Kenyan Activists Who Ruffled Govt Feathers in 2019

  • The contribution of activists in Kenya's democracy over the decades has been invaluable. Their efforts have earned the country an elevated status over her peers in the continent, especially in the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms. 

    That activism is not for the faint-hearted is a no-brainer. In a largely imperfect democracy that is Kenya, characterised, in part, by a poorly regulated police force, the life of a political activist can be literal a living nightmare.

    The risk posed by the selfless resolve to fight for justice can be quite high, with some activists losing their lives. One such case is the controversial death of 37-year-old Caroline Mwatha Ochieng', a human rights activist and founder of the Dandora Community Center whose body was found registered under a different name at City Mortuary nearly a week after she went missing on February 7, 2019.

    Individuals who were recognised by Kenyans.co.ke for their exemplary leadership and service

    It is no wonder that the term activism, once regarded as a tool against injustice, continues to be demonised in a covert gatekeeping method that dissuades political involvement. Luckily for Kenyans, there are fearless individuals who continue to believe in the power of speaking up and in the process, give voice to the voiceless. 

    In 2019, a number of activists fought against government actions, others launched personal inquests on defending the rights of Kenyans. 

    No single article can do justice to the contribution of these patriotic men and women who risked their lives for the sake of the silent others.

    Kenyans.co.ke zeroed down on seven activists who have left an indelible mark in the Kenyan collective consciousness in 2019. We highlight their achievements and causes they have championed in the hope that this will inspire more engagement in the achievement of our aspirations as a nation.

    David Ndii

    The economist is loved and loathed by many in equal measure as he is not shy of penning, tweeting or uttering blunt opinions and analysis on several issues of national importance.

    In 2019, he has numerously used his social media platform to put the government in check over the harsh economy and state of unemployment in Kenya. Away from social media, Ndii has been participating in activism forums and supported reform causes, most notably the Okoa Mombasa Movement. 

    He has never shied away from calling out the government over outrageous projects as well as slamming politicians across the political divide for all manner of incoherent pronouncements. 

    The refurbishment of the Mama Ngina Waterfront Park in Mombasa that reportedly cost Ksh 460 million baffled Ndii who was of the opinion that 10 per cent of the money could have solved the sanitation problems in all of Mombasa’s slums. 

    Through his opinions, Kenyans have been able to relate with the intricacies of the political sphere including the Building Bridges Initiative.

    “Let me be clear. The imperative for progressive forces is to send both Ruto and the dynasties home.  But if God forbid we must suffer one evil let us suffer Ruto - him we have a fighting chance. If we don’t uproot the dynasties in 2022, they will enslave up to our grandchildren,” Ndii tweeted in November 2019, soon after the release of the BBI report.

    His most enduring war with the Jubilee administration has been the controversial Standard Gauge Railway project that he has analysed extensively on social media and through his writings on The Elephant.

    “It goes without saying that the recently commissioned 120-kilometre Nairobi-Naivasha extension of the new railway line ending at Suswa is an economic puzzle, as the bulk of the cargo that comes through the Port of Mombasa is either destined for Nairobi or is in transit to Uganda and beyond,” Ndii wrote on The Elephant.

    On November 2, he, alongside constitutional lawyer Yash Pal Ghai, and lawyer Maina Kiai, was barred from accessing the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM), where the Okoa Mombasa group had scheduled a public forum to discuss the economic impact of a government directive requiring importers to haul cargo via the SGR.

    Boniface Mwangi

    Boniface Mwangi’s fight against injustice has seen him locked up and even landed him on a hospital bed. However, this has only worked to make the human rights advocate resolve to fight for justice even stronger and bolder.

    Activist Boniface Mwangi.

    Mwangi has numerously used social media, TV interviews and demonstrations to agitate for change in Kenya. One of the most symbolic acts Mwangi has used to rally Kenyans to join his cause has been through his numerous run-ins with VIPs flouting traffic rules on the road.

    In May 2019, he was arrested and later released for allegedly planning a revolution. 

    His call to activism was birthed in 2008, after witnessing first-hand police brutality after the 2007 General Election. 

    “Kenyan people do not want to fight for their freedoms, they want activists to do it for them, so it is only a minority who are fighting for these rights.  There is this wait-and-see approach on these issues, and it hurts the whole country. Our acts of courage are trying to get the people to protest and resist injustices with confidence that nothing bad will happen to them,” Mwangi stated during an interview in 2013.

    He is a professional award-winning photojournalist and Ukweli Party leader. The party aims at bringing together citizens who want to live in a country where everyone is empowered to engage politically, to realize their full potential, to prosper economically, and to thrive in a socially cohesive community that celebrates diversity as a people.

    Khelef Khalifa 

    Khelef Khalifa is a non-partisan and a bold defender of human rights and the marginalised. He is also a director at Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI), a non-governmental organisation based in Mombasa.

    Khelef Khalifa

    In 2019, Khalifa fought against the government's decision to renovate the Mama Ngina Waterfront in Mombasa. 

    Together with David Ndii and constitutional lawyer Yash Pal Ghai In November 2019, Khalifa led protests against mandatory Standard Gauge Railway haulage and privatisation of Mombasa Port. 

    “These actions violate the objects of devolution, specifically the objective to give powers of self-governance to the people and enhance the participation of the people in the exercise of the powers of the state and in making decisions affecting them. The residents of Mombasa were not consulted or given an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them and the resources within their county,” Khalifa wrote to the Senate on November 21, 2019. 

    Khalifa is a veteran human rights campaigner who has fiercely fought injustice for over a decade. 

    Wanuri Kahiu

    The renowned filmmaker stood tall in the face of adversity with her controversial movie Rafiki (2018), which won her multiple awards in 2019. 

    Wanuri Kahiu

    Rafiki, was banned in Kenya by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) after it was cited for promoting the rights of LGBTQ+ community. 

    Through the film, Wanuri Kahiu highlighted the stigma faced and human rights violations associated with same-sex relationships in East Africa.

    In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named her one of the Pride50 trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people

    In August 2019, Rafiki won the Best Achievement in Editing and Best Film in an African Language at the Africa Movies Academy Awards 2019.

    Wanuri also won the Young Programmer's Choice Award at the Dublin International Film Festival 2019.

    She further landed two Hollywood projects: a sci-fi series for Amazon Prime, and directing Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things, in a young adult drama.  

    Kahiu studied business management at Warwick and later worn a scholarship to further her passion in film at California University.

    Janet Mbugua

    She is an endeared media personality, anchor and actress who dedicates her time to champion for the rights of women. 

    Media personality Janet Mbugua. On May 28, 2019, she petitioned the National Assembly to expand the scope of menstrual health management among Kenya's female population.

    On May 28, 2019, which is commemorated the world over as the Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHD), Mbugua, who is also a menstrual hygiene management advocate, petitioned the National Assembly to expand the scope of menstrual health management among Kenya's female population.

    "It leaves out girls who aren’t enrolled in school, low-income women, women with disabilities, those enrolled in detention facilities and refugees, who also need this support. It also doesn’t state how the government intends to give out the sanitary pads," Mbugua had lamented.

    On Thursday, November 21, 2019, a Cabinet meeting chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta approved the National Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Policy, aimed at scaling up the management of menstrual hygiene in the country.

    "The policy highlights MHM as a rights issue and brings it into the mainstream of the country's health and development agenda by considering the prevailing social, economic, cultural and demographic contexts of women and girls," PSCU wrote.

    Mbugua spearheads the Inua Dada campaign founded in October 2013, to not only address the issue of lack of sanitary towels, but also other barriers like child marriage that hinder girls from attending and completing school.  

    Mbugua worked at KTN and Citizen TV for several years before announcing her retirement from the media industry. She is also the founder and director of Media Avenue Limited.

    Zulekha Hassan

    The Kwale Woman Representative stole headlines when she was ordered out of Parliament in August 2019 for carrying her 5-month-old baby into the chambers.  

    Her ingenious move as the world marked the end of the World Breastfeeding Week to highlight the plight of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, was lauded by thousands of Kenyans.

    She went on to champion a bill which proposed that employers give mothers regular breaks lasting no more than 40 minutes every four hours.

    Her plight was also highlighted in various international media as many countries joined in the debate of the rights of young mothers. 

    In 2017, Parliament unanimously passed a bill that sought to compel employers with more than 30 employees to create special rooms for lactating mothers to change and breastfeed their babies.

    Okiya Omtatah

    He is a veteran reformist, human rights activist and the executive director at Kenyans for Justice and Development. 

    Okiya Omtatah

    Omtatah has ruffled shoulders with the government and Members of Parliament on several occasions in 2019. 

    In October 2019, he wrote to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) to investigate at least 10 legislators who he claimed had allegiance to foreign countries as they held dual citizenship.

    In August, Omtatah won an 8-year court battle to recover over 800 acres of government land in Nasewa, Matayos Constituency in Busia County.

    In September, Omtatah challenged the decision by the Central Bank of Kenya to include an image of founding President Jomo Kenyatta on the new currency notes which he claimed contravened Article 231(4) of the Constitution. A three-judge bench at the High Court dismissed the case however for lack of merit. 

    “My activism is anchored on the Constitution of Kenya, 2010. My overriding objective is to the immense power of the Constitution to have the Judiciary entrench constitutionalism and the rule of law in the conduct of public affairs,” Omtatah stated in an interview in 2019.