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Kenneth Matiba was a prisoner of conscience

By Irungu Houghtonn | April 21st 2018
Kenneth Matiba [Photo: Courtesy]

Ken Matiba died last week. The legacy associated with his life as a businessperson, government minister and political detainee has dramatically expanded with his passing. His contribution and sacrifice has earned a chapter in our national history. He also leaves us a few lessons in public service.

A year ago, I wrote that leaders cannot be separated from the context of their time. Kenya was its darkest in the 1980s and 1990s. The state was incapable of protecting public resources. The Presidency operated with neither public or legal accountability. The Judiciary cannibalised laws at the whim of the Executive. Most State Officers are tainted by their silence or complicity with human rights abuses. Hundreds chose not to confront the violence, suffering and destruction that came with the one-party system. Dissent and acting in the public interest therefore was a dangerous path. Only the few that stood up against this tyranny will be absolved by this history. The family of Matiba can be proud today that he will be remembered as one of them. The preparations for a state funeral are remarkable given his history. Matiba had been a guest of the state before. The last time, it almost killed him in 1991. Digging into Amnesty International’s (AI) archives, it is possible to recreate what it was like for him and other prisoners of conscience.

Matiba was a privileged part of the inner political elite in the 1980s. The disastrous 1988 “mololongo” queue voting experiment fueled his disillusionment and abrupt resignation from President Moi’s Cabinet.

At the time, President Moi, Internal Security Minister Wilson Ndolo and the late PS Hezekiah Oyugi were responsible for state security interests. Matiba was at the centre of a growing public dissatisfaction with the one-party state and the emergence of a formidable call for our second liberation. He soon became the focus of their state attacks.

After a couple of vicious mysterious attacks, one that left his childhood sweetheart and loyal wife Edna with a cracked skull, Matiba was arrested, detained without trial and placed in solitary confinement. On May 26 1991, he suffered a stroke in Kamiti Prison. Denied medical treatment by prison staff under the management of Commissioner of Prisons J Mareka and Dr Mwongera of the Prison Medical Service, his condition deteriorated. He never recovered.

For a man that loved adventure and had climbed Mt Kenya 18 times, the physical cost was great. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. According to the judgment in his favour, Justice Isaac Lenaola noted the Matiba family had lost over Sh4 billion in commercial real estate and company stocks and shares. AI declared Matiba a Prisoner of Conscience in 1991. Hundreds of human rights defenders globally wrote letters calling for his unconditional release that year.

In his memoirs “Aiming High: The Story of My Life” Matiba makes the distinction between a politician and a person in politics. The former join politics for their own interests, the latter maintains their political principles regardless of the personal cost. After seeing the political rot in the leadership, he chose the road less travelled and more dangerous. Reflecting on isolation and economic sacrifice, his wise wife Edna noted that money is like a flock of birds that land and fly off together. Human decency and humility has kept them sane over the years.

Amnesty adopted over 100 prisoners of conscience in Kenya during the same period. In celebrating the contribution and resilience of K J N Matiba, we must celebrate them also. Collectively, they sought to create a country of conscience. We owe our gratitude to them and today’s BRAVE activists, for the freedoms and rights that we enjoy.


- The writer is Amnesty International-Kenya Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton

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