Thursday, July 31, 2008



July 31, 2008
By Otsieno Namwaya
The Standard

Depending on which side of the political divide one falls, outgoing chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) Maina Kiai is either a hero or a villain.

Sharp divisions in the delicate post-election standoff, during which voices of reason were drowned out, perhaps best exemplified the perception of Kiai’s personality.

To the Opposition, which felt cheated out of victory, Kiai’s condemnation of the polls and key Government officials confirmed his statesmanship and conviction to democratic ideals.


But to government supporters and his kinsfolk from central Kenya, his inability to conform was enough testimony of his treachery.

"I was not chairman of Kikuyu National Commission on Human Rights to be accused of betraying my tribe. I was not given a job to defend President Kibaki," said Kiai, whose tenure at KNCHR ended on Wednesday.

He has been replaced by Ms Florence Jaoko, formerly the commission’s vice-chairperson. To his critics, Kiai’s decision not to seek another term as chair of the human rights body was godsend.

Mr Maina Kiai, immediate former chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. PHOTO: JACOB OTIENO

His five-year tenure at the helm of the human rights watchdog was characterised by confrontations with Justice Minister Martha Karua, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission director Aaron Ringera and the Police Commissioner, Maj-Gen Hussein Ali.

"It is not true my relationship with Government has been bad throughout. There are officials with whom I worked very well. Only institutions that didn’t want to be held accountable, like the police, were a problem," Kiai says.

biggest worry

His biggest worry, he says, is the way police are operating that creates the perception they are a dangerous institution.

"If we continue this way, we shall have a rogue police force. Those in authority are quiet because police are killing the poor. But once they start killing the middle-class and the super-rich, no one will feel secure," notes Kiai.

With Kiai at the helm, KNCHR locked horns variously with police over extra judicial killings of up to 500 suspected Mungiki adherents and over Mt Elgon killings.

The commission also accused the police of a wide range of human rights violations.

"We used to talk with Ali, but not any more. But I am not alone. He is not responsive to very many people – MPs, ministers and envoys," says Kiai, although he is quick to add the problem is actually not Ali, but unaccountability in the security system.

Other than his travails with police, Kiai has been haunted by many other forces.

During post-election violence, he received death threats, prompting concern by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.

Those behind the threats identified themselves as Mungiki followers but Kiai insists security forces were actually responsible.

"But there have been links between Mungiki and the security sector," asserts Kiai.

Smear campaign

His high profile as chairman of the commission made him the focus of the international community. He was invited to speak at high-profile international meetings, including a speech to the US Congress.

The climax was in March, when his name was floated as a possible successor to Arbour. Civil society officials who supported Kiai’s bid for the UN job argued it would have been fitting for a man who has dedicated his life to human rights.

While studying in the US in 1992, Kiai teamed up with current Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi, Prof Makau Mutua, Dr Willy Mutunga and Prof Al Amin Mazrui to form an NGO, the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

He left KHRC in 1998 to join Amnesty International as its first black African director in charge of Africa.

Two years later, he joined the International Human Rights Law Group where he served until August 2003 when he took up the job at KNCHR.

Although he had worked closely with Karua in civil society, the two had a tenuous relationship when he worked under her as Minister for Justice.

"There is nothing personal between me and Karua. But it was obvious the smear campaign against me through the media and Kacc emanated from her ministry," he says.

While Kiai seems to exhibit some guarded respect for Karua, he has little respect for Kacc Director Aaron Ringera.

"Ringera has always done what the regime wants. In the 90s, he was used by Government against LSK. I wonder just how independent he can be. Currently, nobody perceived to be close to Government has ever been charged with corruption," he says.