The Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) waded into local Nakuru politics last week, ending on the receiving end of the local police force which was determined to ensure its cancellation of a meeting at Solai. Since the Solai dam tragedy in May 2018 the KHRC has supported efforts towards justice for victims of the tragedy. Its report, Damned Dams, which documented what took place on the fateful night, and its effects was extensively cited with approval of the Senate when it compiled its own report on Solai.
The next logical step was to organise the victim community to explore bringing a collective action for redress against owners of the dam. However, this process was badly destabilised when owners of the dam ensnared the victims into a unilateral plan by which, in exchange for signing legal documents that purportedly discharged owners of any liability for the tragedy, the victims received payments of varying amounts. The amounts paid out were the sole determination of the dam owners, and were a pittance. No process involving the victims preceded the pay-out. Local officials were clearly part of this ruse as they used their official capacities to lure victims into a meeting where they were pressured to accept the payments. The report of a Senate Committee repeated these allegations.
The purported settlement was not the first act of contempt for the victims, with the apparent complicity of officials. Victim families had already been forced to participate in what was presented as a state funeral service for their loved ones: officials simply descended on the area and, without the participation of the victims, arranged a mass funeral service, a service attended by the country’s top leadership.
Punishment for voicing criticism
Thereafter, this paternalistic attitude has been followed in the process leading to a decision to build houses for some victims. This decision was unilateral and based on a listing that the victims have contested. Available information suggests the listing of victims was done soon after the calamity. While this was good as it locked out possible impostors, it also locked out genuine victims since the listing happened before full information about victimhood had been established.
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There has followed a pedantic approach that the list cannot be revised. Also, known victims have complained that they were de-listed as punishment for voicing criticism against local officials that they accuse of corruption in relation to the management relief. These same victims have complained that officials have corruptly inserted fake names into victim lists and accorded them benefits meant for victims, an allegation that the Senate also made.
Against this background, the victims decided that they would file suit for compensation. A meeting to give collective validation of this decision was to take place last week but the area police cancelled it for lack of prior notification.
A member of the County Assembly for the area, Peter Mbae, who was arrested in Solai, has been carrying out a crusade against the Nakuru County administration whom he accuses of corruption in managing donations meant for the victims. The leadership of the police then decided that he could not hold any meeting at Solai unless he first substantiated the claims of corruption.
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Clearly, the administration views the freedom of assembly as a gift in its sole control, to be allowed to those who “behave” but otherwise to be denied to those like Mbae whom they regard as trouble makers. By all accounts, the police were unaware that the meeting in question was also to be attended by the KHRC. In banning the meeting, they seem to have only been targeting Mbae.
An unrestrained situation followed when police lobbed teargas at the victims that had assembled for the meeting. Evidence that throwing teargas was an ill-advised decision includes the fact that the teargas drifted into the nearby Solai Nyakinyua Primary School which was in session. Parents complained that many of these children were still battling the effects of last year’s dam tragedy. Watching the terrified children scamper for safety could not have been intended by the police when they threw teargas.
The anger of the crowd was soon manifested by the fact that they regrouped and barricaded the newly-tarmacked road with rocks and burning tyres and even pelted rocks at the police. Solai is Jubilee country. Even after the tragedy, loyalty to President Uhuru Kenyatta remained strong and sometimes complicated the search for redress as victims feared that their demands can be taken for disloyalty to the president.
However, in the period after the teargas was thrown, none of this restraint was evident. The teargas was evidence that the government has moved on, and the victims are on their own. The riots were spontaneous and were a desperate call by the victims, for the attention of a disinterested national government, which has turned a blind eye as local administration preys on their misery.
- The writer is the Executive Director at KHRC. [email protected]