by Shailja Patel
- Kenya -
And they asked him:
Why do you sing?
And he answered, as they seized him: I sing because I sing
And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people….
From “Poem Of The Land” – Mahmoud Darwish
This poem evokes my friend, Philo Ikonya, who has also sung while being violently seized by police. Philo is the President of the Kenya Chapter of PEN, the worldwide association of writers for freedom of expression. She is a lifelong activist, an artist to her fingertips. She looks unflinchingly at the horrors of poverty and violence and brings the voices of their survivors into the spaces where powerful elites gather. She mentors Kenyan girls raped in the post-election violence, protests government corruption, and wields her pen with fierce, lyrical intelligence in the global media.
The violence that was unleashed in our country after the 2008 elections was described largely in mainstream media as ethnically motivated – a perspective that at its best was a terrible underestimation of the power of political corruption. At its worst, this portrayal reduced our humanity to nothing more than a brutalized population intent on self-destruction and perpetuated a cycle of impunity started by Kenya’s politicians.
A few months ago, she emailed me: “I have to share my joy at being 50 and on top of the world...I love it! I feel marvelous. Had a lovely quiet birthday...started at 4 am 'cos I could not wait!”
Two weeks after that email, on February 18th of this year, Philo was arrested. Along with other activists, she stood outside Kenya's Parliament, holding up empty 2-kilogram bags of maize flour, worn over her hands like gloves, to protest the government corruption that has led to mass hunger in Kenya.
“Corruption Equals Death,” they chanted.
She and two other activists, Chrispus Fwamba and Patrick Kamotho, were violently grabbed by the police, and hustled into a police vehicle. In the process, the police tore Philo’s boubou (or kaftan), exposing her back and chest.
Once the car was in motion, Richard Mugwai, deputy commanding officer of Nairobi’s Central Police Station, rained down blows on Philo and her colleagues.
“He hit us where there would be no obvious bruises – like under the chin – saying he would take us where we could never talk again,” Philo said. “I told him, ‘My father never hit me, nor any man on the streets nor any male in my life…’ The journey between Parliament and the Nairobi Police Station was just blows…and our voices. But no one heard us in this mobile torture chamber, where no cameras were present.”
Mugwai has a well-documented history of violence against members of Kenyan civil society. In the past, he has beaten and sexually assaulted Ann Njogu, Executive Director of Kenya’s Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women, and fractured the nose of another political activist, Okiya Omtatah Okoiti. Like Philo, both were protesting government corruption, legally and peacefully.
Police Commissioner Major General Hussein Ali has ignored all calls from civil society for Mugwai to be removed from his post. This culture of impunity was noted by Kenya’s Waki Commission in its enquiry into the post-election violence. The Waki Report called for radical reforms in the law enforcement sector, and the fast-tracked prosecution of officers charged with sexual offenses. To date, none of the recommendations has been implemented.
As pressure built, locally and globally, from activists and human rights campaigners, Philo was finally released at 11pm on February 19th. She has written a detailed visceral account of her time in remand, and the abuses perpetrated within Kenyan jails.
All three activists were charged with taking part in an unlawful assembly. The court released them on a cash bail of ten thousand Kenyan shillings (US$132) each. To this day, however, the police have refused to register Philo’s statement about the violence inflicted on her and her colleagues while in custody.
On Monday July 6th, Philo appeared in a Nairobi court to stand trial for “taking part in an unlawful assembly.” The presiding magistrate, Sarah Atambo, is known for deliberately humiliating people in her courtroom, and meting out disproportionately harsh responses for minor infractions. In the past, she had sentenced Patrick Kamotho, Philo’s colleague, to fourteen days in jail for arriving three minutes late for a court hearing. In Philo’s words, “They want the trial to be part of the punishment.”
But the real trauma of the hearing for Philo was seeing Richard Mugwai, the police officer who had beaten her and ripped her clothes, enter the courtroom dressed in civilian clothing. He approached her, and greeted her, with a “Hello Madam.”
“He should not talk to me after what he did,” she says, in a public statement released after the incident. “This is continued violation.”
Just before their case was called, the lawyer for Philo and her colleagues was
summoned outside the courtroom by the investigating officer. While he was out, the magistrate called Philo’s case and demanded to know where the lawyer was. As the lawyer rushed back into the courtroom, the magistrate refused to hear his representations, and set a new hearing date for September 16th. This is a common tactic by hostile judges in Kenya’s deeply compromised judicial system. The repeated postponing of hearings is a war of attrition on civil society activists, eroding their energy, time and resources.
The struggle continues. Last week, Kenya’s Grand Coalition called crisis meetings after Kofi Annan handed The Envelope (containing the names of Kenyan politicians accused of masterminding the post-election violence) to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Continuing drought, coupled with corruption and mismanagement, have plunged Kenya into an acute water crisis. The death toll from starvation grows in the marginalized regions of the country.
“It is dark in Kenya…very dark…our freedoms are not ours anymore and all Kenyans are suffering.” – Philo Ikonya
About the Author
Kenyan poet, playwright and theatre artist, Shailja Patel, is a member of Kenyans for Peace With Truth and Justice, a coalition of over 40 Kenyan legal, human rights, and governance organizations, with Kenyan citizens, working for a just solution to the Kenya Crisis. Visit her at www.shailja.com.