Kenya: Maathai Teargassed Over ‘Lean’ Govt
The East African Standard (Nairobi)
2 April 2008
Posted to the web 1 April 2008
Barely 90 days after losing her parliamentary seat, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prof Wangari Maathai, was teargassed at Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner, Nairobi.
Maathai had accompanied civil society activists protesting against a proposal for a 44-member Cabinet, which they said would drain public coffers by “up to Sh387 billion” annually.
But in a case of history of Maathai-police confrontations in the 1990s repeating itself, the officers would not allow her and the group to protest peacefully. As soon as the civil society troops started leaving Freedom Corner for Harambee House, Nairobi police boss in charge of operations, Mr Wilfred Mbithi, directed anti-riot police to disperse them.
The police would hear nothing of the activists’ plea to be allowed into the city streets. Mr Harun Ndubi, an activist, had initially engaged the police in an effort to persuade them to allow a peaceful demonstration.
He told the protesters that the demonstration was illegal because the police had not been notified.
“I permitted the group to plant a tree, but a demonstration is illegal,” Mbithi said. Among the protestors were Maina Kiai, the chairman of the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights, Ms Gladwell Otieno, the executive director of Africa Centre for Open Governance, and former Assistant minister, Dr Joseph Misoi.
In her style of planting a tree before peace missions, Maathai planted one at Freedom Corner before attempting to hold a peaceful demonstration to President Kibaki’s Harambee House office, where the Head of State was meeting Internal Security minister, Prof George Saitoti.
In their protest letter, which they planned to hand over to Kibaki and the Prime Minister-designate, Mr Raila Odinga, the protestors called for a 24-member Cabinet.
In a protest letter Otieno read, the protestors said it was wrong for PNU politicians to propose a 44-member Cabinet.
“These are irresponsible and expensive suggestions given the economic crisis in the country,” Otieno said.
She said running 44 ministries would cost taxpayers Sh387 billion a year.
The activists said Kenyans wanted a lean and clean Government with committed, qualified and honest members.
For Maathai, yesterday’s experience was a case of history repeating itself. Nineteen years ago, the acclaimed environmentalist faced off with the police at the same venue, marking the beginning of her campaign against Government plans to build a 60-storey complex at Uhuru Park to house the then rising Kenya Times Media Trust empire.
Three years later, in 1992, as the country had just returned to multiparty politics and was looking forward to the momentous elections, Maathai’s was in trouble again at Uhuru Park.
Her knee blocked a flying tear-gas canister fired at her as she prodded the mothers of political prisoners camping at the park to hold their ground and force the Kanu Government to release their sons.
The force of the canister left the fiery activist sprawling on the ground in pain as the outraged mothers stripped bare in an effort to shame the charging police officers.
When she returned to the same grounds wearing the crown of a peacemaker and accompanied by civil society activists yesterday, the police treated her with the same contempt they had of her two decades ago.
Later in the day, Saitoti, as the President’s emissary, met Raila to discuss when next the two would resume talks on the Cabinet.
Maathai, who made history in 1971 when she became the first woman in Kenya to obtain a PhD degree, has fought many battles at social, political and environmental fronts.
But it is at the environmental and political levels that she is well remembered for. She won international recognition for her determination and resilience in whatever she set her eyes on.
On the Uhuru Park project, Maathai had the last laugh when the international community heeded her call, forcing the financiers to withdraw. She thus saved Uhuru Park.
Before Kenyans forgot the Uhuru Park saga, Maathai was back in the news in 1999. Private goons, who had been hired to block her from Karura Forest, which was being sub-divided and sold to private developers, brutally attacked.
Walking barefoot, and a walking stick in hand, a seriously wounded Maathai left Karura Forest but vowed to return to save the home of the endangered indigenous carvers tree (muhugu).
During her battles with the establishment, Maathai remained focused on her cause even when politicians used the floor of Parliament to malign her over personal issues.
Unable to frustrate her efforts, Maathai’s detractors pushed for the de-registration of the Green Belt Movement, the NGO she founded in the 1970s and was using in her crusades.
But it is as if the age-old truism -prophets are never recognised at home – was crafted with Maathai in mind. In 2004, she was recognised as an international peacemaker when she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Earlier, she got an honorary doctorate degree in law from Williams College in the US in recognition of her dedication to environmental protection.