Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After becoming increasingly repressive over a period of years, the Kenyan government in 1989 intensified its actions against opposition groups.

Summary of Event

When Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenyatta, Jomo died in 1978, newspaper headlines pointed to a likely power vacuum. In a regime long dominated by Kikuyu tribal interests (Kikuyu made up 21 percent of the population), the emergence of a Kalenjin president, Daniel arap Moi, prompted uncertainty about whether a non-Kikuyu could manage the system so long in the grip of a Kikuyu oligarchy. (The Kalenjin made up only 11 percent of Kenya’s population.) Human rights abuses;Kenya Kenya;human rights abuses Racial and ethnic conflict;Kenya [kw]Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent (1989) [kw]Cracks Down on Dissent, Kenyan Government (1989) [kw]Dissent, Kenyan Government Cracks Down on (1989) Human rights abuses;Kenya Kenya;human rights abuses Racial and ethnic conflict;Kenya [g]Africa;1989: Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent[07120] [g]Kenya;1989: Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent[07120] [c]Government and politics;1989: Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent[07120] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1989: Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent[07120] [c]Human rights;1989: Kenyan Government Cracks Down on Dissent[07120] Moi, Daniel arap Imanyara, Gitobu Kariuki, Josiah M. Ngugi wa Thiong’o Odinga, Oginga Kuria, Gibson Mboya, Tom Muge, Alexander Ouko, Robert

The strong sense of tribal identity in Kenya dates back to the colonial period and through the preindependence process of political organizing to confront the British. During the Kenyatta regime, Kikuyus exercised virtually complete political dominance, particularly at the expense of the second most populous group, the Luo. Moi’s political success was in part attributable to his being a member of a smaller group.

A former British colony, Kenya arrived on the international scene depicting itself as a democratic, uniparty system. During Kenyatta’s regime, however, democracy was limited at best, although there was competition in intraparty elections for the Kenyan parliament. An oligarchy emerged that consisted primarily of Kikuyus, especially members of Kenyatta’s family. Kenyatta’s nephews were foreign minister and high commissioner to London, his daughter was mayor of Nairobi, and his fourth wife headed extensive business holdings that were clearly facilitated by her position. Kenyatta himself owned hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime farmland.

By the last days of his regime, likely successors (or threats) to Kenyatta had been eliminated. Tom Mboya, a Luo who was minister of economic planning and development, was gunned down at midday on a Nairobi street in 1969. Demonstrations accompanied by a popular outcry led to the banning of opposing parties. In response, the parliament determined there had been a police cover-up of the murder. Another political leader, parliamentarian Josiah M. Kariuki, a Kikuyu, was assassinated by the secret police in 1975, having been abducted from a downtown hotel in Nairobi. His crime was that he was attempting to develop an alternative power center through coalition politics.

The 1979 presidential election, held within a year of Moi’s taking office, could be characterized as the opening salvo of opposition not only to Moi and his Kalenjin-dominated oligarchy but also to the growing repression that occurred in the later years of the Kenyatta regime. Half of the incumbents, including one-third of the former cabinet, were unseated in the election, which also saw the success of Raila Odinga, Odinga, Raila son of Oginga Odinga, a primary opposition leader. A 1982 coup attempt by the air force resulted in the dissolution of the air force, the conviction of more than six hundred (one-third) of its members for mutiny, and the execution of twelve of them.

Moi’s regime continued the same repressive behavior as Kenyatta’s regarding opposition. For example, Foreign Minister Robert Ouko, a potential threat to Moi, was assassinated in February, 1990. Public outcry then resulted in a British investigating team looking into the death.

The Moi regime created a curiously self-described“African” electoral process for the 1988 elections in order to dampen opposition. Declaring the secret ballot inherited from the British colonial system to be “un-African and against the will of God,” the Ministry of National Guidance decreed that Kenyans would cast their votes by lining up behind photographs of their preferred candidates. Only about one-third of eligible voters chose to participate in this election, and political unhappiness subsequently grew. When Kenneth Matiba Matiba, Kenneth pointed out election irregularities, he was expelled from the party and his wife and daughter were beaten by police who came to his home.

The ranks of the clergy produced some of the most outspoken opposition to the Moi regime, and several clergy members became victims of violence. Alexander Muge, the Anglican bishop of Eldoret, died in an automobile accident under mysterious circumstances in August, 1990. Three days earlier, he had been threatened with death by Moi’s minister of labor. The Roman Catholic bishops of Kenya issued a statement in April, 1991, calling for political change, including freedom of expression.

Since Kenya gained independence in 1963, it had had just one legal political party, the Kenya African National Union Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party of Kenyatta and Moi. Whatever electoral democracy existed was exercised within the context of intraparty elections. A shadowy opposition movement, Mwakenya, Mwakenya emerged in the 1980’s. It consisted primarily of intellectuals with a Marxist bent. It was not formally recognized as a party and had little impact.

There were reports of several other alternatives to KANU. Oginga Odinga announced the formation of the National Democratic Party, National Democratic Party (Kenya) but it suffered from being perceived in some quarters as a Luo-dominated organization, continuing the tribal perspective of politics. Other opposition movements included the Union of Nationalists to Liberate Kenya, Union of Nationalists to Liberate Kenya the United Movement for Democracy in Kenya United Movement for Democracy in Kenya (led by the novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in London), the Kenya Patriotic Front, Kenya Patriotic Front and the Mhetili Nationalist Movement, Mhetili Nationalist Movement consisting of university faculty dismissed at the time of the 1982 coup attempt.

The 1989 crackdown thus came in the wake of long and vigorous opposition to the two unresponsive regimes that dominated independent Kenya. The 1982 coup attempt set off a course of repressive practices. The government’s ostensible concern over the unhappiness that precipitated the crackdown resulted in the establishment of a committee, chaired by Vice President George Saitoti, Saitoti, George to hear public complaints on the topic of election procedure reforms. The committee’s announced charge included receiving proposals to dissolve the parliament (as the parliamentary election was widely thought to have been rigged), holding multiparty elections, restoring judicial independence, and limiting the term of the president.

Moi added jailings, censorship, and harassment to the occasional murder as a means of silencing dissent. The Nairobi Law Monthly had been confiscated or banned several times since its inception in 1987. The journal’s editor, Gitobu Imanyara, was jailed for various crimes, including advocating multiparty elections. In the wake of unrest and dissent in the legal community, the International Bar Association canceled a meeting it had planned to hold in Nairobi in the summer of 1990. Internationally recognized dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kikuyu author, was a faculty member at the University of Nairobi until barred from that position by the government. Parliamentarian Chris Kamuyu Kamuyu, Chris was arrested in October, 1990, for possessing a banned magazine.

Gibson Kuria, a lawyer who had represented political dissidents, was jailed and subsequently took refuge in the American embassy in mid-1990, prior to fleeing to the United States. He had received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1988. Kuria’s codefendants, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, Rubia, Charles were former cabinet ministers. Those two and a fourth codefendant, Raila Odinga, were jailed without charge. Rubia was released without explanation in April, 1991.

The rule of law underwent further erosion in 1988 when President Moi unilaterally amended the Kenyan constitution to end judicial independence and extended the time an individual could be jailed without charges. Judges served only at the pleasure of the president. Moi announced on June 16, 1990, that debate on multipartyism had ceased.

Despite the dangers, members of the legal profession, including Paul Muite, Muite, Paul president of the Law Society of Kenya in 1991, vigorously came to the defense of human rights in Kenya. For example, at Imanyara’s trial, thirty-nine lawyers appeared at the defense table in a demonstration of solidarity. This behavior resulted in Muite’s reportedly being placed under police surveillance.

Imanyara’s writings, as well as other media criticism, elicited countercriticism from the government. The Nairobi Law Monthly had been banned frequently; news vendors commented that one could be shot for possessing it. At the same time, citizens in Nairobi robustly criticized the regime in casual conversation with no apparent fear of reprisal. One could only conclude that the general public did not take seriously the Moi regime’s repressive tactics; presumably, most Kenyans assumed that eventually the regime would give way to another system. In the meantime, only a few serious challengers suffered the wrath of the government.

Sporadically, student riots against the regime broke out, including one in July, 1990, in which twenty or more students were killed, many were wounded, and hundreds were arrested. Schools and universities opened and closed in response to the political temperature of the times. It is noteworthy that president Moi, like Kenyatta before him, served as chancellor of the University of Nairobi.


The New York Times editorialized in October, 1990, that Moi would either have to respond to critics or face the same fate as toppled uniparty regimes in Eastern Europe as a consequence of the global movement toward democracy. This prompted a retort from Kenya’s ambassador to the United States to the effect that Kenya had never been communist, culminating in the following statement: “The only government critic who has died mysteriously was J. M. Kariuki.” Clearly, at least one government official acknowledged that political murders had taken place.

The events noted above put into context the dissent that began in earnest in 1989 and continued at least until mid-1991. Dissident politicians, clergy, students, and especially the legal community expressed themselves and in turn felt the wrath of the regime in various ways. A measure of Kenya’s sensitivity to criticism is reflected in the nation’s severance of diplomatic relations with Norway, the first such instance in peacetime for Norway. This arose as a result of Norway’s protestations regarding treatment of dissident Koigi wa Wamwere, a former member of Kenya’s parliament who took refuge in Norway and was arrested when he returned to Kenya in October, 1990.

It should be noted that not all of the dissent in Kenya had political roots. One cannot ignore the nation’s economic realities, including estimates of 25-40 percent unemployment. Periodically, the government cleared out the shantytowns of the unemployed, demolishing hundreds of “homes” and provoking demonstrations by the displaced poor. When the agriculture minister criticized one such event, Moi suspended him. Kenya’s economic crisis was implicitly acknowledged by the Central Bank of Kenya when it reported that only one-sixth of 600,000 needed jobs were created in 1988. High unemployment and general economic stagnation characterized the system.

As one country after another in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa gradually embraced democratic political life in the early 1990’s, however, even Kenya seemed to hold some promise. At independence in 1963, Kenya had a free and fair multiparty election, and then moved to one-party rule under Jomo Kenyatta. In 1992, for the second time in Kenya’s history, democratic multiparty elections were held. Moi emerged as the winner, although the international community generally agreed that the election was corrupt. In 1997, after continued political corruption and violence resulting in hundreds of deaths, Moi was reelected to another five-year term.

Although corruption and fraud were in evidence in both the 1992 and 1997 elections, the outcomes appeared to reflect the general will of the Kenyan people. In 2002, Moi stepped down as president, and in the elections of that year, KANU lost control of the parliament for the first time, being soundly defeated by the National Rainbow Coalition Party. National Rainbow Coalition Party (Kenya) In the presidential elections of 2002, Mwai Kibaki Kibaki, Mwai of the Rainbow Coalition defeated Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyatta, Uhuru the KANU candidate, by a decisive vote of 60 percent to 30 percent. Kenyans were clearly ready to move in a new direction, and the change in government was peaceful, indicating that multiparty democracy and meaningful elections were possible in Kenya. Moreover, the anticorruption policies of the new government gradually restored a flagging economy to a very solid industrial growth rate of about 5 percent in 2005, giving hope to Kenyans that larger prosperity might follow the reinstitution of larger democracy. Human rights abuses;Kenya Kenya;human rights abuses Racial and ethnic conflict;Kenya

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amnesty International. Kenya: Torture, Political Detention, and Unfair Trials. London: Author, 1987. Details the human rights violations perpetrated by the Kenyan government in detached, legalistic style. Describes murder, imprisonment without trial, torture, and other human rights abuses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maren, Michael. “Kenya: The Dissolution of Democracy.” Current History 86 (May, 1987): 212. Documents President Moi’s reaction to opposition and elucidates the political climate that evolved during Moi’s tenure. Also explains the nature of opposition to the regime and describes how it fared.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morton, Andrew. Moi: The Making of an African Statesman. London: Michael O’Mara Books, 1998. First authorized biography of the Kenyan president examines his political and private lives. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sicherman, Carol. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel. London: Hans Zell, 1990. Discusses the life of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a widely recognized playwright and novelist who gained increased international recognition when he was forced to flee Kenya after angering the government with his works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stamp, Patricia. “Kenya’s Years of Discontent.” Current History 82 (March, 1982): 115. Examines the social and economic roots of the political problems in Kenya. Provides an anthropological perspective on tribal antagonisms and how they affected postindependence politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Throup, David, and Charles Hornsby. Multi-party Politics in Kenya. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. Examines the construction of the Moi state in Kenya since 1978 and the growth of demands for multiparty democracy that culminated in the 1992 elections.

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