Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya

Collection Ref No.:

GB 2904 PPK

Date range:



The material collected in this catalogue concerns the work of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (CRPPK), a London-based organisation established on 2 July 1982 and coordinated by John La Rose from New Beacon's Stroud Green address. The Committee emerged as a response to evidence of increasingly repressive tendencies in the Kenyan government under President Daniel Arap Moi, promising to act as a 'solidarity organisation' for those arrested, detained or harassed for their political activities in Kenya. The CRPPK was committed to exposing Moi's 'systematic attacks on intellectual, political and cultural life' to an international audience, focusing broadly on the struggles of 'lecturers, students, writers, lawyers, peasants, workers and members of parliament'. It continued its campaign work throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, publishing the influential Kenya News bulletin and coordinating with other Kenyan democratic and solidarity movements abroad. Aside from compiling materials on CRPPK campaigns and events, this collection also gathers documents for groups like the London-based UMOJA-Kenya and the underground organisation Mwakenya, the latter working against Moi's Kenya African National Union (KANU) government inside Kenya itself.

The collection contents are as follows:

PPK Series 01: Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (CRPPK)
- PPK/01/01: Releases and Statements (including: Campaign Letters; Press Releases and Briefings; Draft Statements);
- PPK/01/02: Meeting Minutes;
- PPK/01/03: Administrative Materials;
- PPK/01/04: Correspondence;
- PPK/01/05: Kenya News (including: Published Issues; Research Materials);
- PPK/01/06: Pamphlets;
- PPK/01/07: Events;
- PPK/01/08: Large-Size Posters.

PPK Series 02: Non-CRPPK Organisations
- PPK/02/01: Umoja-Kenya Documents and Press Releases;
- PPK/02/02: MWAKENYA Documents and Press Releases;
- PPK/02/03: UKenya (London);
- PPK/02/04: Kenyan United Front for Democracy (London);
- PPK/02/05: Africa Centre (London);
- PPK/02/06: Committee for Human Rights in Kenya (New York);
- PPK/02/07: Organisation for Democracy in Kenya (Stockholm);
- PPK/02/08: Amnesty International;
- PPK/02/09: University of Dar es Salaam - Statements on Kenya;
- PPK/02/10: December Twelve Movement (Kenya).

PPK Series 03: Non-CRPPK Campaigns and Events
- PPK/03/01: The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (Play);
- PPK/03/02: Postcard Campaign for Political Prisoners;
- PPK/03/03: Unity Conference (London 1987);
- PPK/03/04: One Million Signature Campaign (London 1991);
- PPK/03/05: Sabasaba Protest Anniversary (London 1991);
- PPK/03/06: Petitions and Public Appeals;
- PPK/03/07: Large-Size Posters.

PPK Series 04: Detention Materials
- PPK/04/01: Detention of Ngugi wa Thiong'o;
- PPK/04/02: Detention of Wanyiri Kihoro;
- PPK/04/03: Detention of Koigi wa Wamwere;
- PPK/04/04: Detention of Maina wa Kinyatti.

PPK Series 05: Press and Media
- PPK/05/01: Clippings - Kenya Repression and Arrests;
- PPK/05/02: Clippings - Kenya State Politics;
- PPK/05/03: Clippings - Kenya Economy;
- PPK/05/04: Clippings - Kenya Health and Society;
- PPK/05/05: Clippings - Kenya Arts and Culture;
- PPK/05/06: Clippings - Kenya Coup Attempt (1982);
- PPK/05/07: Newsmagazine Materials;
- PPK/05/08: The Weekly Review.

PPK Series 06: Publications
- PPK/06/01: Academic Articles;
- PPK/06/02: Published Texts;
- PPK/06/03: Tourism.

Admin history:

The Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (CRPPK) was a London-based campaign group founded on 2 July 1982 and coordinated by John La Rose from New Beacon's Stroud Green Address. While most active during the 1980s, its work continued well into the 1990s: indeed, the government of Daniel Arap Moi - against which the CRPPK directed its activities - remained in power in Kenya until 2002. The CRPPK defined itself as a response to the repressive and dictatorial tendencies of Moi's Kenya African National Union (KANU) government, promising to act as a 'solidarity organisation' for those arrested, detained or harassed for their political activities in Kenya. The CRPPK was committed to exposing KANU's 'systematic attacks on intellectual, political and cultural life' to an international audience, focusing broadly on the struggles of 'lecturers, students, writers, lawyers, peasants, workers and members of parliament'.
The establishment of the CRPPK in July 1982 was preceded shortly by a June 1982 amendment to the Kenyan constitution, which transformed the de facto condition of one-party rule in the country into an official, de jure one-party state. KANU had been the sole political party operating in Kenya since independence from British rule in 1963, but this situation would now be secured by law.  
The pre-history of the CRPPK can be linked, moreover, to earlier controversies under the government of Moi's predecessor, the celebrated nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta: in particular, the arrest of the writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o on 31 December 1977 and his detention in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison for a year without charge. Ngugi had recently published a novel ('Petals of Blood') critical of neo-colonial tendencies in post-colonial Kenya, and was also overseeing the production of his play 'Ngaahika Ndeenda' (I Will Marry When I Want) in an open air peasant and worker's theatre in Limuru. He was arrested on New Year's Eve under 'Public Security Regulations' and Ngaahika Ndeenda was banned. By January 1978, Amnesty International had adopted Ngugi as a 'Prisoner of Conscience' and appeals for his release were made across the world. The writer would remain in prison, however, until the end of the year; continued harassment from government officials after his release and fear of a plot against his life led Ngugi to leave Kenya for exile in the United Kingdom. His presence in London from 1982 allowed him to be an important interlocutor for the CRPPK. (See especially PPK/04/01).
Daniel Arap Moi, who had been Kenyatta's Vice-President, became the head of state following Kenyatta's death in August 1978, carrying on his predecessor's style of governing and particularly his committed anticommunism. Early documents following the CRPPK foundation in 1982 describe a 'new wave' of arrests unfolding in Kenya since May of that year: in June, notably, the Kenyatta University history lecturer Maina wa Kinyatti was arrested and subsequently jailed for 6 years for 'possession of seditious publications' (see PPK/04/04). The CRPPK would announce in these early days a picket to be held outside the Kenyan High Commission in London on 30 July 1982, protesting specifically the decision to grant territory in Kenya to the United States for the purpose of establishing military bases.
The scene would change dramatically following an attempted coup against Moi's rule led by members of the Kenyan Air Force on 1 August 1982: the rebellion was quashed ruthlessly by government military and police forces, and a good deal of the subsequent repression was directed at students from the University of Nairobi who had supported the coup. The panic prompted by the Air Force's short-lived putsch presented Moi with the opportunity to change the legal system in Kenya: the aftermath of the coup was characterized by mass detentions without trial, hurried court proceedings, death sentences, enormous jail terms, the routine confiscation of passports and ever more intrusive immigration controls. Evidence of the emboldened repressive tendencies of the KANU regime prompted the nascent CRPPK to action, and a series of pamphlets, events and letter campaigns in the collection refer directly to the coup and its aftermath. 
The CRPPK focused its attention on the detention of several key opposition figures during this time: see, for instance, the file on Koigi wa Wamwere, an 'outspoken' member of the Kenyan parliament arrested in August 1982 while acting representative for Nakuru North. Wamwere was detained previously for three years under the Kenyatta government, and imprisoned again here without trial, released only in 1984 while maintaining he had no involvement with the coup (see PPK/04/03). The mass arrest of students and especially student politicians became a feature of life after the coup: several individuals were charged with sedition, for instance, after being accused of 'rejoicing' having heard news of the coup. This sequence and the regular deployment of riot police on Nairobi campuses is traced across several CRPPK pamphlets: see, in particular, 'Repression Intensifies in Kenya Since the August 1st Coup Attempt' (January 1983); 'University Destroyed: Moi Crowns Ten Years of Government Terror in Kenya' (May 1983). (PPK/01/06). 
Throughout the 1980s members of the CRPPK met regularly in London, and a comprehensive collection of meeting minutes and campaign agendas for the decade are included in PPK/01/02. Of particular concern was the publication of the CRPPK's official bulletin, Kenya News, which was circulated widely as an authoritative, uncensored voice on current events in Kenya. The bulletin drew on vast amounts of research completed by John La Rose and other affiliates of the CRPPK, the breadth of which is partially revealed in the 'Press and Media' (PPK/05) series of the collection. Here, hundreds of news clippings trace countless individual arrests and detentions, as well as issues related to the state, law, economy, public health and culture.  All issues of Kenya News - bar Issue 6 - are included in PPK/01/05/. 
The CRPPK was joined in its work by a number of campaign organisations around the world. This global conversation is traced in the collection, which includes materials on bodies as diverse as the New York-based Committee for Human Rights in Kenya and the Stockholm-based Organisation for Democracy in Kenya (see PPK/02). International solidarity work is reflected importantly in the foundation of UMOJA in 1987, emerging as a union of seven Kenyan political organisations working abroad and aiming to present a platform of unity against the KANU government. UMOJA's membership was spread across the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Denmark, Italy, Norway, and Sweden, with a Central Secretariat based in London. In Britain, UMOJA absorbed the organisation UKenya, whose chair Yusuf Hassan would continue as acting coordinator for the new organisation. Hassan would be succeeded in this role first by Ngugi and later by Abdillatif Abdalla.
From its 1987 beginnings, UMOJA expressed solidarity with the dissident group Mwakenya ('Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya'), an organisation established in Nairobi in 1985 and working clandestinely for political change in Kenya. Mwakenya traced its origins to the 1982 coup via a series of progressive cells and particularly the underground newspaper Mpatanishi. It described itself as 'a democratic party of the workers, peasants, progressive intelligentsia and all the patriotic Kenyans fighting for the interests of the oppressed, exploited and humiliated majority of the people in all the nationalities of Kenya.' The group's draft minimum programme (1987), as well as the later 'Democracy Plank' (1990), is included in PPK/02/02. President Moi's anxiety over Mwakenya is reflected in several arrests made over supposed 'oaths' given to the secret organisation, and indeed the more general labelling of any opponent to the KANU regime as a member of Mwakenya (whether or not such a connection actually existed). The spectre of Mwakenya became, arguably, as politically productive as the group's actual activities. 
Aside from Mwakenya, materials on the December Twelve Movement (DTM) and their organ Pambana appear in the PPK collection. The group's name referring to the date of Kenya's independence from British rule (12 December 1963), the DTM called for radical change in Kenya from the early 1980s: Shiraz Durrani was an active member. The group's mouthpiece, Pambana, first appeared in May 1982, promising to 'unite the poor and the exploited against the Kenyan ruling class and their foreign masters'. It is within such rhetoric - both domestically in Kenya and abroad - that the figure of Dedan Kemathi becomes important. Kimathi was the iconic leader of the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule in the 1950s, hanged for his activities in 1957, and his image recurs in the struggle against Moi as a demonstration of courage in the face of repression. In the 1970s, Ngugi authored a play on the 'Trial of Dedan Kimathi', the production of which becomes an important element of mobilization abroad: see, especially, PPK/03/01. Other events organised by solidarity groups outside Kenya, including the CRPPK, take as their object the celebration of Kimathi's birth anniversary.
It is clear from this collection that the CRPPK's campaign strategy was varied in its methods: there appear, at once, informative pamphlets, polemical press releases, incisive bulletins, and calls to the picket line, alongside advertisements for public discussions and cultural events. Many documents reflect the CRPPK's emphasis on a letter-writing appeal to the Kenyan High Commission in London and indeed to President Moi's office in Kenya itself. Gus John, one of the founders of GPI and a long-time comrade of La Rose, recalls an anecdote regarding the barrage of letters said to be continually arriving in Moi's office. According the story, Moi was heard to exclaim in frustration about the Trinidad-born La Rose: 'What does this descendent of slaves know about Kenyan affairs and about Africa?' An ambitious aide apparently interjected: 'Why don't you have him arrested?' (See Gus John's 8 April 2006 Memorial Lecture to La Rose online at:
The PPK collection presents the documentary history of a truly international movement, binding together campaigners, exiles, prisoners, international bodies and underground organisations across the world on the issue of repression and tyranny in Kenyan politics. The reader will find a wealth of information in correspondence and pamphlets, but also a rich archive in posters, adverts and clippings from the press. The collection follows the career of organisations - like UMOJA or Mwakenya - but also dwells on singular events and individual campaigns, such as the exile Wanyiri Kihoro's One Million Signature Campaign in 1991, or the Sabasaba Protest Anniversary organised in London the same year. Insight is provided into African diaspora politics in London, such as those related to the Africa Centre, London WC2, as well as relations between local politics and supranational organisations like Amnesty International and International PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists).

Custodial History:

This material has been gifted to the George Padmore Institute by John La Rose.