Monday, August 23, 2010

Did the US and Moi cut a deal over Fr Kaiser's death?

Did the US and Moi cut a deal over Fr Kaiser’s death?


A Civic Education and Human Rights project officer at the Nakuru Catholic Diocese, Ms Mary Oyath (left), Mrs Jane Wanjiru Njenga who was a cook at the Enoosupukia church where Fr John Kaiser served, and human rights activists stand at the spot where the body of the priest was found on August 24, 2000. The Catholic Church plans to build a chapel at the site in memory of the American priest.

Posted Saturday, August 14 2010 at 21:00

If he had been alive today, Fr John Anthony Kaiser would probably be one of the happiest men in Kenya.

It was this towering, aggressive and compassionate American missionary who brought world attention to the problem of ethnically instigated mass displacements in the Rift Valley.

His determined campaign to highlight what he saw as the government’s role in uprooting members of specific ethnic groups, mainly Kikuyus and Kisiis from their homes to serve political ends, thrust the quiet American into the headlines.

His crusade finally cost him his life. Ten years after he died of gunshot wounds on August 24, 2000, a new constitution will be promulgated three days after the anniversary of his death.

The constitution is designed to help tackle the land problem in the country and make a recurrence of politically instigated violence less likely.

That was the life mission of Fr Kaiser. The circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery.

He had left a career in the US military to throw himself into decades of mission work in Kenya. He arrived in Kenya in 1964 after a two-month sea voyage, excited by the prospect of helping to build the young nation.

His first assignment was in Kisii. According to a profile published by the American newspaper, Riverfront Times, Fr Kaiser quickly became well known by the locals for his passion in missionary work.

Father Kaiser built a congregation from nothing, said one of his colleagues and former classmates Father Bill Vos.

His passion and energy was apparent.

“Once a group of men was trying to raise a huge log for the centre post of a church,” his niece, Mary Mahoney Weaver, recalls, “John was determined to get the thing done. But it got late and everyone went home. When they came back the next morning, the post was up. He never said how he did it. They considered him superhuman.”

Kaiser had many happy moments hunting with the locals and sharing in their daily rituals.

He had no intention of meddling in politics. In his book titled If I Die, he says that he first encountered the grave injustices perpetrated against the poor villagers whose livelihood depended on small-scale farming when he was based in Kisii.

In October 1986, the priest was travelling from his base to Nairobi. At the intersection to Kipkelion on the Kericho-Nakuru road, he saw men, women and children camped by the roadside. This would leave an indelible mark in his life.

“I saw dozens of trucks and hundreds of people by the roadside with all their worldly possessions – chickens and goats, bed-spreads, pots and pans closely tethered and piled up beside them,” he says in his book which was published shortly after his death.

It was 10 p.m. Families with their young children were huddled in small groups on a chilly evening while the heavens threatened to open up. They had been driven out of their land by government forces.

“Little did I know that this would mark the beginning of a long struggle against the perpetrators of such acts of injustice,” he says in the 120-page book.

Fr Kaiser became a vocal critic of the waves of evictions which were clearly government-backed. He came into national limelight in the early 1990s when he vigorously resisted the eviction of the internally displaced people who had camped at Maela in Narok, following their eviction from Enoosupukia.

At the time, the Kikuyu and Kisii were seen as not supportive of the Moi government. The evictions were viewed as punishment for their failure to back the ruling party.

Fr Kaiser worked hard to ensure that the government resettled the displaced on the land that they had previously been evicted from in the Rift Valley so that they could continue with their livs.

When this did not work, he sought other forums to express the grievances of the displaced families. He wrote letters, some which put him on a collision course with the government. He was banned from entering Maela camp by the authorities.

According to Fr Kaiser’s estimates, there were about 80,000 people who had been forced to Maela camp by the ethnic violence.

“The problem of the displaced people in Kenya is enormous and is a major factor in the slowing down of the economy,” he wrote.

According to him, the number of people displaced by ethnic violence in the region between 1986-1995 was about one million. Fr Kaiser’s activities attracted the attention of the international media.

The displacements in Rift Valley became a source of embarrassment to the Moi government, which was already under pressure to open up political space to keep Western aid flowing.

With pressure mounting, the government was compelled to establish a commission of inquiry into ethnic killings – the Judicial Commission of Inquiry on Land Clashes, chaired by retired judge Akilano Akiwumi.

For Fr Kaiser, an opportunity to name and shame the big people in government who he believed had a hand in the killings and displacements had presented itself.

In February 1999, he testified before the commission and submitted what was then seen as incriminating evidence against government bigwigs.

This was to be the final nail in his coffin. Several months later, his work permit expired and the government attempted to deport him declaring that he was a prohibited immigrant.

However, the intervention of the Catholic Church and the US embassy in Nairobi saved him the agony of being ejected out of the country. Threats on his life increased after he gave his testimony.

And, the Latin saying Res Clamat Domino (a thing having been stolen cries out until it is returned to its rightful owner) was his personal motivation.

“When I think of the fertile highlands of the Trans Mara and the many other areas of high rainfall on the Maasai reserve, I hear these lands crying to God for the return of their rightful owners,” said Fr Kaiser.

This was seen by those in government as incitement and explains why the 64-year-old was subjected to State harassment.

Fr Kaiser knew the dangers of speaking out in a country where the iron fist of the Moi regime had left church leadership, the press and even the civil society cowed.

Priest threatened

After he had delivered his evidence before the Akiwumi commission, Sister Nuala Brangan prevailed upon him not to go back to Lolgorien, his base. He maintained that he would overcome the threats on his life.

“Don’t worry, I am a good shot … I’ll shoot a few bullets in the air, and they’ll go running,” he is quoted as saying. Fr Kaiser was licensed to carry a shotgun which he always did.

“Since I have been threatened before, I want all to know that if I disappear from the scene, because the bush is vast and the hyenas are many, that I am not planning any accident, nor, God forbid, any self-destruction,” he said in one of the many letters he wrote to people close to him after he received a chain of threats.

Fr Kaiser knew that many people had been killed in circumstances which were passed off as an accident.

On August 24, Fr Kaiser joined this list of martyrs. He was found in a ditch by the roadside on the Naivasha-Nakuru highway, with his shotgun by his side.

The police immediately said he had been shot, a version which the government later changed to claim that it was suicide. That verdict was later overturned by an official inquest.

But his killers remain at large although the endorsement of a new constitution might at last give the departed priest cause for relief from beyond the grave.

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