In Kenya, the remaking of a repressive state

Saturday July 29 2023

Police officers arrest a protester following clashes with opposition supporters in Nairobi, Kenya on March 20, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


“First, they came for the socialists. I did not speak up because I was not a socialist. Next, they came for the trade unionists. I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews. I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me.”

These famous words were written or spoken by Martin Niemoeller, a German priest in the 1930s. Niemoeller held right-wing views and kept an acquiescent silence as enemies of the state were arrested, locked up in concentration camps or executed. Eventually, he too was locked up in a concentration camp.

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The words are the most eloquent and poignant morality tale about apathy or acquiescence in the face of injustice. In many moments in our post-colonial history, Niemoeller’s words have rung true. In the 1960s, people cheered or kept quiet when the Public Safety Act was passed.

The Act allowed detention without trial of people seen as undermining the “good government of Kenya” or bringing into “disrepute the name of the President of Kenya.” Those who cheered the Act and the others who kept an acquiescent silence convinced themselves that the law was meant for people other than themselves. Soon, some of its supporters became its victims. By then, the Act was supported by an elaborate system of secret police and purpose-built torture chambers. The infrastructure of a police state was now in place. It would take many years of sweat, tears and blood to dismantle it.

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Are we now witnessing another “Niemoellian” moment?

First there was the harassment of former minister Fred Matiang’i. Then insults were hurled at Mama Ngina Kenyatta. Then came invasion of the Kenyatta family Northlands farm. Police refused to respond as the farm was being ransacked. Then the Odinga family firm was attacked.

Next, Raila Odinga’s aide was abducted at night and held incommunicado. Then there was the arrest, maiming and killing of unarmed demonstrators by a secret police unit operating without official Kenya Police uniforms.

Next, there was hurling of tear gas into homes and schools in Nyanza. Then there were incidents of people being abducted, blindfolded and driven around in unmarked cars before being detained at police stations.

Then police raided Uhuru Kenyatta’s son’s residence. Next, blogger Pauline Njoroge was arrested for alleged possession of marijuana before charges were changed to “hate speech against the state”.

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For those in denial about what these ominous developments portend, they should read newspaper accounts of Kenya in the 1970s and ‘80s. For those who lived through that dark period of Kenya’s history, the above developments must be terrifyingly familiar.

The one redeeming thing is that local human rights organisations such as Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and international human rights bodies have expressed concern about the gradual slide towards a repressive state.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.