Gitobu Imanyara

EVERY so often you meet a person whose courage draws you up short and makes you ashamed of your petty grievances. Sometimes the courage is private and personal; sometimes it is in the public domain. In Budapest earlier this month I had the great privilege of meeting an African who has twice come within an inch of death in the cause of freedom.

I would like to be able to claim Gitobu Imanyara as a journalist, for he is the editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly. Indeed, he is a journalist in that his magazine goes far beyond the bounds of normal legal commentary and is detested by the Kenyan regime for its exposes of corruption, brutality and malpractice. But Imanyara is really a lawyer.

When he addressed the International Press Institute’s annual congress he was given, most unusually, a standing ovation. He told us of the notable part he and his magazine have played in the campaign to force President Daniel arap Moi to concede multi-party democracy, which he did late last year under severe international pressure.

Imanyara has been a leading member of the opposition, a thorn in the flesh of Moi and the ruling Kenya Africa National Union. In 1982, the year in which all opposition parties were formally banned, he was jailed for five years. But he was released in 1986 and immediately launched the Nairobi Law Monthly. It enraged the regime by exposing the horrifying brutality of Kenya’s jails.

He was arrested again, and beaten so severely that his life was in danger. The President, he was told, would free him if he apologised. He refused to do so. A sustained international campaign helped to secure his release. This was reinforced by popular unrest: Kenyans heard of events through the BBC World Service, which Moi is unable to suppress.

In February last year he was attacked by thugs as he left his office to go home. He was stoned and left for dead, but the thugs were seen by the crowd to have fled into an office belonging to the authorities: they were security police.

He was again arrested and detained at the airport. The authorities denied all knowledge of his whereabouts. They were discovered by a lucky circumstance. An American tourist was arrested at the airport and put in his cell. The US consul visited the American, found out where Imanyara was and immediately pressed for his release. He was taken to hospital — and chained to a bed for 30 days.

He was then rusticated in detention. Again international pressure, and the threat that aid would be stopped, secured his release. The waters in Kenya remain murky. In 1990 the then Foreign Minister, Robert Ouku, was murdered. His crime was to have blown the whistle on the corruption, nepotism and feather-bedding for which the Moi regime has become notorious.

A commission of inquiry into the murder has ended inconclusively but persistent rumours lay it close to Moi’s door. Two senior associates, one of them a Minister (Nicholas Biwott), were arrested but later released on Moi’s orders. More lurid accounts suggest that Moi was present in the room when the killing took place.

Meanwhile the intimidation of journalists and the suppression of newspapers continue. The editor/proprietor of the magazine Society, his wife and three senior journalists have been arrested and charged with sedition. Their offence was to have exposed police brutality.

Moi is clinging to power with desperation. Rumours abound that he plans a coup so that he can renege on his promise to hold presidential elections, which are expected next year. To complicate matters, the united front of the opposition is crumbling, showing a tendency to break down along tribal lines.

The British Government’s view is that there is danger that Kenya will slide into anarchy and civil war because Moi is not moving fast enough. There has been disorder in the shanty towns.

If elections do not take place by next March then the Foreign Office believes there really will be trouble. But it is encouraged by some developments. Rallies are permitted again. A dialogue has started between the political parties. The Kenyan Government has invited the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, to help with the electoral process. Finally, a start has been made on voter registration.

The man who could unite the opposition is thought to be Kenneth Matiba. He is a former Minister and civil servant and, like Imanyara, was a victim of the Moi repression. He had a stroke while in hospital and returned to Kenya last month from London, where had spent the previous 11 months convalescing.

Imanyara is a cheerful and humorous man. His quiet but fluent delivery, free of histrionics, was followed closely by the IPI delegates. Not a few of us, I fancy, compared our comfortable and secure lives with the suffering he has endured in the cause of press liberties — and he is not even a journalist.

Afterwards he showed me a copy of his magazine. The current issue maintains the attack on ”appalling prison conditions”. The cover carries the headline in red: Torture and death in custody. On Page 2, Imanyara, in his editorial, quotes the constitutional provisions for a president to be removed because of mental infirmity. He urges that the provisions now be brought into play.

In the following pages the magazine publishes letters from readers. Many of them are in verse, a form which the writers appear to use spontaneously. Here is no humorous doggerel of the kind sometimes submitted at home, just deeply felt verse:


It is scribed

Thou shalt not drive

while thou is drunk

and not drink

while driving

And it now it happens

the driver is drunk

not of liquor

nor any drug

but of concupiscence.

As a provider of aid, Britain has a certain amount of leverage in Kenya. During a visit there last year, the Foreign Secretary, Mr Douglas Hurd, was perhaps excessively diplomatic about the abuses of human rights. Without international support and pressure Imanyara would have died in jail and there would be no hope of restoring democratic forms of government. OBJECT_ID:= CATEGORY:= HEADLINE:=