Fourteen years after the death of Fr. John Anthony Kaiser, there are mixed reactions on whether the ideals he championed have finally been realised. An American Mill Hill Missionary, Fr. Kaiser came to Kenya in 1964 and from the early 90s, made a name advocating land rights of the poor in Transmara and Ngong where he majorly worked.

He thus became a sharp critic of powerful individuals in the regime of Kenya’s second President, Daniel Moi. Fr. Kaiser partly accused then ruling party Kenya African National Union (Kanu) for the predicament that the landless faced. He accused the party of fanning tribal animosity and violence which always led to deaths and displacements of hundreds of poor Kenyans.

But it was to President Moi himself that he directed his strongest criticism. He even hit the Catholic Church for not blaming the former president for the troubles the nation was going through during his regime.

“The Moi government, the president himself included,” he wrote in his autobiography If I Die, “has been behind the evictions of the Bantu and Luo people from the Rift Valley since 1986,” a policy he alleged the West and donor community were unwilling to challenge “because it fits into their overall policy for Africa, which is to reduce the human population.”
He even felt it was not appropriate to refer to Moi and any president in the world as the father of the nation.

“If there is one thing I do not want nor expect from my president,” he wrote, “it is for him to be the father of the nation. Fatherhood is the most transcendent of relationships and it comes directly from the Father of light who is our heavenly Father, the eternal creator. State presidents are not like that, quite the contrary,” reads his autobiography.

Fr. Kaiser felt presidents should not be fully trusted with the affairs of the nation “because here on earth power tends to corrupt.” His ultimate dream was thus to see a president in Kenya who was fully accountable to the electorate and one who was subject to impeachment should a need arise.
However, in the dawn of August 24, 2000, his dream for a more socially just Kenya was cut short when his body was found lifeless off the Nakuru-Nairobi highway. The aspirations of the people whose rights he fought for remained far from being achieved.

A report by America’s top spy agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), concluded that he had committed suicide even though he had earlier expressed fears for his life.
“I want all to know that if I disappear from the scene, because the bush is vast and hyenas many,” he wrote in the autobiography that was published posthumously, “that I am not planning any accident, nor God forbid, any self-destruction.”

To date, his death thus remains a puzzle if not a scandal that government critics always point at while assessing what has been achieved since.

David Kuria, a human rights defender in Nakuru and one of those who protested after the priest’s mysterious death says the country has not been rid of political murders.

“The environment still exists,” he says while insinuating that such killers have changed course and are now targeting the ordinary persons more and more.

“We have at least five cases of missing people in Nakuru and the police are being mentioned,” says Kuria who is commonly referred to as Western.

For Kuria, the fact that Fr. Kasier’s death has never been unravelled is an indication that the country is still not safe especially to human rights defenders. But what scares Kuria even the more is the tribal factor on which most of Kenya’s socio-political engagements are based.

“We are still in the danger of facing ethnic violence. Tribalism is still there especially around the election period [since] most of our political parties are based on the tribe,” he says.

The 2007/2008 post election violence happened seven years after Fr. Kaiser’s death. Partly seen to have arisen out of unresolved historical land injustices and among other issues, the mayhem claimed the lives of at least 1,100 Kenyans and left more than 650,000 others displaced.

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang are facing cases for crimes against humanity committed during the period at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s case was withdrawn and later terminated by the court’s prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, citing failure of the Kenyan government to cooperate with the court.

As the case goes on in The Hague based court, other observers have pointed out the milestones that have been achieved on land rights since the priest’s death.

Eileen Wakesho, a programme officer in charge of the women, land and property rights at the Kenya Land Alliance cites the National Land Commission (NLC) as one of the many strides on land management that would excite Fr. Kaiser.

“Having the NLC as an independent institution that is supposed to take a lead in matters of management of public land is something that upholds Fr. Kaisers’s ideology of decentralising power, especially as far as land management is concerned, from the presidency to an independent institution that therefore handles land, and especially public land.”

But there have been supremacy battles between the commission headed by Mohammed Swazuri and acting Land Cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i that have left observers asking about the commission’s full autonomy in conducting its duties.

The president has also been criticised for interfering with the work of the commission after he revoked 500 land title deeds in Lamu following a terror attack in the region that left at least 60 people dead in June.

Wakesho says such interferences speak volumes on the government’s unwillingness to solve land problems.

“If you follow keenly the fights between the commission and the Ministry of Land, then it really brings into context the whole idea of the commitment of the current government to sincerely and genuinely address land reforms in this country,” she says.

Mr Kuria adds to the land rights debate saying it is sad that “some people are still grabbing land… and that we have never settled all the internally displaced persons (IDP’s) after the 2007 post-election violence.”

Fr. Samuel Waweru, the executive director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Nakuru admits steps have been taken towards checking the all powerful presidency of the yesteryears. He, however, says more needs to be done to support institutions such as the Judiciary that help put the checks in place.

He suggests that more resources need to be sent to the county levels as a way of checking the president.

“So many resources are still at the central government. Why would the president want to control 80 per cent of tax payers’ money?” Fr. Waweru poses.
For Wakesho the current powers of the president could not excite Fr. Kaiser if he came back to life today.

“There are still a lot of powers within the office of the presidency that is visible in a number of ways. I am not so sure I would want Fr. Kaiser to come back because he may not be very excited, his quest would still be the same.”

However, the three cite the new Constitution as a landmark legal framework that has been achieved since Fr. Kaiser’s death.

“It is a legal reality,” says Fr. Waweru adding that “there’s more awareness of individual human rights and more people are advocating for them.”

Kuria on his part is confident that the Constitution would please Fr. Kaiser. However, he feels more needs to be done so as to attain more.

“We need to pray so that we can have accountability and transparency in leadership and address issues affecting citizens, and whatever leaders do should be within the rule of law,” he says as Ms Wakesho advises for the strengthening of the moral fabric in the country.

“We need morals and values to solve our problems in the land sector. Today we celebrate that we have a number of land legislation that were lacking but we still have problems as far as land management is concerned. I think it is a responsibility for all Kenyans, but also for the leadership of this country.”

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