A Voice Unstilled: Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki: Bishop who took on a brutal regime over Rift Valley killings

Fearless Catholic Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki' tells His story with the first installment of his new biography, A Voice Unstilled: Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki'.

F or people residing in some parts of the Rift Valley, the period 1991-1992 was a time of living dangerously. At that time ethnic clashes had broken out around Kipkelion, Olenguruoni, Molo and some parts of Bomet.

The government preferred calling them land clashes, attempting to convince the masses that what was happening there was just simple clashes but there was more than met the eye. Houses were being torched and people were being killed senselessly.

Neighbour was rising against neighbour and communities where people had lived peacefully for years became veritable tinder boxes, hi spite of this, the government still wanted people to believe that the clashes were about land. In fact, the term tribal clashes disappeared from the media and the softer 'land-clashes" became the denning term for the atrocity happening in the Rift Valley. It was largely seen as a Kikuyu-Kalenjin affair where two tribes had turned against each other with dreadful consequences.

Two things made this conundrum puzzling. First, it was coming at a time when the clamour for multipartyism was at its peak Kami's hegemony, as a political party that had ruled the country since independence, was being fiercely challenged by a rabid opposition. The supporters of Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford) were mainly Luos, Luhyas and Kikuyus and some of them lived in Rift Valley. To ensure that they did not vote, they had to be uprooted from the province.

Police protection

Second, there was what was seen as government lethargy in dealing with the problem. When the clashes first broke out, the government did nothing to stop them, hi some cases it was claimed that the raiders were receiving police protection and even as the fighting continued no one was getting arrested for the atrocity. Some believed that ethnic-cleansing was at work.

As the atrocity continued, the allegations that some of those actively involved were members of Kami, were rife. In just five days, 20,000 people had been displaced and were now gathered in open areas requesting intervention from the government.

On the Sunday morning of November 3,1991, a group of armed raiders invaded farms belonging to non-Kalenjins in Kokwet, Chepkechei and Mtaragon areas, set houses ablaze, shot people with arrows and raped women. Consequently, the displaced families ran away and sought refuge at a nearby school, leaving their farms at the mercy of raiders and looters.

Sitting in the bishopric house in Nakuru, Ndingi received the news with shock A number of priests, stunned at what they had seen, took the bishop through the entire episode, giving him a blow by blow account of what had happened. Desperation, anger and helplessness permeated the atmosphere. Ndingi reclined in his seat and listened much more carefully.

The priests who knew him well also knew that he usually acted on his feet when a burning issue was brought to his attention.

But on this morning, he just sat dazed and listened like one in a trance. Then he took out his pen and started jotting. As the moral disgust of the entire problem receded in Ndingi's mind, its political and historical contours became visible.

"Something has to be done," he told one of the priests,"we must make the whole world aware of the goings on. The Church must play its role."

Unbeknown to the priests, Ndingi's statement that "something has to be done" was the start of a long and bruising moral crusade against what was to clearly emerge as one of the biggest crimes against humanity to be committed in that part of the country.

Catholic priests

That very day, the Catholic priests of Nakuru Diocese crafted a strongly worded statement on the clashes, calling on the government to protect the lives and property of the communities living in the Rift Valley.

"These are people who acquired their land legally and are ready to be issued with title deeds...their future is now unclear to them. Though they have been promised security and a return to their land they feel- that this guarantee is too little; too late," the statement read.
The priests wondered if the government was trying to balkanise the nation. "The torching of houses and property appear to have been carefully planned and orchestrated.

In Kunyak, eyewitnesses stated that Kami officials were actively involved...there is no doubt that these events have caused great damage to trust and confidence among different ethnic groups.
Is this majimboism in action?"

The statement was endorsed by Ndingi as the bishop. It did not, however, make the screaming headlines that other stories from Ndingi had previously done. Still, it was a handy warning shot and a declaration that the Catholic Church was not about to take a backseat while people were dying and their houses being burnt.

The clashes had now spread to areas bordering Kisumu, affecting three dioceses: Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret. The bishops of the three dioceses, Archbishop Zacheaus Okoth of Kisumu, Ndingi and Cornelius Korir of Eldoret, Archbishop John Njenga of Mombasa, John Njue of Embu and Father Ndikaru wa Teresia, the editor of Mwananchi magazine got together and visited the affected areas. They were horrified at what they saw.

Hordes of people walking along the God-forsaken roads of Olenguruoni and Molo, stunned them.

Dead bodies were strewn on the road and warriors armed with arrows were spoiling for war.

They saw cows, mooing with the pain of un-milked udders; heard the agonised bleat of goats which, like their human owners, had been displaced from the familiarity of their pens; saw lost children crying for their parents, some unaware that their parents had been killed or seriously wounded and they saw the charred remains of what used to be peaceful homes; the scorched expanses of what used to be fecund earth. They beheld the unrepentant, bloodthirsty faces of the killers of Molo.

The picture was horrifying. Bishop Njue could not contain himself and he shed tears. Njue, was so enraged that, as those who were there recall, it was difficult to know if the tears were out of pain or anger.

Amidst sobs, he took out his camera and took some pictures of the warriors armed with arrows. He had underestimated the tempestuous nature of the moment because at that point, some young men approached them menacingly.

"Why did you take our pictures?" one of them asked.

Brandishing pangas, they demanded that the bishop gives them the camera. Bishop Njue hesitated and the men closed in.

Sensing serious trouble, Ndingi implored Njue to acquiesce.

"Let's not cause a commotion by taking photos," Ndingi pleaded with a frustrated Njue. "These people can even kill us."

They took the camera and unspooled the film, then furiously stomped on it.

Archbishop Njenga recalls seeing planes dropping arrows in the area, which were then hastily collected by the locals. For some time, he thought he was wrong but it dawned on him that the situation was not as it had been reported in the media. People were not fully aware of what was going on in the Rift Valley.

Land clashes

The whole issue had been made to look like a case of simple land clashes between warring tribes. But there was more to it. This was a war by one heavily backed set of people against another unarmed, hapless lot. It was a war full of fire and rage and in many ways, devoid of sense.
After this scaring episode, the bishops continued with their fact-finding mission. At one point they met an old woman on the road and stopped the car.

"Where are you going?" Njenga asked the old, haggard and scared woman. "I don't know?" she replied.

The bishops consulted and decided to take the woman in their car. They went all the way to Olenguruoni parish where they left the woman under the care of the parish priest.

"We as pastors must speak out," they proclaimed, quoting the book of Luke (19:40) "I tell you, if these keep silent the stones will cry out."

Getting back to the Kenya Catholic Secretariat, they crafted a statement challenging the government to break its silence and bring the clashes to an end. Then they cobbled together a collection of other bishops from other denominations with the intention of seeking an appointment with the president.

In Nairobi, they called the Head of the Civil Service, Prof Philip Mbithi, and asked him to arrange an appointment for them to see the president. Prof Mbithi was reluctant, probably sensing that the bishops were up to their rabble-rousing activities again. "If we do not see the president
today, we will demonstrate at the Holy Family Basilica tomorrow," they told him.

Mbithi realised that things were serious and that the clerics perhaps meant every word they said. He hastily organised a meeting for the bishops. All the ecumenical bishops met the president at State House that day at six in the evening. The meeting, Njenga recalls, was tense.

After Archbishop Okoth read the statement prepared by the bishops, Archbishop Njenga addressed the president. "Your Excellency, people are dying, we saw planes dropping arrows in the area and the situation is serious."

Moi hit the roof. "Bishop Njenga, I think you are exaggerating," he thundered. "The pilots you are referring to are Kikuyus. How can they drop arrows that would kill their people?" he asked.

"Your Excellency, given money they will do anything, even if they are Kikuyus."

Things were hotting up. The meeting was tense. The bishops were angry. The president was also annoyed at the audacity of the bishops. Silence descended on the room; no one wanted to speak and no one knew who would speak next and what they would say. The president fixed his gaze on the bishops.

All of a sudden one of the bishops rose to speak. He began to thank the president for the good deeds he had done for the country, pouring profuse praise on the Head of State.

"Your Excellency, I came here to thank you for the help you have given my church," one bishop said, "we have been able to do a lot with your generous contributions."

Another one would thank the president for helping his son get a scholarship and suddenly a few others chimed in with praises and panegyrics.

The whole course of the meeting changed. Moi sat there enjoying the whole drama and the sudden move some of the bishops had made to change the course of the entire conversation.

What had been, only a few minutes ago, a matter of grave national and public concern, was turned into a circus of praises. The Catholic bishops were seemingly isolated as the others chanted praises for the president and ignored the topic for which they had sought an appointment.

Needless to say, when the meeting ended, some of the bishops were assailed by a fierce sense of betrayal, a feeling that the meeting they had so painstakingly sought and issued threats over had miserably failed.

Perhaps unbeknown to some of the bishops was that the coterie of bishops was divided down the middle. There were those who were fierce loyalists and there were those who were genuinely searching for justice. The former are the ones who changed the course of the conversation.

Ndingi was crestfallen. He felt betrayed by some of his colleagues and as they left State House, he was almost in tears. He knew then that nothing would be done, that the president had not taken them seriously and that the appointment had come to nought.

In the following three months, the clashes continued. A litany of anguish and woes loomed large across a section of the kaleidoscope of Rift Valley.

Kamwaura area in Molo experienced some of the most vicious clashes with a hundred houses belonging to non-Kalenjins razed. About 2,000 homeless and displaced people sought refuge in St John and Paul churches in Kamwaura. Eight of them were killed.

In Elburgon area, 46 houses were burnt on March 16,1992, while during the same period, a group of about thirty youngsters from the Kalenjin community started burning houses belonging to the non-Kalenjins. They were doing this while guarded by elders armed with bows and arrows. Over fifty houses were torched.

On March 18, some houses were burned in Njoro area, some primary schools were shut down and several people were killed in an area called Larmudiac, near Egerton University.

Charged meeting

Sensing that the clashes were not about to abate, Ndingi gathered his priests for a meeting, the charged meeting, statistics on the death and suffering of the people of Rift Valley were put on the table.

On the Feast of Saint Joseph on March 19,1992, the priests and the bishop, once again released a statement expressing concern at the killings and destruction of property and just fell short of blaming the government for the violence.

"Our analysis leads us to conclude that there is reluctance among our political leaders to contain the situation and this reluctance depicts a certain lack of confidence in those empowered to guide and protect us."

The government was sending no help to the many victims strewn all over church compounds in the area. To make matters worse, no government officials visited the area.

Ndingi felt that matters were reaching intolerable levels and decided to take on the government personally, once again.

He released a statement, this time written and signed by himself as the Bishop of the Diocese of Nakuru, squarely blaming the government for the clashes:

How is it that, after so many assurances by the president that people can live anywhere and own property anywhere people continue to get displaced? As recently as 13th February, 1992, the president had assured people that anyone burning houses would be punished but houses continue to burn in Eldoret today and any policeman on duty in these clash torn areas who tries to defend the innocent and shoots or kills an attacker is transferred. How is it that nobody has been prosecuted for burning houses or shooting people with arrows? Our conclusion is that the government of Kenya - Kanu government is behind the clashes.

Those killed

This was followed by a documentation of all those killed and the places where the atrocities were committed.

The government did not do much in the way of exonerating itself. Around that time, the clamour for multiparty democracy had reached fever-pitch with the main opposition party, Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford) presenting Kanu with its toughest challenge yet.

The Kanu diehards continued threatening those who were seen to oppose Kanu or embrace the opposition.

"Those who do not sing the Kami song," a Kanu politician proclaimed in public on February 27,1992, ''will be chased away"

By this time, Cardinal Otunga was getting increasingly wary of the situation. The government never really worried about him as the politicians knew him to be an extremely guarded clergyman who eschewed controversy. Whether they ignored him or just kept him at arms length was sometimes hard to tell. His manner contrasted sharply with that of Ndingi and other senior clergymen who were known to fly off the handle whenever they sensed injustice. The government sometimes praised him for his silence and sobriety.

But this time, the cardinal too could not keep quiet. On January 24,1991, he invited Ndingi to his house in Nairobi.

He was in a pensive mood and he went straight to the point. After voicing his distress at what was happening in the Rift Valley, he told the bishop: "We must do something to defend the people."

© Waithaka Waihenya & Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia 2009, Published by Sasa Sema, an Imprint of Longhorn. Available at leading bookshops countrywide. Price: Sh500

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