publications such as The Burning Bush (on tea farming) And a special focus on squatters and the marginalized.
- Publicity was a sub-programme under civic education. Under it, production of awareness or campaign (IED) materials was carried out. They would be founded on issues like the release of certain individuals or groups, or other topics like the constitutional review process. These included T-shirts, posters, stickers, notebooks, pens, and banners bearing appropriate messages.
Music had been a major tool for mobilization since the days of the hunger strike by the Mothers of Political Prisoners. It became ingrained in the activities of the organization. The songs that had been composed over time were recorded and produced for distribution in cassettes as part of the publicity material.
These were varied activities organized around important days including Kimathi Day 18 February, Mothers’ Day on 3 March, Karimi/Human Rights Defenders’ Day on 24 March, Mau Mau/Heroes/Mashujaa Day on 20 October. During these events, marked in various areas around the country, RPP and its affiliates commemorated/celebrated the dedication and achievements of the various outstanding players in Kenya’s progressive history of liberation from the colonialists to the neo-colonial era. These culminated in a major 5-6 day event dubbed ‘Cultural Week’ held towards the end of every year. During the week, representatives from all the areas where RPP had worked across the country would congregate, review, celebrate and rejuvenate the struggle through art – music, dance, drama, display of visual articles – and speeches by various activists. Cultural activities always drew the wrath of the Moi-KANU regime, and were often disrupted. It is worth noting that it is RPP that spearheaded the change from Kenyatta Day to Mashujaa Day in the national calendar through its cultural activities and other strategies.
Another approach that RPP adopted was to assist ex-political prisoners who were being economically undermined by the government through acts of commission and/or omission. A programme was designed to advance modest interest free loans for these persons; the project was known as Pull Yourself Up.
RPP found it necessary to develop a project that would carry out research in areas of interest. This initiative would also inform other programmes on areas and methods of intervention. Its mandate included publications and periodicals, the newsletter Mtetezi, calendars, booklets, catalogues of political prisoners and updates of prison conditions.
THE THIRD PHASE OF RPP
The 2002 Elections ushered in the Narc government after Moi and Kanu left the scene. This political breakthrough had a major impact on RPP as it brought with it the illusion that the new government was pro people and that hence there was no need for continued activism and human rights work. Consequently, the fighting spirit within communities, the civil society, and even within the organization itself waned. A move to cooperate with the government took centre stage. There was lower emphasis on linkages with the people and advocacy. The funds dwindled.
By 2005, it was clear that a team of only nine members, mainly volunteers in the Secretariat, backed by seven members of the Steering Council were keeping the organization from imminent collapse.
In December 2006, and with the support of CRECO – a network organization where RPP was a member – managed to make a 5-year strategic plan. As a result, new partners notably the Finnish Embassy stepped in and RPP was rejuvenated. It remained active, striving to implement the plan. In 2014, it partnered with CRECO in a project that involved working with the county assembly of Nyandarua County in preparation of bills with emphasis on drafting and public participation. At around the same time, it partnered with Amnesty Sweden on a police reform project with the Police Reform Working Group.
After these, resources dwindled once again. Currently, RPP is working on a volunteer basis with a secretariat headed by Gitau Wanguthi on secondment from the RPP Steering Council. It has secured some usage of office space at Kugeria Massionettes in Ralph Bunche Road, and CRECO has also offered the same. It has prepared a programme on the rehabililitation of ex-convicts into the society and has approached the Al Khair Foundation for funding. Good progress has been made but the programme is yet to be fully implemented so that RPP can once again re-establish a full time secretariat. RPP as a social movement however, remains deeply ingrained in the minds of its members, and many patriotic Kenyans who have been informed of or been involved in its activities.