In their memoirs, political prisoners in totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Apartheid South Africa or Kenya’s Kanu state under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi tell how prison was used to break and dehumanise them.
After torture at Nyayo House torture chambers (in Nairobi’s central business district), political prisoners would be stripped naked and forced into prison clothes.
At Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, just outside Nairobi, they would often be housed in the same quarters as murderers and rapists.
Apart from the obvious danger of exposing them to violence, this practice, together with the prison garb, was meant to show them that they were no better than the murderers and rapists they were housed with.
The prison conditions — razor-thin mattresses on cold cement floors, thin lice-infested blankets, badly cooked food, often with weevils in the soup, and served in small rations just to keep the prisoners alive — was a deliberate policy aimed at physically weakening them.
To what end this physical weakening? The answer to this question shows the barbaric lengths to which regimes can go in order to protect their hold on power and their wealth. Physical weakening was meant to make detainees vulnerable to illness.
Now the state had the ultimate tool of torture — disease. The state decided when and if to allow medical care, and of what quality.
Denied medical care
Detainees, faced with slow painful death from illness, would be willing to beg the state for medical care. And that, in the minds of those who ran these systems, signified the defeat of their enemies.
Often, denial of medical care led to permanent damage of the prisoner’s health or even death. And then, as political detainee Ngotho wa Kariuki recalls in his prison memoir, the jail wardens would say, with a morbid sense of triumph, ameshindwa na kifungo, (he cannot endure prison).
The extreme callousness of denying prisoners medical care as a means of torture is captured by an incident in South Africa in 1977.
After arresting Steve Biko, apartheid police inflicted on him serious head injuries that needed urgent hospitalisation. But they chained him naked to the floor of a truck and drove him 1,000 kilometers from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, and then left him unconscious on a cell floor. The result of this inhumanity remains the single most horrific demonstration of the evil that was apartheid.
But the rest of Africa was not far off from apartheid South Africa on the evil spectrum.
Upon their release, Kenyan political detainees had to seek medical attention abroad. For most, damage to their health remained an expensive lifelong problem.
At the height of Kenya’ struggle for restoration of democracy, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, who together with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Timothy Njoya, George Anyona and others, were at the forefront of that struggle, were detained at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
Due to their treatment during interrogation, and the conditions of their incarceration, Matiba suffered a stroke. A stroke requires urgent specialised treatment to avoid permanent damage to a victim’s brain or even death. But the Kenyan state denied him medical care. Matiba narrowly avoided death.
But he never regained his health, and over the years until his death this week, required constant hospitalisation to stay alive.
Rubia, in an interview following the demise of his friend and comrade, confessed that he himself is kept alive by constant medication since falling ill while in prison.
The death of a person who suffered greatly for a stand that benefitted a nation, affords us an opportunity for self-reflection. At an individual level, we should ask whether, within our sphere of influence, we put enough effort towards actions that benefit others.
As a nation, we should reflect on whether we put enough effort towards full realisation of the ideals for which the departed struggled and suffered.
We should measure ourselves against the examples of selflessness, steadfastness and magnanimity of those who risked everything to make our lives better, and gauge where we are as people and as nations.
Matiba, according to his lawyer Paul Muite, wanted a more equitable and democratic society. Are we and our leaders working to achieve those ideals?
It is a tragic indictment of us all that we have used the freedom paid for with the blood and tears of so many to elect as our leaders narcissists, tribalists and lords of corruption.
Not surprisingly, these leaders have ignored conversations about the Second Liberation and relegated those who sacrificed for it to the margins of national history.
This week, their crocodile tears and their hypocrisy will be on full display. At the next campaign rally, we will be cheering them wildly.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based social and political comentator. E-mail: [email protected]