End of an era: Fr Dolan's brave fight against deceit, abuse and land grabbing

Catholic Priest Fr Gabriel Dolan. [Courtesy]

During his 43-year stay in Kenya, Catholic priest Gabriel Dolan was arrested and locked up many times. He was harassed and threatened by politicians for fighting for victims of human rights violations. He also waged war against land grabbing and abuse of power which earned him many enemies.

Father Dolan, who is now set to leave the country, fought for the poor during the dark days of one party rule. He worked hard to create awareness through his civil society work.

Fr Dolan first went to Turkana County in 1982 when he arrived from his native Northern Ireland. Turkana was then perhaps the poorest and underdeveloped region in Kenya.

“I have been engaged in the fight for human rights for over 60 years. This is because I faced a lot of discrimination as a child. I faced discrimination in the job market, housing and education,” says Dolan.

That is perhaps the reason Dolan got used to the culture of fighting, to seek for a better society. The poor have remained close to his heart, the priest says.

He arrived in Turkana after the infamous 1979-1981 drought which killed thousands of livestock, rendering many homesteads poor. Thousands of children died from Kwashiokor and Marasmus because of hunger and malnutrition.

There was little the government could do as production of food had been suppressed by the drought. The situation in Turkana only changed after large quantities of food aid arrived from the European Economic Community and the US.

After the famine, Dolan was involved in rehabilitating families, working with local youth.

In 1988, when President Daniel arap Moi introduced the Mlolongo voting system, there was a lot of cheating in the parliamentary elections. This disturbed the priest who upped his civic education work.

Turkana did not feel the change when section 2(a) of the constitution was repealed in 1990, ushering in multi-party politics. There was excitement in 1992 because of the multi-party elections but nothing much had changed in Turkana. Dolan says he saw the need carry out civic education even more to educate the people.

“The District Commissioner at the time was called Rotich. He was a tyrant and did not tolerate any form of opposition. We started the campaign anyway,” recounts Dolan.

He was referring to Reuben Rotich, a no-nonsense administrator who referred to himself Kazi Moto and was feared by activists and opposition politicians.

Rotich ordered the arrest of many activists in the area. He was also accused of using government relief food to campaign for Kanu. Rotich also banned opposition leaders from visiting or holding political activities in Turkana.

“Our meetings were continuously disrupted by police, chiefs and hired goons. We were doing basic civic education with young people and teachers at that time,” says Dolan.

The priest was at the time working with Peter Kiama who later became the IMLU Country Director. He still feels their work had a bearing on the election of John Munyes, of Ford Kenya, as Turkana’s first opposition MP in 1997. Coincidentally, Munyes had been Dolan’s student at Lodwar High School in early 1980s.

The priest says if it was not for their vigilance and the efforts of the young people he had been working with for years in Turkana North, it is possible that Munyes would have been rigged out.

Dolan says they spent two nights protecting the ballot boxes before the votes were counted. “The police had warned me against visiting some parts of the Turkana North during those elections because of insecurity.”

He handed over the work of Catholic Peace and Justice Commission (CPJC) in Lodwar to Kiama in 1998 when he was relocated to Kitale. This was after Bishop Maurice Anthony Crowley opened a new diocese there in 1998.

In Kitale, a new challenge awaited Dolan. He had to face the danger of the conflict in Pokot. He started by opening a CJPC office in Kapenguria with a new team of local youth, who included the current Pokot South MP David Pkosing.

They encountered a lot of opposition from local Kanu leaders led by the feared Francis Polis Loile Lotodo, who together with his cronies, organized a demonstration against the opening of the CJPC office.

“When we attempted to launch the Lenten campaign at the church in Kapenguria, they surrounded us. They did not let anybody come out. We had planned a peaceful demonstration,” says Dolan.

He adds: “Lotodo was under pressure. He even asked Moi to remove the mzungu (whiteman) from the country when he convened a meeting for Turkana, Marakwet and Pokot leaders to discuss peace and the cattle rustling menace in the area.”

The priest says some Turkana MPs went to his office in Kitale and told him to be careful “because Lotodo was capable of harming him”.

The President is said to have told Lotodo that he thought he was a strong man and had wondered why he could not handle the mzungu on his own. To the Turkana MPs, this was like giving the minister authority to do whatever he wished.

A lot of work that Dolan did in Kitale involved helping squatters and protecting public land for which he was arrested several times, alongside the then opposition MP George Kapten of Kwanza constituency.

They were also arrested as they demonstrated in Kitale to protect a public park and the Kitale GK prison farm. Minister for Home Affairs Moody Awori was visiting the area when they held the protests.

“We deliberately organized the protests to highlight the fact that the then Commissioner of Prisons was building a house there. I was arrested,” says Dolan.

Three weeks ago, President William Ruto ordered the repossession of the 2,700 acres of public land illegally allocated to individuals. However, Dolan fears this could just be another public relations exercise.

He argues that area Governor George Natembeya is determined to repossess public land but because the people who grabbed it are powerful and close to the president, the order may never be executed.

Tribal clashes were another big problem that kept recurring in Kwanza at Kolongolo and in Saboti.

An Irishman and Mombasa-based Catholic priest Fr Gabriel Dolan (right), was honoured by Ireland's President Michael Higgins in recognition of outstanding endeavours and achievements by Irish people living abroad. [Robert Menza, Standard]

Dolan says the clashes first took place on Christmas day in 1991 when people were evicted from their homes. This was just a year to the 1992 multi-party elections.

He says the problem worsened because of incitement by Sabaot and Pokot leaders. Some of the leaders went ahead to grab large tracks of land at Chepchoina ADC farm.

Meanwhile, although many commissions have been formed and investigated land grabbing, and made recommendations, Dolan regrets that the problem of land grabbing has continued to persist.

“The Ndung’u commission would have achieved more in this regard. However, its report was never implemented because most of those implicated were powerful figures in government,” says Dolan.

He thinks the country has made massive gains, especially development of infrastructure, which has improved the quality of life through opening up some areas that were initially inaccessible.

Fr Dolan also supports devolution although he is worried that the current president and some people in his government did not believe in it when the new constitution was born.

He says he has always doubted Ruto’s commitment to devolution “because even now, the government is attempting to control devolved funds when the money should automatically be flowing to the counties”.

Dolan has also written extensively, with many of his articles being published in local newspapers, defending the Constitution and human rights. 

“One of the biggest problems that Kenya faces is that those in leadership appear not to care about what the people say or feel,” he says adding that many leaders view the 2010 constitution as an obstacle to their own personal interests. “They treat the constitution with a lot of contempt.”

Dolan notes that President Ruto has lost the confidence of the public because of mistrust. “People don’t trust those in power. It is very hard for the President to convince the people of his intentions even when he is doing something good.”

“I feel there is fear among the people. It seems this government can do more than just harass people. When this government gets desperate, it may take desperate measures. We need to be very careful,” says Dolan.

Dolan started Haki Yetu Forum when he moved to Mombasa. Today, the organisation has offices across the Coast region, in Kwale, Malindi, Tana River and Mombasa,

His efforts positively impacted the lives of communities living in Banglasdesh and Kibarani areas when he moved to Mombasa as he fought land grabbers some of whom were said to have links in the government.

Former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a fellow human rights activist, also visited the area when he was still in office and assured the community that the land would be protected. Siaya governor James Orengo also contributed to these efforts when he served as the Minister for Lands.

Dolan thinks the civil society movement in the country has become a big letdown because unlike in the past when people such as Mutunga and himself took the job as a vocation, many now treat it is as a career.

Bishop Crowley says he was taken by surprise when he was recently nominated for a human rights prize by the Irish government. 

Born in a poor family in 1954, Dolan the youngest in a family of six, left their home with his parents because the owner of the land they were living on wanted to sell it. Today, he has helped many people who were in a similar situation in Kenya.

Dolan says he is taking a short break to do some reflection for some months in the US but will continue with his work in Kenya online.

“I am still an active because board member of Haki Yetu and KHRC and Katiba Institute. I will be doing a lot of stuff online. I will be coming and going. You haven’t heard the last of me,” was his parting shot.

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