Tomorrow marks five years since the Lang’ata Road Primary School playground was reclaimed. The dramatic scenes of police officers tear-gassing unarmed children and arresting public land defenders made national and international headlines. Yet what is really remarkable about #OccupyPlayground, is what has happened since.
Half a decade on, it is easy to forget the controversy, complexity and courage of that Monday morning. The fear that paralysed the National Police Service, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Land Commission and Lands and Education Ministries when begged to act by teachers. The single tweet that drew the school’s plight to activists. The courage of pupils, parents and activists to face down armed officers, teargas and dogs for six hours and then, with their bare hands tear down the walls that had blocked access to the playground.
The graceful personal apology by the late Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery and his order to rebuild a new school perimeter wall. President Kenyatta’s Executive Order to title all 29,000 public primary and secondary schools three days later. Then the six months of amnesia as Deputy President William Ruto denied and then remembered he owned Weston Hotel, the interest widely accused of grabbing a children’s playground for a car-park.
The moment reveals what still ails Kenya and what is possible if citizens and leaders act in the public interest and against corruption and impunity. The tears of the Lang’ata Road Primary pupils also watered a civic and state movement to protect, title and own all our schools.
Prior to Lang’ata, only 17 per cent of schools had title deeds or lease certificates. Thirty per cent or 11,000 primary and secondary schools have been titled since. A further 2,800 schools await their transfer documents from the Treasury. Naka Primary, Lavington Primary, Uhuru Secondary among others across the country. Public land defenders have directly acted to reclaim tens of schools including Race Course Primary.
The patriotism of countless public land defenders from school communities nationally have delivered these results. Teachers like Stephen Mbinu, Hamisi Mwelu, Sister Mary Kileen and Francis Mwangi; journalists and NGO activists like Boniface Mwangi, Boaz Waruku, John Allan Namu, Elijah Kinyanjui, MPs David Gikaria and the late Ken Okoth, the Shule Yangu Alliance as well as former and current Land and Education Ministry state officers led by Jacob Kaimenyi, Muhammed Swazuri and Farida Karoney among countless others.
Their actions demonstrate that we can protect public resources against the most powerful of cartels and criminals if we choose to. The corrupt know this. They bank on our temptation to live beyond our means, our sense of helplessness and fear of them. The last five years have shown we can all blow the whistle on the theft of our schools. We can protect community leaders, teachers and public land defenders who stand up and declare our schools are not for sale or will not be stolen from under our children’s feet. Like the biblical Jericho, any wall that blocks the rights of generations of children can be brought down.
The public schools titling working group remained underfunded and lacks personnel. For the remaining schools to be titled, Ministry efforts need the support of the Presidency to secure this legacy before 2022. The new NLC commissioners must aggressively protect our schools, health facilities, police stations and other public utilities as their first order of business. Alumni associations and business must invest in perimeter walls as public land defenders sue anyone who tries to steal a school playground. The excessive force and violence in Kasarani this week was so similar to Lang’ata that KOT used a Lang’ata picture. While we commend Kasarani residents for standing up for their rights, we must also demand that Police Inspector General hold his commanding officers accountable for the death and injuries. We deserve better.
The anniversary of #OccupyPlayground and Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday are four days apart. As Martin would say, the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy. The measure of a person is also what they do with power. As we celebrate those who have risen to protect the Republic, we also must act against those that would dismantle it for personal interests.
To the brave children and teachers of Lang’ata Road Primary School, happy fifth anniversary. It was an honour to protect your school and others.
- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]