1992 – Kenyan Mothers win release of political prisoners

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kenyan politics were dominated by the single-party rule of President Daniel arap Moi. When the pressure for multi-party elections reached a crescendo in 1991, elderly mothers of political prisoners staged a protest for their release, not only freeing their sons but also triggering a return to multi-party rule – part of the growing wave of successful multi-party movements to sweep Africa in the 1990s.

In the early 1990s, as pressure grew on President Moi to hold multi-party elections, a group of Kenyan mothers sought to secure the release of their sons who were imprisoned for political reasons. Led by the prominent defender of public forest lands, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, they organised a highly publicised meeting with the Attorney General in February 1992. When he only promised to examine the matter, they set up camp in Uhuru Park near Parliament, and staged a hunger strike.

On March 3, President Moi forcibly dispersed the demonstrators with tear gas, gun shots and beatings, leading some of the women to disrobe to shame the police into retreat. The violence against the mothers made newspaper headlines, sparking international criticism and riots in the capital. Transport workers went on strike. The mothers, meanwhile, regrouped at the nearby All Saints Cathedral, where priests had granted them sanctuary.

Over the next 11 months, the mothers held open forums about democracy and citizens’ rights outside the cathedral. Many political opposition groups and women’s organizations lent them their support, including the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), which called for a national strike for April 2, 1992. On the eve of the strike, government police raided and occupied the All Saints Cathedral as the mothers barricaded themselves in the basement. On April 12, Archbishop Manasses Kuria declared that the cathedral was “…a sanctuary for the mothers of the political prisoners.”

With this protection, the mothers continued their campaign, distributing leaflets and attending their sons’ court hearings. Kenya had become a multi-party state in August 1991, one of many African countries to do so in the 1990s, including Madagascar, Malawi, Cameroon, Benin, Niger and the Central African Republic. On June 24 1992, four of the political prisoners were released, and by January 19 1993, all the mothers were reunited with their sons.



Wangari Maathai (in neck brace) joined mothers of political prisoners to demand their release in 1992 at Uhuru Park. (Photo: Standard, Kenya)

Are the waters so bitter poster on the protest

Wangari Maathai mural. Photo by Phil Dokas