Human Rights: Ending the Nighmare (5/98)

Electric shocks, partial drowning, sleep depravation, and mental distress – torture comes in many forms. But increased exposure, modern communications, and the linking of development aid to a country’s human rights record are forcing change as the century draws to a close.

In 1982, I experienced torture. Born and raised a Kenyan of European descent, I came face to face with the dark secrets that all Kenyans knew, but were cowed into enduring. The bludgeoning death of President Jomo Kenyatta’s rebellious confidant J.J. Kariuki, the assassination of firebrand opposition leader Tom Mboya on Nairobi’s Government Road, and the free-fall death from an army helicopter of Robert Ouko, President Moi’s about-to-tell-all foreign minister, brought the message home.

In Kenya, detention without trial, systematic torture, and even death were – and still are – tools of corruption and stifling dissent.

A friend of Kenya’s respected Attorney General Charles Njonjo and future opposition leader Kenneth Matiba, I was a successful Nairobi businessman. After an introduction to the newly-installed President Moi by Njonjo, I accepted a multi-million shilling purchase order, little realizing that the goods and work he requested were expected for free. The missionary-trained president had rallied support after Kenyatta’s death through inspiring, anti-corruption slogans such as "Nyayo" (follow in my footsteps), and a promise of a new dawn free of unbridled nepotism.

A year later, following the delivery of various pleasure crafts and the building of marine facilities on his island in Lake Baringo, I pressed for payment on the long overdue amount. When no reaction was forthcoming, I reluctantly turned to the attorney general for help. Coerced by Njonjo, who was later charged with treason, the president had a personal check delivered by Njonjo’s bodyguard.

My nightmare began.

"Torture comes in both mental
and physical forms. Of the two,
the mental is worse."

A victim

A 20-member gang climbed over my factory wall. Wielding pangas (machetes), they critically injured two of my guards and badly slashed two more. Severed limbs were a powerful warning. Working guard duty for me suddenly became a lousy job, even for tough Masaai warriors.

A more direct message followed. Raising a 30-pound boulder above his shoulders, an intruder screamed obscenities as he tried to smash in my sleeping wife’s head at two in the morning. Memories of his rancid body odor still curl my nostrils today. Sluggish and sleep confused, but honed by jungle ambushes, my instincts kicked in. Rolling off the bed, I hit the floor. The old bush farmer’s trick of suspending a shotgun on two pieces of twine under the mattress frame stopped the intruder dead. Who he was or how he’d gotten a key I never learned. Why? I already knew.

My turn came next. Vulnerable as I lifted my five-year-old son Ivan out of the car, only the machete’s hiss gave the assassin away. Had he not paused for a split second to gather himself, it would have been all over. A severed ear and cheek, six pints of blood, deadened nerves, and over 300 stitches proved how close to success he came. Unable to leave the country, since our passports had been confiscated, my family and I could only hang on tight.

Adding pressure, my import licenses from the Central Bank for raw materials were mysteriously dropped. Without the necessary resins and fiberglass, production at my factory ground to a halt. Why this should happen for the first time in 10 years the stone-faced officials refused to say. After closing the factory, I was arrested and charged with stealing a police boat. Even as I was led away in shackles, it was moored at their jetty in Malindi on Kenya’s scenic north coast. But facts didn’t matter. Detention without trial was at the president’s whim.

Incarcerated, tortured, and then subjected to three years of living hell under house arrest, the reality that human rights abuses were tools of corruption became vividly clear. The suffocating, water-saturated bag over my head, the searing burn from an electrical contraption with rusty serrated-jaw connectors, the lonely days – and even lonelier nights – in an excreta-smeared hole are hard to forget. Like acid-etched sketches, the sweat-breaking nightmares still haunt me. There was also the pain-inducing skills of the smallpox-scarred Gladys Mwakanjiru. Flashbacks of her foul breath remind me of the promises I made to tear her throat out should we ever meet again.

But torture takes both physical and mental forms. And of the two, the mental is worse. The death of my father, the gruesome presentation of his semi-charred remains in a shoe box, and twice weekly sessions in the barbed-wire enclosed secret police headquarters all played their part in my ordeal. Not knowing if I would ever return from those visits was almost as bad as the slash of the bamboo cane on my back.

Still, my experience was relatively mild. Today, the jagged V-shaped scar on the side of my face is the only visible reminder. I live in the US, where such atrocities are rare, though unfortunately they do still occasionally occur. Many in Africa are less fortunate.

Kenyan opposition leader Kenneth Matiba is semi-paralyzed from a stroke suffered in detention, and the Safina (The Ark) Party’s founder Richard Leakey lost both legs in an aircraft accident now suspected as sabotage. The whipping Leakey received last year while supporting incarcerated Kenyan dissident Koigi wa Waweru couldn’t have been much fun, either. Nairobi University student leader Solomon Muruli was less lucky. Roasted alive in March 1997, one week after he identified a senior police officer as one of those who abducted and tortured him in November 1996, he paid the ultimate price. Graphically reported in Time magazine, his dormitory immolation was a turning point in Kenya’s struggle against torture and the repression of political dissent.

"Freedom of speech is the right of
individuals to state their views freely."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin

As Africa prepares to enter the new millennium, human rights violations and political oppression are coming under increasing scrutiny. Such issues are now tied to foreign aid, inter-government relationships, and even travel visas for despotic government officials. No longer a dark secret, modern communications have focused a spotlight onto the use of such abhorrent practices, resulting in a perceptible change.

Despite dire government warnings, student riots and Kenya opposition party meetings are on the increase. Once exposed, the use of jail, beatings, and insidious torture lose their power to subdue. Instead, they become rallying points for wanainchi (African citizens) seeking a voice and democracy, steeling resolve rather than inspiring only fear and despair. "Look, you know going to prison is the destiny of every politician," 73-year-old Zambian ex-President Kenneth Kaunda said in February while being hauled away by President Chiluba’s secret police. "But it’s not going to stop people pressing for change."

There are also hopeful signs of official change. In Ghana, for instance, President Jerry Rawlings’ government is recognized for its benevolent tolerance. Without a single political killing in 1997, it is held up as an example of democracy at work. Uganda’s President Museveni, while insisting that a one party state is the only way to development, is also lauded. The March 4 censuring of Uganda’s Education Minister Jim Muhwezi for abuse of office, influence peddling, and corruption will facilitate Uganda’s approval for debt relief under the IMF’s "Heavily Indebted Countries" foreign donor initiative. That this powerful ex-head of the Internal Security Organization was censured by his own parliamentary colleagues bodes well for Uganda’s future. Surprisingly independent, Uganda’s judiciary is also praised by the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights for 1997.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee is an experiment other African countries should emulate. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and charged by President Mandela to facilitate the healing process of a new, democratic South Africa, this powerful committee has shed light on the dirty secrets of torture, detention, and death perpetrated by both the Apartheid regime and the guerrilla ANC (African National Congress) organization. While shocking, the revelations shed light on how widespread such practices are. Mandela’s decision to "air it all out" may well go down in history as the momentous watershed that turned Africa’s citizens from passive acceptance of repression to active resistance for change.

"This too shall pass."

Pastors Thomas and Ngugi, Nairobi 1982

Of course, draconian abuse continues. Nigeria’s execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa by President Sani Abacha’s dictatorship, the banning of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi in the Congo, and the pick-handle beating of opposition supporters in Nairobi’s Episcopal Cathedral by President Moi’s police in October 1997 are graphic examples. For every one of these, however, there are corresponding examples of resistance.

Organized religion has emerged as a powerful force against repression in Africa. Long seen as passive bystanders, Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic leaders are now speaking out. In Kenya, the fiery Islamic Sheik Khalid Balala and the National Convention Assembly, an umbrella organization of clergy, civic, and human rights groups, are in the forefront of protest against Kenya’s flawed December election. Such active involvement by organized clergy is a welcome development. The support of Pastor Thomas and Pastor Ngugi during my own ordeal was indispensable to my sanity … and even my survival. Their prayers that "this too shall pass" kept me together. With organized religion’s extensive grassroots influence throughout sub-Saharan countries now publicly aligned against repression, it will be harder for despotic rulers to carry out detentions without trial.

International human rights organizations are also more vocal. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Catholic Caritas have local chapters throughout Africa. Abuses are meticulously documented and pressure is brought to bear on the US State Dept., Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Vatican. Of more importance, these organizations actively lobby to ensure that foreign aid is conditional on a country’s human rights record.

The changes in Africa’s judicial systems are momentous. Long considered puppets, the courts in Kenya, Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are flexing their muscle. The future looks brighter still. Africa’s rioting students will become the attorneys and judges of tomorrow. This alone guarantees increasing civil liberties. If an impartial judicial system had been available in 1982, my predicament would’ve been easier to protest.

And yet, will the elimination of human rights abuses ever come about? The answer to that question lies partly in understanding why torture is used. In my case, the main reason was revenge, along with a desire to seize my assets and send a message to my friends. Most important, the point was to set an example, a prime reason for many human rights abuses. Fortunately, it no longer works as well, due mainly to four main factors.

First, Africa’s youth is leading the change. Facing a hopeless employment situation, they’re challenging economic policies and corrupt practices. With more educated youths entering the workplace, it’s less possible for despotic governments to shut them up by handing out minor government jobs. There simply aren’t enough positions to go around.

External donor pressure is also a powerful inducement. The IMF’s withholding of a $210 million loan to Kenya last November, and again this February, encouraged other donors to follow suit. Without this financial support, Kenya’s infrastructure is collapsing and may eventually lead to the overthrow of the Moi government. Nigeria’s despotic President Sani Abacha is only able to survive due to oil revenues generated through US multinationals, while in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe uses troops to quell rioting caused by basic commodity price increases.

The third element is churches, now a major factor in exposing human rights violations. Torture, incarceration, and physical abuse are only successful tools in a politically repressed society. Open criticism from the pulpit negates their usefulness. Open exhortations to resist, even more so.

Finally, there’s free communication. In 1983, it was almost impossible for me to communicate with my family, by then in the US. Shaking off my secret police tail and using coded messages via public telephones was my only option. Today, the Internet and satellite phones make it almost impossible to censor contact with media organizations around the world. President Kabila’s banishment of Congo opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi to a remote village where the murderous Special Research Bureau restricts his movements is designed to minimize his influence. Jailing him would only make him a political martyr, resulting in increased external pressure, as Congo’s previous dictator Mobutu Sesse Seko found out.

"Sixteen Ôcriminals’ executed by
firing squad in Kinshasa"

Congo Ministry of Information announcement, February 1998

In a last gasp of resistance, despotic African rulers have turned to military tribunals. These are now the court of choice in the Congo, Nigeria, and Angola, where opposition figures are often convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. In the short term, this can be effective. But such draconian measures inevitably lead to military coups. After all, soldiers are also family men, and sooner or later they too are affected – particularly in Africa, where tribal structures take the form of an extended family.

How can the international community influence change? Human rights violations are only effective when carried out in secrecy. Combining efforts, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Vatican, various religious organizations, the UN, the IMF, and donor countries such as the US, France, and Britain can make a difference. A combined ultimatum carries far more weight than sporadic protests by individual groups or government bodies.

The question is how to unite these diverse groups without the inevitable infighting.

In this regard, President Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission points the way. It’s time for the international community to set up its own World Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Africa demands it, and the world certainly needs it.

Should such a body ever be created, the predicaments of Solomon Muruli, Richard Leakey, and Etienne Tshisekedi would get instant attention. One coordinated organization that took up a case of abuse, investigated it, published findings, and pressured international financial organizations to cut aid and impose sanctions would be a potent force. As in South Africa, the offending government could also apologize, seek absolution, and sign an international pledge to desist. If such a commission is empowered to impose instant punitive sanctions and travel restrictions, change will come rapidly. And the many thousands of dissidents world-wide who are even now suffering in hell-holes will feel less alone if they know that the world really cares.

Only when the international community exercises its collective will to end the nightmare will the death and suffering of Solomon Muruli, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Etienne Tshisekedi, and South Africa’s Steve Biko have real meaning. Only then will the children of Africa have real hope that the use of torture, incarceration, and human rights abuse as tools of power is really, and unequivocally, over.

Only then will my own screams in the night finally stop.

Milan G. Vesely is a regular TF contributor.