A Commentary by Onyango Oloo
I am writing this piece at around a quarter to five in the afternoon today, Friday, January 15, 2010, here in downtown Nairobi.
About three hours ago I finished a meeting with my friend Zahid Rajan, editor of the Awaaz magazine at the Steers cafe (formerly Afro-Unity for old University of Nairobi hands) opposite the historic Jeevanjee Gardens along Muindi Mbingu Street.
As we went our separate ways-Zahid walking towards Nairobi University where he had parked his car, and I strolling down in the opposite direction ambling towards the Jamia Mall, across the street from the famous Mosque bearing the same name, I heard a burst of gun fire, and soon after that my nostrils snared wisps of smoke.
Being a veteran of street demonstrations, it was obvious I was witnessing the familiar Government of Kenya knee jerk response to peaceful, legal, constitutional protest action- tear gas, live bullets and other brutal acts by the riot police.
Looking down the street I could see a clutch of mostly young men clad in Kanzus, Muslim caps with their tasbih prayer beads running helter skelter.
And then I saw the phalanx of Kenyan robo cops marching resolutely up the same street releasing bursts of gun fire and exploding tear gas not just on the demonstrators but on anybody- the shoppers streaming from the Tusky's supermarket; the terrified motorists; the tourists caught unawares as they were exiting from the City Market and other curio stores in the area.
I quickly detoured from Muindi Mbingu Street branching into Biashara Street before making my way down a narrow side lane onto the street below, making a left turn towards the Jamia Mall.
I met a very traumatized twenty something Somali lady screaming that the cops were firing live bullets.
Everyone around me looked very scared, even as shouts of "Allah Akbar!" and "Takbir!"rang from down Muindi Mbingu with the rising angry voices of the young Muslim demonstrators holding their ground even as the armed to the teeth robocops made their advance.
On the ground floor, security guards were busy boarding and shuttering the entrances of the shops in the mall.
I managed to dash into the mall and went to the first floor where I found my friend's shop closed. Shoppers, store attendants and shopkeepers were thronging the balcony observing the unfolding grim drama on the streets below and across.
Now we could hear volleys from all directions- from Kimathi Street near Ranalo's and the Nation Centre; from Muindi Mbingu and even seemingly from as far away as Chester House and the notorious flesh spot, Florida Mad House on Koinange Street.
Soon another phalanx of riot cops marching down Muindi Mbingu Street.
Feeling uncomfortably boxed in, I walked down stairs and went out in the direction of Biashara Street hoping to make my way either towards the University or the General Post Office.
As I was walking, I heard further bursts, this time the unmistakable sound of gun fire with some people screaming, "They are firing live bullets! Be careful ! Be careful!"
Also the sights and sounds of ambulance vans converging near the Jamia Mosque and already, the presence of news photographers with their humungous cameras slung over their shoulders, doing what all journalists around the world do- running TOWARDS the action for a closer shot.
To cut a long story short, I eventually reached the intersection of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue and just as I was crossing the latter avenue to make my way to the other side, I spied a truck load of riot police halting near the Emperor Plaza at the very junction where I was standing a few seconds earlier.
At the sight of the ubiqituous menacing presence of the police, civilians going about their business- from motorists to pedestrians- panicked and started running in all directions with a grey haired middle aged man almost being knocked over by an equally rattled City Hoppa bus driver in the ensuing melee.
My instincts told me it was unwise to walk in the direction of the 680 Hotel and the adjoining Simmers Restaurant so I kept walking on the sidewalk opposite Teleposta Towers towards the Catholic Bookshop before I turned towards the Hotel Intercontinental and walked further on in the direction of Parliament Buildings.
When I was opposite the Kenyatta International Conference Centre a hooving and hovering sound in the sky automatically made me look up to gaze at a police helicopter dashing towards the Jamia Mosque.
Something told me to go back towards City Hall and the 20th Century on Mama Ngina Street.
Outside Salama House near the Nairobi Java House I stopped a young Muslim man and asked him fervently for an update. Without stopping he said breathlessly that the police had already shot dead one man and that there were at least four other civilians with serious injuries.
And that was just one eye-witness.
A later news update sent to mobile users across Kenya via the Safaricom network put the number of dead at five-and counting.
What was all this about?
From what I am now gathering, there had been a demonstration which erupted outside the Jamia Mosque after the mid day prayers- an action called for by the Muslim for Human Rights Forum to protest the continued incarceration of the controversial Jamaican born cleric, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal who the Kenya government had unsuccessfully tried to deport, first to neighbouring Tanzania and then to the tiny West African nation of Gambia only to be brought back to Nairobi because the Nigerian authorities had declined to allow Sheikh al Faisal to board the flight to Bangui from Lagos.
Back in the Kenyan capital, the controversial Muslim preacher had been flung into the filthy and congested Nairobi Industrial Area Remand Prison before being locked up incommunicado in detention without trial at the police cells located at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Friends and allies of Sheikh al Faisal including human rights lawyers and members of the Muslim faith quickly rallied in solidarity, calling a press conference to denounce his incarceration and violation of his human and civil rights. They soon filed a case in court challenging his detention without trial and a few days ago, a Kenyan High Court Judge, Ms. Jeanne Gacheche, gave an order stopping the imminent deportation of Sheikh al Faisal pending an appearance in her court.
In an earlier media press briefing a few days previously, Kenya's Immigration Minister Otieno K'ajwang admitted that the Jamaican born Muslim preacher HAD NOT broken ANY Kenyan laws- otherwise the local authorities would have hauled him to court and charged him with an offence.
It also turns out that Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal had entered Kenya quite legally by showing up at the Tanzania-Kenya border towards the end of December 2009 with his genuine identification papers and travel documents upon which Kenyan immigration offficers duly issued him with a valid two months visitor's visa and waving him into Kenya.
There are no reports that during his abbreviated stint in the country Sheikh al Faisal had gave any incendiary speeches or incited anyone to commit any criminal, illegal or terrorist acts in Kenya. No one-not ordinary Kenyan citizens or even any of the state authorities- had filed any complaint against him.
Instead it became apparent that the pressures to deport the controversial cleric were orders emanating from external Western sources- whether it is the United Kingdom or the United States or the broader NATO alliance it is not immediately apparent.
But acting on this Islamophobic paranoia which labels almost every Muslim a potential terrorist, the Kenyan authorities, acting as lap dogs of their former colonial masters bent over backwards to kick Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal out of the country, citing his seven year jail term after being convicted in Britain for hate speech against Jews and other communities.
Without holding brief for Sheikh al-Faisal for his abominable comments targeting other ethnic and racial groups, it should be pointed out that Kenya is a safe haven for Italian mafioso gangsters, convicted North American and European paedophiles, apartheid era South African arms dealers, fugitives and leading suspects from the Rwanda genocide and other global hoodlums the most notorious being the East European thugs dubbed the "Magaryan Brothers" who in 2006, strolled past heavy security at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport totting heavy arms and other expensive goods and trinkets that they REFUSED to declare through Kenyan customs officials. These infamous crooks were to be heavily implicated in a state organized raid at the offices of the Standard media group- a raid later praised by the country's then Internal Security minister as being justified because the the privately media house had "rattled a [state] snake" and should have been forewarned of a serpentine bite in retaliation.
These same hoodlums from foreign countries are known to be open business partners with members of Kenya's ruling elite some of whom are connected to drug smuggling, money laundering, grand theft and other serious crimes. In the case of the Magaryan brothers they were coddled by senior police officers before being spirited out of Kenya by forces close to the powers that be. A report from a Commission of Inquiry into their activities was promptly suppressed immediately upon being delivered to President Kibaki.
It is in this context that I want to strongly CONDEMN the Grand Coalition government without any reservations for the actions of its police agents today.
The brutal armed attack on peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutionally sanctioned democratic rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and religion is yet another sad paragraph in the ongoing blood stained chapter of state terrorism against the Kenyan citizenry.
It is odious that a government presumably in power because of a reform agenda is behaving in a fascist manner far more repressive than the worst excesses of the Moi-KANU one party dictatorship.
By invading the Jamia Mosque, which like most holy spaces, is considered a place of sanctuary, to flush out terrified Muslim youth seeking refuge from live police bullets, the Kenyan authorities, through their robocops, have committed sacrilege and an atrocity that must be denounced by all Kenyans of conscience.
In this context, one wonders at the thunderous silence of Kenya's leading human rights organizations in this matter.
The fact that some ordinary Kenyans, whipped up by anti-Muslim frenzied propaganda, actually JOINED the police in stoning their fellow Kenyans is indeed a sad commentary about the role of far right Christian evangelical bigotry in driving a wedge among Kenyans who have co-existed for a very long time in ecumenical multi-faith harmony.
The Kenyan state authorities should not be surprised if their unprovoked assault on peaceful Muslims converging near their house of prayer on Friday, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, will not lead to a deepening of hostilities and precipitate a radical transformation especially among the younger Muslims to veer towards more militant positions.
State terror and fascism are the best recruiters for suicide bombers.
Is that what we want in Kenya in 2010?
PS: Today the world celebrated the birthday of one of the most enduring icons of peace, justice and inter-community harmony- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Friday, January 15, 2010