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Mwakenya the revolutionary movement that shook Kenya

From left, Ngotho Wa Kariuki, Kamonye Manje and Kiongo Maina. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Today is Saba Saba Day in Kenya. This is not an officially recognized national day but it is an integral part of the history of our democratization. On July 7, 1990, Kenyans took to the streets to demand free elections. The politicians who had called for the protests, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, were arrested days before the protest day.

The roots of the bold action can be traced to the Mwakenya Movement whose roots we trace below.

The decade preceding the re-introduction of multi-party politics in Kenya saw various actors agitate for the expansion of the democratic space that had shrunk to non-existence.

 It is during this time, that a movement that drew its membership from across the country sprouted, spread and was eventually vanquished by an overzealous state afraid of the ideas of the few who dared challenge the status quo.

From the mid-1970s men and women drawn from academia, the civil service and the general workforce of the country were drawn together by ideals and ambition and woven into the mosaic that would later be known as the Muungano wa Wazalendo wa Kukomboa Kenya movement- also known as Mwakenya.

This is the story of some of the founder members, the dreams they had and their motivations for standing up for what they believed in. Some lived to see a time when they could tell of their stories, of their torture, and of the little liberties they now enjoy.

Many died in the struggle. Others lived, but remain broken. Broken by a heavy-handed state into so many small pieces that, just like Humpty Dumpty, it became impossible to glue them back together. Their brokenness is a reminder of their time in the dungeons.

Defiance

Professor Maina Kiongo has some level of defiance toward him. Thick hair protrudes from under his flat cap, merging with full set sideburns, greyed from age. His eyes are deep-set and cheekbones high. Even in old age, one can always sense defiance around him.

“You know I am a son of a Mau Mau,” he says. “And it pained me to see that those who fought for freedom were never rewarded by a country they went to war for.”

Every single member of the Mwakenya movement had their own push factors. For Professor Kiongo, it was this deep sense of injustice and other ‘things’ that were happening when he was a young man.

Mwakenya activist Karimi Nduthu. 

“In the early and mid-70s, there was agitation from people who were progressive. The agitation became worse in 1975,” Professor Kiongo recalls.

The 1975 event he speaks of revolved around the life and later death of one of the few Kenyans who was at that time brave enough, according to some, to speak truth to power.

“In February of that year, a young Josiah Mwangi Kariuki gave a graduation lecture at Highridge Teachers College where he said Kenya is becoming a country of 10 million beggars and 10 millionaires. This statement created panic in government because they already knew there was discord within the country,” he says.

A month later, JM Kariuki, a fiery socialist politician who was peaking up and speaking out against what he thought was going wrong with the country, was dead.

“I knew him personally. I had interacted with him. After his death a few of us came together and decided to form a revolutionary movement,” he says. “We were just trying to find out what went wrong with our country, and most importantly the solutions to fix it.”

This movement was later on christened the December 12th Movement, formed on the backdrop of a repressed environment that saw Prof. Kiongo and many other like-minded Kenyans seek unorthodox solutions to the woes that befell them.

“We just started recruiting people and agreed that each one of us forms a cell of around three people. We had a cell leader and the other two would recruit three other people and become leaders of their own cells,” Prof. Kiongo says.

The membership was drawn from a diverse group of people.

“We had groups of workers, university dons, lecturers at tertiary institutions, civil servants and even school teachers,” he says.

The idea was to force the government into opening up the democratic space while agitating in the underground.

Critical to their existence was getting their messaging right. This was done through pamphlets that were distributed across the country.

Underground press

“We targeted highly populated areas for maximum effect,” the professor says. “We zoned the country into areas and distributed the pamphlets that had been prepared by the intellectual wing and printed at a press in Nairobi’s Uniafric House.”

As a key member of the December 12th Group, he would collect the pamphlets from the press and distribute them in parts of Nairobi and in Central Province. Other members of the group were responsible for distribution in other parts of the country.

The 1997 Saba Saba riots.

By this time, Prof Kiongo was working for the very government he was rising up against. He had become a senior accountant in government and at the height of the movement’s visibility and activity, he got a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom.

“I had passed up a similar opportunity in 1979 during the formative years of the group. This was in 1983. We had done a good job recruiting and even in my absence, the movement was in good hands.”

So he left for the UK, leaving a growing December 12th Movement in the hands of others who believed in the course that had been set by those who came before them. Unknown to him, his return, two years later, would open him up to just how fast the movement had grown. Not just in membership, or in the spread of its ideology, but in the piquing of government’s interest as well.

Kangethe Mungai had one mission when he got admitted into the University of Nairobi’s Kabete Campus and none of it involved him finding himself in front of a judge, slapped with a 12-and-a-half-year jail sentence. He just wanted to be a successful agriculturalist. Well, he was, albeit for just a few years after his graduation.

“I met people who changed my worldview soon after joining the university,” he says.

The bespectacled Mungai would pass for a favourite uncle. Kibichiku Primary School separates his family home from that of the one powerful Charles Njonjo who at the height of his career wielded as much power as the head of state.

Cold War

“You have to understand the background against which we went to university,” he begins. “This was a time when there were a lot of struggles going on around the world. I walked into University in 1980 when Museveni was in the bush and Madiba was in prison. At a time when Mugabe was also fighting for liberation so the struggle was all around us.”

This was also when the world was polarized between the capitalistic West and the communist East.

“Yet back home we had many problems that at the time we thought needed a solution. At the time you could not even mention the word democracy,” Mungai says.

But the discourse about change and impending revolution expressed by lecturers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wa Mirii sparked a flame in him. A flame that was to be fanned into an inferno by fellow students such as Mwandawiro Mghanga and Oduor Ongwen.

“Mwandawiro was the chairman of the student’s union. Oduor was the Secretary-General. I was a Hall of Residence Representative in Kabete Campus,” Mungai says.

“The lecturers held public lecturers and worked us up. It is in these forums that I got in contact with many progressive people who were conscious about what needed to be done in Kenya,” he says. These were members of the December 12th Movement.

At this time, it was still an underground movement and Mungai embraced this clandestine operation wholeheartedly.

The December 12th Movement stood for certain ideals that he identified with. Ideals that included the recovery of national ideals, the establishment of an economy where land resources would benefit all Kenyans, and the establishment of democratic space as well as social justice for the majority.

Pambana

And in the absence of pioneers such as Prof Kiongo, he took an active part in the printing and distribution of the movement’s pamphlets.

“I had an old press in our home and printed Mpatanishi and Pambana in my home,” he says.

Mpatanishi and Pambana were papers associated with the movement that were advancing the movement’s ideas and ideals.

“I also used to contribute to Sauti Ya Kamukunji which was a little bit moderate,” he says.

Even after getting employed as a civil servant, Mungai continued to thrive in the underground.

“All the activities were funded through the personal sacrifices of the members,” he says. “We took loans to ensure the movement ran. We had donations from sympathisers, all of whom were Kenyans agitating for change.”

For instance, a London-based exile group called Ukenya is said to have been Mwakenya's external affiliate. Founded by Yusuf Hassan, from Garissa, Ukenya had a parallel platform.

Historical records indicate that Hassan's family disowned their son upon hearing of his involvement, and so powerful was the popular fear of the government's rage that Hassan's clan publicly disassociated itself from any of Ukenya's actions or any criticism of KANU

By the time Prof Kiongo came back to the country in Mungai had become an important cog in the movement, distributing the publications to as far as Zimbabwe where a sizeable group of sympathetic Kenyans were living in exile.

In a few months, Mungai would be in charge of a cell in Western Kenya of a new, more radical organization called Mwakenya. His new role saw him commit various acts of economic sabotage and being in charge of some of the most radical members of the Mwakenya Movement. All from the safety of a government job in Busia.

When Prof Kiongo came back into the country from the United Kingdom there was significant movement in the underground space. Membership of individuals set to bring change to the country had grown tremendously and other groups with a similar agenda had sprung up all across the country.

“The underground was so big that you would set out to recruit someone only to find out they were also on a mission to recruit you into their group,” he says.

In June 1985, representatives from these diverse groups met at a hotel in Nairobi and after three days of deliberations agreed to collapse the groups into one national movement.

“This is how Mwakenya was born,” Prof. Kiongo says.

Cell network

Soon after this, a new structure was agreed upon and new leadership was put in office. Some of the old habits though, like organization in cells were retained and at any one given time, no member would know of the organization’s composition past the cellmates.

“They created a structure that had the central committee organising all other cells. A cell member could not know the central committee. You could only know one man, who would be your link to the centre,” Mungai, the agriculturalist says.

 “These cell members did not know the other cells. So that if these cell members are arrested, they could not rat out the other cells.”

With amalgamation came newer challenges. A larger group meant less control for the central committee, and critically, increased exposure for the movements that had been mobilising underground for close to a decade.

“As the movement took off, there was a problem,” Prof. Kiongo says. “We had brought together different people. Even within the leadership, there was a split between those agitating for quick action and those who thought the ground was not ripe for any overt actions against the state. Those for quick action won. Those of us who wanted to slow down were defeated.”

And Mungai’s Western Kenya cell had arguably two of the most radical members of Mwakenya, Tirop Arap Kitur and Karimi Nduthu. And when a nationwide crackdown on membership began, Mungai’s cell was one of the most sought after.

A Saba Saba activist is arrested as recently as July 7, 2021.

Reflecting back Prof Kiongo thinks he knows what dealt the movement a fatal blow. He says it began with the death of a close friend compounded by ‘some problems in his family.’

“In November 1985 I lost a very close friend and when we went to bury him I suggested that his friends set up a fund to raise money to take care of his children,” Prof. Kiongo says.

Those he mentioned this idea to saw the nobility in his actions and agreed to this plan. So the professor started off by compiling a list of those willing to take part in the fundraising. This list had names and the amount of money each of them contributed.

“A close family member got the list and went to the Special Branch (secrete police and precursor of today’s National Intelligence Service). They said I was a member of a movement of people wanting to overthrow the government and that they had a list of the funders,” he remembers.

But this was not all they did. They went a step further with the list of subversives.

“Later while in detention I was told the close family member walked into a church on Nairobi’s Valley Road where the president used to go for Sunday Service and demanded an audience. They told the church leadership and the president’s security team that I was the leader of Mwakenya and they had a list of its top membership,” he says.

After this, an order was made. With this list in hand, Prof Kiongo and his team of mutineers was to be hunted down at all costs. But the hunt was not immediate. It was patient and slow. It would be almost six months before the Special Branch- Kenya’s dreaded secret police- enforced any action on the members.

But during these six months, information, including some of the most intimate discussions held in his house found itself before the spies.

“We had friends even within the system we were fighting and when I knew of my family member’s role as an informant I confronted them. The next day, Special Branch officers came for me,” Prof Kiongo says.

This was February 23, 1986. What started out as an arrest by four officers turned into a jail term that included torture and bouts of solitary confinement. A month earlier, a very vocal member of the movement Peter Young Kihara who was also in charge of administering an oath of secrecy among the members had been reported missing. The movement’s members could sense that their house was falling, but they still held on to the idea of a revolution.

…. Continues