• Irungu Houghton

Listen to human rights champions amidst rising political euphoria


The second week of December annually provides us a moment to reflect on corruption, human rights, and self-governance. These themes found increased urgency in the International Democracy Summit and the first of the return of the mega party rallies yesterday.


Leaders from 100 nations honoured an invitation from US President Biden to attend the first of two global Democracy Summits this week. Civic and state leaders spoke about the dangers of receding democracies and political polarisation. Listening to the speeches, it was impossible to not see the challenge facing Kenya as it braces for party primaries next year.


Under the banner of “Azimio la Umoja”, the Orange Democratic Movement kicked off the first of many large party rallies. Here too, there were many declarations and promises. It is too early to assess whether ODM, Jubilee, UDA and other political parties have new manifestos and strategies that will respond to sense of exclusion, neglect, and political apathy many Kenyans currently feel.


Parties must challenge a growing anti-democratic impulse breeding in our political culture. It can be seen in the failure to consult the public in infrastructure projects meant for the public or reliance in the military to manage basic functions. It is also present when Cabinet Secretaries scapegoat human rights education and call for a return to beating children as a response to the recent arson attacks across our schools. State Officers, like columnists, are entitled to personal views. The danger comes with publicly expressing personal views that directly conflict with the constitution, two decades of national laws and policies designed to keep children safe.


There is too much risk, indignity, and uncertainty in our lives right now. There are also too many excuses that rationalise the trampling of people’s rights and freedoms. Pummelled by climate uncertainty, budget constraints and the pandemic we need more than rousing political speeches now. Bold policy choices that can be backed by public programmes are needed. Next year’s party primaries must seek national dialogues rooted in policy choices.


For those exhausted by this increasingly rebellious and polarised nation of big people playing small, they can draw inspiration from award-winning youthful leaders. Young women like Naila Abdallah and Njeri Migwe who tirelessly educate Mombasa and Kiambu communities on the rule of law and freedom from violence, especially gender-based violence. Abdishukri Jelle has documented the abduction, disappearance, and deaths of many citizens across Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. Guided by his Islamic faith, preacher Athumani Mohamed works for the safety of sexual minorities across the coast. His simple proposition is that all human beings have the right to worship their faith regardless of their identity or choices.


Mathare feminist leader Julie Wanjira emerged nationally during the global mobilisation for George Floyd in 2020. Her refrain, “If we can lose our fear, they can lose their power” remains a rallying cry for citizens tired of police violence during pickets and demonstrations. She now coordinates the Mathare Social Justice Centre Matigari Library.


Among a new generation of creative protest artists or artivists is Nakuru-based spoken word Willie Oeba. Brutally honest, Oeba peppers his poetry with powerful metaphors all too familiar with Kenyan youth. No topic is taboo. From corruption to gender-based discrimination, police violence and gross inequalities, he presses us to look deeper and act swifter to create a society that mirrors our constitutional ambition.


Rights and freedoms need investment in a value-based media, civil society, and voters as well as restrictions on dirty money, dirty aspirants and dirty digital tactics that seek to disinform the public. May both global and national leaders find the humility to listen to the vulnerable and unheard at this time. May they also have the confidence to create societies free of domestic extremism, injustice, and the restrictions that may come to strangle Article 81 of our constitution next year. Should they reach out, they may find ideas and leadership from human rights champions like Naila and her comrades. Happy Jamhuri day all.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard on 11 November 2021