Civil society movement, Kibera the poorer with Okoth’s death

Last week’s tributes by civil society activists provide a sense of the massive contribution the late Kibra MP Ken Okoth made to the country.

On January 20, 2015 Okoth, reinforced by a few of his constituents, joined in bringing down a wall erected around land forming part of the Langata Primary School. The only MP present, Okoth was then targeted by police when they arrived to disperse the demolishers. He escaped to safety, with police in hot pursuit. For the government, the reaction to the demolition proved a public relations disaster as school children were on the receiving end of the teargas. The action at Langata would go on to give birth to ShuleYangu alliance, which carried out a countrywide campaigned against grabbing of public school land.

The previous year, Okoth had joined a civil society-led fact-finding mission to Kwale after the death of a 14-year-old girl, Kwekwe Mwandaza, which occurred during a police raid in her village. There was strong suspicion of a cover-up of the cause of her death and the fact-finding mission contributed to pressure for an independent investigation, which finally led to the conviction of two policemen. Later the same year, Okoth was criticised when he joined a civil society public protest against the killing of 21 police officers in Kapedo.

There was also a moving tribute from a representative of women raped during the post-election violence. These have now organised themselves into a human rights group that is demanding justice. The very act of getting organised is already an achievement for these women, who mostly hail from disadvantaged backgrounds and have then had to fight the stigma arising from what happened to them. The women testified that Okoth was the first MP to embrace their struggle and that, in doing so, he provided much-needed legitimacy to their search for justice.

Guidelines on evictions

These are some of the many situations in which Okoth intervened in struggles pitting asymmetrical forces. His interventions were always aimed at giving the underdog a fighting chance, and often did. Since Langata Primary School was not in his constituency, Okoth could have stayed away, like other parliamentarians did.

Okoth played a key role in the passage of legislation regarded as key to protection of human rights. As part of this Okoth co-chaired the negotiation of the National Coroners Act enacted in 2017, supported the development of legal guidelines on evictions, and was instrumental in the passage of the Protection against Domestic Violence Act in 2016. In 2016, Okoth convened the first-ever public dialogue on unsafe abortion, during which women who had been involved in unsafe abortion gave harrowing tales.

In Parliament, Okoth had become a key mobiliser, bringing together groups of parliamentarians and aggregating access to them by groups outside Parliament.

As part of this, Okoth formed the parliamentary sustainable developments goals caucus, and was also part of a human rights caucus, which brought together independent-minded members who worked beyond party lines. Needless to say, many of the members were regarded as rebels by their parties and lost their seats in the subsequent election.

Okoth’s help in giving access to Parliament became evident to a civil society group working against historical injustices. The group had monitored the Truth Justice and Reconciliation process that eventually issued a report in 2013. However, action on the report became doubtful when the new Jubilee government changed contents of the report. Having long given up on any further action on the report, the group later met with Okoth who then opened doors that enabled a discussion of the report. Okoth formed a group of likeminded fellow parliamentarians whose action led to the publication in the Gazette, of sections of the report. While nothing further has followed, it was not for want of trying.

Okoth was similarly involved with another group of civil society activists working to give effect to the two-thirds gender rule.

Referred to as the Green Amendment Campaign, the group also included the former MP for Ndhiwa, Agostinho Neto, who was almost always involved in everything Okoth did. If anything deserved to be rewarded with success, it is the arduous work the group was involved in, traversing the country by road, and holding many boardroom meetings in search of a solution.    

In his tribute, human rights activist Boniface Mwangi remarked that Okoth was the best MP that Kibera has ever had. His devotion to Kibera was evident when Okoth, already under treatment in France, coordinated a response to a mass eviction that was meant to make way for a road project through the constituency. Even in the face of serious illness, Okoth remained responsible to the people of Kibera. Okoth, who carried himself with a high level of personal dignity, was severally described as an example of selfless servant leadership.

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]