Independent Kenya’s Underground Movement


Different Aspects, Differing Approaches

By Zarina Patel



The 1960s was the golden period of worldwide student political radicalism. The radicalism had a leftist tendency that challenged the complacency of ruling forces in society. Against this background, the radicalization of student movement across the Atlantic around revolutionary options of influencing change was spreading rapidly to many institutions of higher learning across the world. It is in the wake of this that many students, including Africans studying in American and European universities, witnessed, firsthand, the exhaustion not only of capitalist Utopia, but also of any radical or reactionary departures from social-democratic ideals as well. Kenya was not left out of this historic experience. A good number of Kenyans studying abroad who had taken part in the anti-imperialist struggles in Europe and America returned home in the early seventies sufficiently inspired to plant the seeds of militant and disciplined struggles against local neo-colonial support systems of imperialism.

But like every new beginning has an old origin, the return and subsequent engagement in militant anti-imperialist politics by a few Kenyans who had cut their teeth in radical student movements in Europe and North America could not be put down solely to their overseas’ experience. More than anything else the inspiration drew from and equally built upon proto-anticolonial and subsequent historic anti-imperialist struggles that the Kenyan people had waged against British colonial imperialism.

By the end of the Sixties, (Kenya had gained its flag independence in 1963), a few returning students started reaching out to like-minded individuals and groups across professional, ethnic and institutional boundaries; the main purpose being to seek and realize a common ideological ground and political purpose on/around which to formulate and carry out a revolutionary agenda using new organizational methods and more radical patterns of political mobilization. The efforts, mainly concentrated at the institutions of higher learning, involved – among other liberal-democratic initiatives – the need to connect and engage with progressive leaders of University-based student movements, progressive lecturers and nationalist-patriotic politicians. At a different but concomitant level the struggle for the democratization of governance at the university and its affiliate institutions provided the much needed launch pad for the inception and nurturing of a tightly knit group of activists consisting of left-leaning lecturers, students and political actors. They began to engage in serious study of Marxism-Leninism and the Chinese revolutionary experience. In an effort to give the theoretical engagements a practical expression they established organizational modalities that gave political expression to Marxist-Leninist ideas about social change as dictated by concrete understanding of the historical dynamic of the Kenyan political economy and the corresponding balance of social forces.

The core of the group was based at Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities. With the maturity of the group into a militant core, a corresponding cell system of organization was adopted which led to the formation of different cells led by more advanced members of the core group. The multiplication of the social-activist cells increased exponentially as each one of them carried out clandestine activities across the country: distributing leaflets, infiltrating mass organizations, parliament, workers’ movements in general and UASU (University Academic Staff Union) in particular and using such mass organizations as conveyer belts towards a more coordinated democratic assault on local neo-colonial support systems of imperialism.

In a comprehensive analysis of the neo-colonial situation the Kenyan people had been subjected to, the revolutionary opportunities of coming out of the situation and the modalities and actors required for this to happen, a leading member of the movement penned an exemplary document, Cheche, (Spark) that was meant to change the course of revolutionary politics in Kenya by promoting the mass line of doing politics. The mass line, it was believed, was and remains the basic Marxist-Leninist principle that guides mass work and other tasks of the movement in advancing social transformation. It is based and conforms thoroughly to the historical materialist outlook on society and concomitant social revolution.

By the time the movement was beginning to engage in a broad-based reflection and strategic projection on how to manage and direct its transition from a deeply underground organization to one that could combine effective clandestine work (built around a robust connection with above-board mass mobilization movements) Moi’s repressive machinery was ready to strike and eventually destroy the vanguard of the December 12 Movement (DTM). The weak and inexperienced peripheral cells that were left semi-intact during the crackdown on the movement, while appreciably trying to regroup and develop the required organizational competence and discipline of the vanguard role that the detained, jailed and exiled members of the core group had played; fell prey to Moi’s scorched earth determination to get done with militant opposition from the disciplined left.


Progressive Kenyan scholars who have attempted to document this period have had varying starting points – largely influenced by when they joined the movement which can be misleading. Moi era university-based activists peg the origins in the mid-1980s while their older ideological cousins put it at the 1970s.

Properly speaking, socialist anti-imperialist mobilization probably took off right from the onset of neo-colonialism. Of course we should not discount the earlier efforts of patriots like Makhan Singh[1], Chege Kibachia[2], Pio Gama Pinto[3]  and Bildad Kaggia[4] who were organizing from very clear Communist and Marxist oriented ideological outlooks in the 1950s – whether this was in the trade union movement, the mainstream nationalist agitation for independence or the militant armed struggle led by the Mau Mau.

Even in the run up to and immediate aftermath of formal independence – in December, 1963, there was a coterie of anti-imperialist ideologues working to shape Kenya’s political and economic future. Chief among them was Pio Gama Pinto who took many progressive initiatives incognito when he was in the core of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – at the time a progressive nationalist mass movement. Way ahead of his time, Pinto thought through the formation of a left-leaning Lumumba Institute which, had it seen the light of day – would have resulted in the formation of a core of trained cadres who could have guided Kenyans in a progressive ideological direction. It is widely acknowledged that Pinto with his valuable socialist contacts in India, South Africa and Mozambique played a seminal role in shifting Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s politics in a left fashion even though the doyen of the opposition died a progressive nationalist. Pinto was assassinated in 1965 becoming independent Kenya’s first political martyr.

In December 1968, a 22-year old militant Kenyan[5], who hailed from a family of artists and ‘trouble-makers’ and who had joined the then legal and official Kenya Peoples Union opposition party at the age of 19, was arrested in Mombasa, his hometown where he lived and operated. A close ‘comrade’ had betrayed him. He was charged with being in possession of a seditious publication, Kenya Twendapi? (Kenya: Where are We Going?) and sentenced to three years in prison, 1969-1972. He served his term at the notorious Kamiti Maximum penitentiary. Today Abdilatif Abdalla is one of Kenya’s best known poets and a leading world authority on Kiswahili literature. He has lived in exile, could not return to Kenya for 20 years, but has refused to surrender his Kenya citizenship or even accept a dual arrangement.

One of the prisoners at Kamiti with Abdilatif was Israel Otieno Agina who had been jailed in 1969 at the age of 19 for possessing ‘seditious’ publications, including Chinese Communist literature. His trumped up charge included undergoing military training in North Korea.

Kenya: Twendapi? was the seventh in the series of occasional pamphlets Abdilatif  wrote in Kiswahili, in consultation and cooperation with his political comrades, and which were clandestinely distributed. They were signed ‘Wasiotosheka’. This was the term which the first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, used in his public rallies to refer to those who were not satisfied with the situation in the country and who were opposed to the way the country was being governed. That is, they were ‘the disgruntled’ or ‘the dissidents’, as the government used to call them.

Maina wa Kinyatti states in his book, Mwakenya: The Unfinished Revolution[6] that DTM was the baby of the clandestine Workers’ Party of Kenya. While this is a correct statement of fact, many of Maina’s contemporaries and founders of DTM have since, in a closed review of the work, disagreed with the chronology of the movement’s history and its actors as related in the book. The fledgling underground movement took an anti-imperialist, pro-socialist stance, ideology anchored in Marxism-Leninism Mao Tse Tung Thought. There was growing unease in Kenya at the creeping dictatorship and the capture of the state by an elite bent on furthering its own narrow interests. The banning, in 1969, of the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) and the subsequent detention of its leadership had transformed Kenya into a de facto one-party state.

By 1972, student radicalism at Nairobi University had attracted some political sympathy and support from both progressive academic staff and liberal-progressive practicing politicians in the country. This provided for clandestine connections with the above ground political opposition mainly around Jaramogi, Kaggia, Seroney, Anyona and others who had then been politically neutralized; some of them  even detained for many years like Oneko, Wasonga Sijeyo, Oyandi Mbaja, Mutiso and Ouma Muga.

The first discussions took place in different places but more regularly later at Michere Mugo’s home in Upper Hill, Nairobi. In attendance were academics like Arthur Kemoli, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Edward Oyugi, Michere Mugo, her husband, Azis Batran (Sudanese), James Muruiki, Mulokwa and others.

The first open and organized engagement was with and through the Academic Staff Union (UASU) in 1973.With time, the left-leaning individuals filtered themselves out of the broad democratic group and by late 1973, they had started meeting regularly, discussing the modalities of engaging in an underground leftist movement. By early 1974, the group was formalized and the first four chapters were established, each cadre was in charge of a cell of approximately five recruits.

At this time they were already producing Pambana (Struggle) as a regular publication and occasional leaflets that were distributed in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu through the various chapters. The core was not known to the lower cadres. By 1978 the core group had already given itself the name of ‘December 12 Movement’ and was now planning to go on mass recruitment and infiltration of workers’ organizations. Cheche was produced as a special platform document, articulating DTM’s understanding of the Kenyan situation and its vision of what needed to be done. They now controlled the UASU and the Kenyatta University chapter and organized lectures, invited leftist luminaries like Walter Rodney, Mahmood Mamdani, Dan Nabudere, Omuony Ojok, Kanywanyi of Dar University and others from different parts of Africa and Europe. They also controlled the student politics and had their members elected to different positions in the union. Kamirithu theatre in Limuru and the staging of Ngaahika Ndeenda, Maitu Njugira and the Trial of Dedan Kimathi was part of the work of Ngugi’s cell. DTM organized a big rally in commemoration of the Soweto massacre which attracted a largely non-university crowd. Anyang, Mkangi and others addressed the gathering without knowing who were behind it.

That is when Moi’s government started smelling a rat that something more sinister was going on in the underground. UASU was proscribed, denying the movement an open democratic platform from which to connect with the broader groups and individuals in the country. Contacts had already been established with a few liberal/militant politicians like Jaramogi, Anyona, Oyangi Mbaja, other progressive members of parliament such as Orengo, Mutai, Abuya Abuya, Mwachofi, Sifuna, Seroney; and journalists Wangondu and Salim Lone  – but on a broad democratic front. They started raising money from among the members for their activities.

Then Moi’s hammer hit them in July/August of 1982 during the coup, when Maina Kinyatti was found with the minutes of DTM. From there the state had information about every member of the core group, and even about a few active members of the different cells. As a result many cadres were detained while others fled into exile. The DTM leadership and structure were in disarray. And to date the actual year in which DTM was formed remains contested.


Kamoji Wachiira had this to say[7] about 1974 that is given as the possible birthday of DTM which was a creation of the ‘Workers’ Party’: ‘… the mention of that date, 1974… was simply the year when we invited Maina, then freshly arrived from New York, to join us. Before he joined, ours was already a very tightly knit group made of a few proven individuals – forged in very serious and very risky political work… There was already more important “history” before 1974. Maina just was not in that history yet. The pre-1974 strands we were weaving together to build a true underground basis for lasting revolutionary impacts are often left by “historians” and raconteurs. This is because we deliberately chose not to vaunt stuff. We were doing work not for fame or personal glory but simply to fight a social order we deemed intolerable … After many mistakes, failed attempts and discouragements, we were able to eventually set structures firmly in place for real work, starting, not at KU, but in Nairobi city and at University of Nairobi  itself. Kenyatta University was to come later as strategic employment panned out. University of Nairobi was the cradle. Three of us literally turned it upside down – changed the old style of protest, the quality of demands, created linkages with the rest of society, liaised with important elements etc… no money involved except our sweat and sleepless nights … By 1973 we had units working independently but well-coordinated under one discipline … For the development of the incipient movement therefore1969-73 was indeed the critical formative period. 1974 was just another ordinary year, unless one just joined …. Sadly the very original activists were expelled by 1973/4.’

Dr Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s present Chief Justice, served as the secretary general of the University Staff Union and University Academic Staff Association and was arrested on June 10, 1982 and subsequently detained without trial on July 29, 1982. According to him, DTM was launched in May 1982 with its paper Pambana. The name, DTM, was the brain-child of Alamin Mazrui and was derived from the date Kenya achieved flag independence. Repression came too quickly for DTM to mobilize Kenyans as the Moi-Kanu dictatorship reared its repressive head.

In The Power is Ours[8] Dr Mutunga writes: “The December 12th Movement was a culmination of various streams of academic and student underground work in Kenyatta and Nairobi campuses of University of Nairobi. It was a movement whose ideological and political lines came from units of leftist academics who were adherents of socialist and communist paradigms of development during the decades of 60s, 70s and the early years of 1980s. First were the study groups, reading great deal of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong-Enver Hoxha-Kim-Il Sung thoughts, Nkrumah, Cabral, Che Guavara, Nyerere, Rodney, Samir Amin, Nabudere, Mamdani, Issa Shivji, Yash Tandon, Karim Hirji and others. Then the studies went beyond academic papers and discussions to real politics. With parliament as the centre of dissent crushed in the mid-70s (and the 8 bearded sisters in jail or exile), the University became the centre of agitation and dissent. During this period leftist scholars and students made strategic alliances with radical politicians in parliament who gave talks at the University.

The detention of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in December 1977 signalled the start of the suppression of dissent at the University. When Ngugi was released in December 1978, the study groups constituted themselves into a movement of dissent at the University of Nairobi. The University Staff Union (resurrected in April 1979) became the vehicle of such agitation, cleverly using the bread and butter issues spiced with such issues as academic freedom (the whole gamut of it, that is, human rights) and the right to organize.”

After the banning of KPU and the detention of Jaramogi  Oginga Odinga and other leaders in 1969, Kenya essentially became a one party state. Dissent within KANU centred around J M Kariuki, a populist politician who himself was tortured and murdered on the orders of the clique around the increasingly paranoid and senile dictator, Jomo Kenyatta.

The brutal killing of J M in 1975 marked a resurgence in left wing organization which had by this time been driven underground by state repression. Within the ranks of the clandestine community from the 1970s, a quiet debate has raged for years as to when DTM was formed.


Kenyan youth and students have been part and parcel of the radical democratic upsurge which engulfed the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Several, like Edward Oyugi who had studied in Germany; Alamin Mazrui and Maina wa Kinyatti who had gone to the United States; Michere Mugo and Kamoji Wachiira who finished their post-graduate studies in Canada; Ngugi wa Thiongo  who went to the United Kingdom and Willy Mutunga and Adhu Awiti who were in neighbouring Tanzania started coming back to Kenya.

Between 1972 and 1974 most, if not all of them had joined the academic staff at the University of Nairobi and the then Kenyatta University College. It was not long before they were meeting face to face in informal settings to compare notes and chart the way forward. They formed study groups and starting seeking out like-minded people outside academia like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, George Anyona and the journalist Philip Ochieng who had just relocated from Dar es Salaam where he had been an editor for the Tanzanian government owned English newspaper the Daily News. They radicalized sections of the university such as the Literature Department of the University of Nairobi. At the Kenyatta University, located on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital away from the nosy scrutiny of the Special Branch, these young left-wing lecturers had relatively more success in growing the initial study circles into full-fledged underground political cells of socialist mobilization.

Within Kenya, the intermittent militant protests at the University of Nairobi – leading to frequent campus closures, expulsions and imprisonment – produced a veritable harvest in terms of new recruits for the underground movement. It is estimated that between 1969 and 1982 the university was closed at least 18 times. For example some Kenyans, who cut their teeth with the student protests outside the Kenyan embassy in the Soviet Union in 1970, were to be corralled as MWAKENYA prisoners in the mid-1980s. The university of Nairobi students, who had been exiled to the United States for denouncing the Kenyatta regime after the assassination of the populist MP J M Kariuki , formed solidarity groups with the Kenyan anti-neocolonial resistance of the late 1980s.

In terms of the December Twelve Movement, students, mainly from the University of Nairobi but with a sprinkling from Kenyatta University, were first recruited by their radical lecturers who formed the core of the DTM leadership. After these leaders were incarcerated either by being detained without trial or being railroaded to maximum penitentiaries after flawed kangaroo court pronouncements, the students formed the new tier of underground leadership and re-established and reorganized the clandestine cells. It must be pointed out that the students and youth who were jailed or exiled during the Moi era were NOT necessarily part of DTM, MWAKENYA or any of the anti-imperialist groups. Some very radical student activists who were later active in the underground movement had first been swept into prison through a widespread general crackdown of democratic dissent; and only later found themselves grounded in this or that secret formation.

At the University of Nairobi some of the clandestine members of DTM infiltrated and captured key positions in the Student Organization of Nairobi University (SONU), which after the declaration in 1982 that Kenya was a de jure one party state, became the unofficial opposition voice.

There was a cohort among the radical undergraduates who joined the December Twelve Movement who became influenced by anarchist, nationalist and ultra-leftist focoist notions who seized control of a section of DTM in early 1985. They transformed these branches, and in some cases study groups, into what they referred to as ‘MWAKENYA Guerrilla Units’ with far reaching negative consequences including the notorious state crackdown of 1986-89 which thoroughly disrupted Kenyan left organizing  and mobilization for years to come; scattering comrades in various prisons and into exile.

On  a positive side , some of the radical students who were exiled, expelled or jailed in the 1980s went on to form or join clandestine organizations like MEKARAMO (Me Katilili Revolutionary Movement), initially headquartered  in Dar es Salaam and KAIF (Kenya Anti-Imperialist Front) in Harare. Two Kenyan students living in New York were the driving forces in the Movement for Democracy in Kenya in the 1980s while students, who had been former political prisoners but were now protected by the Canadian government as refugees, formed a chapter of UWAKE (United Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya) and were members of the Kenya Human Rights Organization in Canada and the Coalition for Democracy in Kenya spearheaded by Dr Willy Mutunga when he was undertaking his doctorate studies at Osgoode Hall, York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Many of these former student activists and radical members of clandestine movements were later to be elected into office in Kenya as members of parliament and officials of major mainstream political parties in the decade commencing with 2000.


The ‘best known’ of the clandestine movements which emerged in the mid-1980s to confront the Moi-KANU neocolonial state was MWAKENYA (Muungano ya Wazalendo  Kukomboa Kenya). And not necessarily for the right reasons.

To its proponents, MWAKENYA was the culmination of the teeming underground resistance; it took over from where the DTM left off. They ascribe its fall to the repressive nature of the secret police, and petit bourgeois waffling by ‘liberals’ who were not ‘ideologically clear’ about the main aims of the anti-imperialist struggle.

However, there are dozens of patriotic, militant and socialist Kenyan comrades who take a completely different view. Many of these comrades spent years in maximum security prisons where they were railroaded after being tortured and forced by the Special Branch to sign implication statements, some partly based on the ‘confessions’ of some so-called leaders of MWAKENYA.

As a historical-political phenomenon, MWAKENYA’s origins can be traced to early 1985 when some activists who had been prominent in the cells of the DTM, following the crackdown on the Kenyan Left in mid-1982, took up the baton. The leaders of MWAKENYA thoroughly disrupted the existing cells of DTM; undemocratically transformed functioning cells and study groups into ‘revolutionary military units’ without consulting the wider movement; introduced peasant superstitions like oath-taking to apparently harden the ‘resolve’ of members; and ultimately declared guerrilla warfare on the Kenyan state even though only a small handful of their members had received the military or political preparation for this escalation. As a result of these loose and reckless methods the Kenyan government easily infiltrated MWAKENYA; and deftly organised well publicized kangaroo courts which were embellished as the ‘show trials’ of 1986-1990 to thoroughly discredit MWAKENYA. More than that, this prolonged the crackdown on progressive, democratic and militant Kenyans who had nothing to do with MWAKENYA; forcing many of them to prison, exile and even premature graves because of torture, psychological harassment, deliberate unemployment and alcoholism.

The ultimate verdict on MWAKENYA is directly interlinked with the extent to which Kenyan socialists across the broad left spectrum can reach a consensus on where the rains began to beat us.


The late Wanjiru Kihoro, who herself was in exile in the UK and whose husband, Wanyiri Kihoro was imprisoned by the Moi Govt on a trumped-up charge of  attempting to overthrow the government, in an interview with Onyango Oloo, stated that the groups in exile had a tremendous effect in promoting the anti-dictatorship struggle which was on-going in their homeland.

There were three key areas the exiles were able to impact: (1)The Kenya government had managed to create an image of the country as being a haven of peace and a very democratic regime in a region where there was a lot of insecurity. The activities of the exile group were able to dent that image. (2) They gave voice to the many forms of resistance that were taking place in the country and show that there was a pattern to these seemingly isolated incidents. They highlighted the concerns being expressed by long established Kenyan organisations such as the Catholic Bishops, the Law Society of Kenya, the National Christian Council of Kenya, striking peasants and workers and the media. Publications such as Pius Nyamora’s Society, Bedan Mugo’s Beyond, Peter Kareithii’s Financial Review and Gitobu Imanyara’s Law Monthly were very outspoken, the first three were later banned. (3) The activities of the exiled groups strengthened the opposition to the regime, internally and externally; especially as they were able to show Kenyans that they were not alone and that the resistance was wide-spread.

In London, the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (RPP) was formed in July 1982, a month before the attempted coup in Kenya. It was a multi-national pressure group and solidarity front headed by the late Caribbean writer/activist John La Rose; even though Ngugi, Durrani, Kihoro, Mugo and Yusuf  Hassan were among the prominent Kenyans with undisguised socialist views who were prominent in the ranks of the Committee. (This is not to be confused by a similar organization formed in Kenya in 1992 around the strike by mothers of the political prisoners.)

Of course the exiles were themselves getting better organized, developing their public relations tactics and building solidarity with other organisations in the UK and elsewhere. Similar RPP committees were formed in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, India, Lesotho, Japan and Nigeria; contacts were established in the Philippines and Chile. Publicity through press releases, interviews, lectures and publications were on-going activities.

The RPP was open to Kenyans and non-Kenyans. In February 1987, an organization called UKENYA sprung up as a specifically Kenyan political formation to confront and resist the dictatorship at home. It was led by Yusuf Hassan, a Kenyan journalist who had worked with the BBC for a number of years. Among its leading members were such respected anti-imperialist combatants like Ngugi, Abdalla and Kihoro.

UKENYA was an anti-imperialist organization committed to the struggle for democracy and the regaining of Kenya’s sovereignty. It declared total opposition to the KANU-led neo-colonial regime; and was committed to the dismantling of the neo-colonial structures in all sectors of Kenyan economic, political, social and cultural lives. It declared its support for all the progressive and anti-imperialist liberation movements inside Kenya, and pledged to work hand in hand with these and with all the other patriotic democratic organizations outside Kenya. It called for the development of a national economy free from foreign domination; national democracy and freedom; social, economic, cultural, civic and political rights for all Kenyans; immediate removal of US and other foreign military presence from Kenya; declaration of Kenya as a ‘Nuclear Free Zone and the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace’ and solidarity and support for all progressive struggles worldwide.

In Sweden, there was the Organization for Democracy in Kenya (ODK) led by the late Patrick Onyango Sumba; in Norway, Koigi wa Wamwere led the Kenya Patriotic Front (KPF); in Denmark there was Harakati ya Demokrasia Kenya (HDK); in Britain apart from UKENYA, there was the KDP led by Mohammed Yalahow and a KPU affiliated group assembled around Odungi Randa; in Zimbabwe, there was the external wing of KAIF whose main leaders were Shadrack Gutto and Michere Mugo. In Canada there was a chapter of UWAKE (which was a merger between the Dar-based MEKARAMO and the Harare-based KAIF).

In October 1987, the United Movement for Democracy in Kenya (UMOJA) was launched as a Kenyan Political Party. Under Section 2A of the Kenya Constitution, formation of opposition parties was not allowed. It was London-based but soon similar groupings arose in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the USA. These then merged to form one UMOJA.

It was the brainchild of Kenyan progressives exiled or living in London and its main objective was to unite all the exile-based movements to support the Kenyan-based clandestine groups, principally MWAKENYA. KAIF, KPF, ODK and UKENYA were among the groups represented. However due to factional, ideological and personal differences,  specifically over an assessment of MWAKENYA, the meeting ended in disunity with some of the principals not on speaking terms for decades.

Shiraz Durrani, a veteran Kenyan revolutionary, who is a professional librarian and an active founder member of the London based activist formations, has prepared a catalogue of the literature and publications of the underground and exile movements of this period.[10] Included are: Mwuunguuzi, Kenya Twendapi?, Cheche Kenya, Coup Broadcast (VOK), Upande Mwingine, Article 5, Kauli Raia, Pambana and People’s Weekly.

As the Moi government became increasingly unpopular and the demand for multi-partyism began to be voiced openly and loudly, the role of the exiles shifted from being pro-active to just mirroring the events happening in Kenya.


Though many women were involved in the underground movement their stories remain largely hidden or untold. While arrests of women were rare, in many cases they carried the heaviest burdens attending to the survival of their families, visiting their spouses or relatives in prison and welcoming them home after they were freed – usually in poor psychological state and bereft of all possibilities of financial recovery. No help was provided by the state and support systems were hard to come by as the ‘dissidents’ were shunned by the public at large. Njeri Kabeberi who worked tirelessly to assist the imprisoned or escaping cadres, and their families, at great risk to herself gives us an insight into the world of these women.

‘These are the stories of women associated with Prisoners of conscience in the early 1980s in Kenya, one of the darkest times in Kenya’s independent history. Colonial laws such as the Public Order Act and Chiefs Authority Act in the Kenya Constitution, the Sedition Law in the statutes were used to oppress, repress and silence the voices of the Kenyan people.

Sometimes it is said that history chooses us, but I believe we also choose history. We decide the path we want to follow and as such we choose history by choosing our destiny. I tell the stories of women I associated with, met or heard of and tell my personal story as well, because my story as a woman working in the underground is intertwined with the stories of the wives, mothers and sisters of Kenyan political prisoners in the 80s.

At the age of 24; I sneaked out of my office where I was working as an insurance underwriter, walked into a courtroom to listen to a case of one David Onyango Oloo, a young student from the University of Nairobi who had been arrested for a class assignment he had done. He went on to be jailed for five years for exercising his free will to do a class assignment in the best way he knew how.

He was about my age.

That case changed my life forever and I moved from being a successful insurance worker to becoming an award winning Kenyan, regional and international human rights activist and defender. I had chosen history by choosing my destiny.

The destiny I chose was to work with the wives, sisters and even mothers of the political prisoners; to give them moral support, to assist them with financial support and to accompany them to visit their husbands, brothers and sons. That by default was my entry point into a well-guarded underground movement. Political prisoners then identified with me and trusted me. As one mother would say to me later, “Njeri, having a political prisoner in jail is worse than losing a child. When you lose a child, people come to console and condole you, but if your child is jailed by Moi government, everyone runs away from you”.

It struck me that fear was eating into our society. People feared that association would actually then get you arrested. My star and mentor was the gallant Mumbi wa Maina, she from far-off USA. Mumbi never missed a day to visit her husband (Kinyatti) either in the dark-smelly dungeons below the courtroom where prisoners are held or at Kamiti and Naivasha maximum prisons. Her courage, resilience and consistence so impressed me that I offered to accompany her whenever I could.

As days and months went by, I became the contact person for most of the prisoners and they began to trust me with crucial messages. That is how I joined the underground. In those days when most ran away from those associated with the political prisoners, I got closer to them. I didn’t have the fear of exposure, arrest or torture; I just knew in my heart that people should not be jailed for exercising their freedom of conscience, association, speech or movement.

That is when I began to read a lot of literature from the underground; that is when I learnt that there were banned books and articles. Those are the books I thirsted for because I suspected therein lay my answers and source of strength.

I became so daring; I began to escort wives to Tanzania to visit their spouses who had gone into exile. One story stands as a reminder of how risky my missions were as I escorted this one woman and just when we were about to cross the border while at the “no-man’s-land” at Namanga border post, she froze and wanted to go back. I remember telling her if she was going back then she would be on her own as I was going to cross anyway and she would not have someone to escort her back. I even surprised myself at how courageous I had become and how many risks I was willing to take.

Years later in an interview about my work as a human rights defender; when I was asked why I did the things I do (they didn’t know the half of it) I responded it must be my love for freedom. And when I look back at all the risks I took, it can only be that my love for freedom is greater than my fear for incarceration or torture.

Many wives and other relatives had absolutely no clue what was happening politically and why their husbands were being whisked away in the dark hours of the night to unknown places, leaving them with young children and no income. Two of such women became mentally disturbed and have never recovered their full lives even after their husbands got released.

Other wives were so mentally tortured and fearful that they gave crucial   information (in an attempt to save their families) against their husbands, which resulted in more people being arrested. And yet some other women even without any political understanding stood by their husbands, made arrangements to move them out of the country and continued to support them throughout those dark days, and even up to the present.

One very interesting case is of a woman whose husband was arrested by mistaken identity and jailed for six years. The wife after the incarceration of her husband became political, read books and always accompanied us to prisons to visit other prisoners even as we visited her husband. Her courage, knowledge and independence so incensed the husband after his release that he resorted to violating her physically and mentally. Their marriage finally broke up, but a strong independent woman was borne out of her own struggle to survive. She too had chosen history by choosing her destiny.

You would have thought that the educated women and those exposed would understand what was happening in the country and that it was not their husbands’ fault for exercising freedom of association, expression and movement but that of the government for taking away these freedoms. Some of them mentally tortured their husbands with accusations of not supporting the families. Moi’s government had a policy of making sure the political prisoners were not employable at any university or any other place even after their release. This put a major financial strain on their wives and some of them never forgave their husbands.

Wives also suffered a similar fate. Independent women with jobs in government were sacked because their husbands were political prisoners or in exile. Two such women are Ida Odinga and Wahu Kaara. Both teachers by profession and employed by the Teachers Service Commission – they both lost their jobs for being the spouses of ‘unwanted’ people in Kenya. This un-acceptable behaviour continued without the intervention of any Trade Union or any other group of people. That is how fearful the people of Kenya had become. They were unable to stand up for their rights or the rights of others so that the “fear” consumed individuals, families and even institutions.’


In the first century BC is the earliest record we have to date of Indian travellers visiting the shores of East Africa. Major settlement, however, began in the 19th century, and in Kenya following the building of the Uganda railway, in the early 20th century.

The first known, to date, Left clandestine activity in Kenya was in the 1910s when a group of Indians began to agitate against British colonial injustice in India. These individuals were members of the Ghadar Party which had been formed by workers and peasants in North India, had its base in San Francisco, USA and had close ties to the Bolsheviks in the USSR. Some of them had settled in Kenya and had made the country a conduit for travellers between India and Moscow. Many of these Kenyan Ghadarites were arrested before WWI by the colonial government, and were imprisoned, deported and/or executed.

But the Ghadarites continued to work underground, the most well-known was Makhan Singh, founder of Kenya’s trade union movement together with some of his Indian co-workers. Isher Dass was a Marxist whom A M Jeevanjee had recruited from England to serve as secretary of the East Africa Indian National Congress. Some of the Indian journalists working on the Daily Chronicle in the 1940s had links with the South African Communist Party. It is around this time that we first hear of Africans such as Cege Kibachia embracing left ideology.

In 1947, when Pakistan was created, the term ‘Indian’ was replaced by ‘Asian’ to include the entire sub-continent; a recent addition is ‘South Asian’. By the time the underground movement was taking shape in post independent Kenya, this small minority was less than one per cent of the population and were largely business persons who were least interested in politics. But there was a professional and academic presence and it was a South Asian journalist who was part of the early formation of the post-independence underground movement.

Another operative was a university lecturer, he joined the DTM and went on to recruit, among others, five possibly six South Asians. Of these two were women – given that Kenyan South Asian women are normally very restricted to the home and family this is quite remarkable. These operatives were grouped in cells of two or more persons, some together with their African counterparts. Their activities consisted largely of reading of Marxist literature including an Indian Left newspaper (Blitz) which was banned in Kenya in the 1940s, and the Amarjit Katha comic books lauding Indian revolutionaries; cyclosyting and clandestine distribution of texts that were supplied by a ‘higher authority’; physical fitness training; participating in plays written by Ngugi wa Thion’go and others and generally interacting with the public to conscientize citizens about the Moi-KANU dictatorship and the way forward.

Before 1982, the South Asian Left had played a strategic role in networking and linking the activities of various cells and assisting with the ferrying of documents and equipment. They were able to do this and evade arrest because, as with the women and being of a minority, the intelligence did not initially suspect their involvement.

Another important activity of this group was the setting up of a documentation and research centre. Shiraz Durrani, the librarian mentioned earlier in ‘The Exiles’, together with another librarian employed by the Library of Congress were the main architects. Zahid Rajan was seconded to this centre and says: “It collected information about strikes, protests, seizure of leadership in cooperatives, unions and educational institutions and fed the information into the larger network. The major emphasis was on demonstrating that the resistance to the dictatorship was national and not confined to the few clandestine groups.” All these operatives were based in Nairobi except for one woman, Zarina Patel, (the writer) who lived in Mombasa. In 1984, following the 1982 attempted coup and the crackdown on ‘dissidents’, the underground operatives re-grouped and resumed their activities. Zarina was enjoined into a cell in Nairobi. By this time one of the cadres had fled into exile, one had been ousted from the Movement and one exited.

The newly constituted group, comprising of 8 operatives, had an equal number of Africans and South Asians, 3 women and 5 men; all were of middle class background except for one who was a mechanic in the informal sector and had no college education.

The group now operated on its own without any guidance from a ‘higher authority’ as had previously been the case. The isolation and the lack of a central leadership took its toll. As Mwakenya became more organized some of the African members of this cell were secretly recruited into it; unbeknown to other cell members.

The objective of this cell was the overthrow of the Moi regime and the ‘alleged’ establishment of a socialist society. ‘Alleged’ as it became clear in hindsight that not only did the majority of the operatives have very little understanding of socialism, there was very scant interest in theoretical/ideological study or training. This was so even though one of the comrades maintained a well-stocked library of Left literature.

The functions of the cell were largely activist in nature aimed at raising the consciousness of the public. Propaganda leaflets (Pambana and HDK  (Harakati ya Demokrasia Kenya)) were composed, cyclostyled and clandestinely distributed, past Kenyan patriots and their brief histories were exhibited in calendars, greeting cards and on T-shirts; large oil paintings depicted actual historical struggles of resistance by Kenyans both pre- and post-independence.

In order to ensure maximum secrecy and instill discipline certain rules were crafted regarding dress codes, pseudo names, a ban on alcohol and smoking, healthy foods and physical exercise were stressed and Kiswahili was the language of communication. No attention was paid to trade union and worker politics. The cell was comprised of large economic and educational variables which were never addressed, certain ideological tenets were assumed but never tested. At this stage it was the external threats which cemented the cell structure rather than any common ideological commitment.

As the political struggle moved overtly above ground in the late 1980s, the cell(s) disintegrated, mass action took over, multi-partyism was re-instated and the flood of NGOs absorbed some of the cadres, others retired from the struggle altogether.


A question is often asked: ‘Why did so many activists with promising futures ahead of them, choose to lead such risky lives in the underground?’ Njeri Kabeberi responds to this earlier as does Oduor Ongwen[11], currently executive director of the ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) Party. He says his motive for activism was that: “I wanted better, my freedom, and I thought that I couldn’t enjoy it in isolation. So it was my every (sic) duty to free the society so that when the society is free I would be free.”

Ongwen was a leader in the University of Nairobi Student Union. When the KANU parliamentary group passed a resolution to make Kenya a one party state, he was one of three students who walked to State House and delivered a memorandum, telling then President Daniel arap Moi that what he was doing was “‘basically pushing the opposition to the underground, it didn’t mean there won’t be opposition”. He was arrested briefly in August 1982 and then again in 1986 after having been forcibly oathed by MWAKENYA. This second time he was in prison for three years with other comrades and he says: “‘we took it upon ourselves to try to make sure that the international community was aware of the human rights situation in Kenya. So we began documenting … the torture we had undergone at Nyayo House. I knew exactly what was going on with the movement, having been a student leader, and documenting this. And from prison we opened communication with Amnesty International, Africa Watch, which was then part of Human Rights Watch … there was constant communication … [about]what was happening in prison, both to us as political prisoners and also the ordinary prison[ers] … Amnesty International made very good use of this information.”

After the return of multi-partyism in 1992, Oduor went on to build the political struggle on a broad democratic front, to push for a review of the Constitution and make forays into the NGO world. The resistance to the KANU dictatorship had been largely clandestine and individual-based up until the late 1980s when it moved onto above-ground mass action, best distinguished by the epic Saba Saba rallies. Some cadres followed the same route as Oduor; others became NGO careerists and a few got elected or appointed into government positions. There were those who ‘retired’ altogether and those who have continued the struggle for democracy and social justice both internally as well as from foreign lands.

It is clear that the Kenyan Underground Movement has multiple threads, some loose ends and some even knotted. If the country and the continent are to benefit from lessons learned, not only from the past but more importantly for the future; it is vitally important that, before memories fade, cadres begin to solve their differences, share their experiences and document this history.

Special acknowledgement is due to Onyango Oloo for his in-put, as well as availing me of the recorded interviews of underground activists which he had done while in Canada. Oloo participated in the student protest movement and was jailed 1982-87 and was in exile in Canada 1987-2005.

Zarina Patel

6 April, 2016

Word Count: 7889

[1] Makhan Singh was a Kenyan communist leader who spent ten years behind bars. He was the founder in the 1930s of the Labour Trade Union Movement of Kenya.

[2] Chege Kibachia was a militant left wing Kenyan trade unionist.

[3] Independent Kenya’s first political martyr, renowned socialist, freedom fighter, journalist and trade unionist.

[4] Bildad Kaggia was a patriot and a nationalist.


[6] Mwakenya-The Unfinished Revolution, publ Mau Mau Research Center 2014, Nairobi

[7]  Communicated by email 2016

[8] Fahamu booklet, The Power is Ours, ‘Personal Reflections on Movement Building’ by Dr Willy Mutunga, publ Pambazuka Press, 2012.

[9] By Onyango Oloo, a University of Nairobi student activist who was imprisoned 1982-87, and was in exile 1988-2005 in Canada.

[10] Durrani, Shiraz 1997.

[11] Oduor Ongwen interviewed by Robert Press on 10 October, 2002 for a Library of Congress Kenya Research project.

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