Student Finds Refuge in the U.S. After Fleeing Political Retaliation in Kenya
“It was dark and no one was around. They came out and told me, ‘Say your last prayers!’ Of course I silently said my last prayers, inside me. Just, ‘Lord, take my soul. I am an innocent person.”
Senior communications studies major Peter Makori was certain he would be killed.
Eight instances of arrests and detentions, tainted further by relentless beatings and unthinkable living conditions, haunt Makori on a regular basis.
Claiming permanent residence in America after gaining political asylum wasn’t something he had ever expected.
In the ’90s, Makori worked from his hometown base in the city of Kisii for The Standard, Kenya’s oldest national daily newspaper.
He devoted much of his reporting to the investigation of injustices stemming from the corrupt government administration.
A history of violence had manifested in this district.
Makori had been in contact with the head of administration about the potential government involvement in extrajudicial killings and was assured the occurrences would be investigated.
Once serving as a stringer, a part-time correspondent for BBC, Makori reported information to the British media outlet about a mass killing in the region, telling BBC to contact the aforementioned government official. He also worked with Reuters and the Associated Press from his base in Kisii.
Displeased with this contact, the official contacted Makori inquiring if he had sent this information to the BBC.
“During that time, the political establishment didn’t like the style of my work,” Makori said.
He was not entirely aware of this tension at first, but started realizing which members of the administration found qualms with his work.
In 2003, he took a lead from an early morning phone call about a suspicious killing of two chiefs, low level government officials, the previous night in a neighboring town called Suneka.
Makori made a call to the district commissioner, the official above the chiefs, to find that he was not home.
Makori traveled to the scene. Upon arrival, he found a grade school teacher being bludgeoned with various weapons for allegedly killing the two chiefs. The district commissioner and the entire security detail oversaw the event.
Makori took a photo of the scene. He was quickly arrested as an alleged accessory for the murders he was attempting to report.
He was taken into custody and given minimal information. Later that night, he was transferred to a primitive area and waited until the next day when an armed police squad arrived, asking questions and expecting him to confess.
They ordered him to strip down from the suit he had been wearing the previous morning, attempting to humiliate him. He was ordered to sit down on his underwear while they proceeded to tie his feet with a rope.
“They beat me up very viciously. And they accused me of being an accessory for the murder [of one of the chiefs] that had happened,” Makori said.
“They wanted me to confess. I told them I am a man who believes in justice and I’m not going to confess on a murder that I do not know anything about how it happened.”
He was kicked, shoved face-first into walls and stepped on, resulting in serious injuries for which he received no medication or treatment.
Stopping in the middle of a wooded area late at night, the policemen, with their guns drawn, and pointed at Makori and shouted, “Say your last prayers! This is the end of your life!”
Makori felt death coming over him. His hands and feet were bound as he waited for a fatal shot.
“I waited for them to pull the trigger,” he said. “This was the height of extrajudicial lynchings. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t fight back.”
Luckily, he survived. The police gathered his swollen body, tossed him into a truck and transported him to another detention center.
One of Makori’s colleagues suffered a less fortunate fate at the same wooded area five years later.
He was also a reporter who had
investigated corruption within the police force. When the police realized that he was unrelenting, they sent a decoy to trick him into attending a purported press conference.
Not knowing what awaited him, the colleague was abducted, subdued and taken into a secluded area.
When night came, the police, together with a local militia whose activities Makori had investigated, tortured, decapitated, disfigured the man and burned his body.
“If the police want to kill you, they do,” Makori said. “If the members of Parliament who are supposed to protect the Constitution are the ones circumventing it, what could we expect from the police?”
Makori was hauled back to jail and was overwhelmed by the stench of urine and human feces in a small cell that he shared with 50-70 other people, many of whom were hardcore criminals. The bodies were stacked like animals in a cage.
“For the next 10-11 days, I was held there and didn’t eat food,” Makori said. “It was a very bad place and it was infested with rodents and mosquitos.”
Makori was produced in court on the 14th day of his arrest, which is mandatory under Kenyan law.
“I faced a murder charge, which I still don’t know to this day how it happened or who did it,” Makori said.
Makori was taken to Kisii prison, where he spent seven months detained in a 10’x10’ cell with eight other people. No trial was scheduled.
After bitterly complaining to the judiciary about the slow pace of the case, the high court in Kisii sent the case to Kisumu, the provincial headquarters.
It was in Kisumu that justice Barbara Tanui observed something was “fishy” about the case and threatened to have it sent back to Kisii.
The Kisii judge did not follow procedure to send the case to Kisumu, Justice Tanui said.
Makori pleaded to the judge not to send the case back to Kisii. He was sent to Kodiaga, a notorious prison near Lake Victoria. Prisoners used sewage-contaminated water to shower and drink.
“No one goes to Kodiaga and comes out alive,” he said. “But I kept the hope that since I was innocent and my conscience was clear, I would have to fight and get myself out of this trap. One thing which kept my hope alive was ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela.’”
Makori wrote a letter to the Attorney General, demanding evidence linking him to the murder and an immediate trial.
Many human rights organizations took particular interest in this case, including Amnesty International.
Finally appearing before the High Courts, Makori insisted he was a victim of malice.
He told the Attorney General, “I am here because your office wants me dead.”
The judges acknowledged that something was awry, following up a month later with orders from the Attorney General stating that Makori’s arrest had been carried out with malicious intent.
Makori was set free unconditionally.
A decade of legal abuse
Makori was arrested for the first time in 1994 under accusations of subversion. Later, it was substituted with a more serious charge of sedition.
This seems to be the case with each instance of arrest occurring in the decade following his first run in with the authorities.
In the same year, he was charged with publishing alarming reports in a story which are drawn from a previous year.
In 1995, Makori was charged with defaming an assistant minister in a story which was drawn from a year before when he had investigated and exposed the destruction of a water catchment forest in Kisii. No evidence.
In 1996, he was charged with defaming three ministers. No evidence.
A 1998 charge for possession of 100 liters of traditional brew? No evidence.
This trend leading up to the brutal arrest and near death experiences of 2003 finally pushed Makori over the edge.
In 1998, Makori received a fellowship to study community radio programs in Denmark.
Upon his return, he opted to sue for being unrightfully arrested and compensation was ordered in the form of nearly $20,000 worth of his native currency. He later again sued for nearly $7,000.
It was soon after the government realized it was losing these cases that his catastrophic arrest occurred.
In 2004, a colleague from New York went to visit Makori in Nairobi and inquired about his situation. He admitted that his personal safety was at risk.
Working with Amnesty International, they determined the safest method to flee to South Africa or Europe.
In 2005, Elizabeth Witchel, a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, asked Makori to apply for an international press fellowship that ultimately brought him to the U.S.
“I didn’t know I would be selected to participate in the fellowship program,” Makori said. “The interviewing process is rigorous, and the competition was very tight.”
Makori spent his first two weeks in the U.S. in Washington, D.C. on the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships.
After a two-week orientation, Makori was reassigned to work at The Kansas City Star.
During his time there, the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights summoned him to appear before a quasi-judicial tribunal in the first trial of its kind before a human rights panel.
Before coming to the U.S., Makori had instituted civil litigation targeting the attorney general of Kenya, the police commissioner, officers at the Office of the President and individual policemen for the 2003-2004 arrests, torture and detention.
The night before the hearing, two individuals Makori intended to call forward as witnesses were killed.
“Tension was quite high, and my friends in the media industry were telling me that I should be careful, so I went underground when I was in Nairobi,” Makori said.
“I had to play a trick with the authorities. I went on the radio and said, ‘I knew some people in the government were out to get me. I am going to remain in Kenya and face with anyone who believes that there was something wrong I had done.’”
No one came forward.
Makori presented his own evidence against the entire government, receiving the equivalent of nearly $85,000 in compensation for defamation and torture that is still accruing interest.
Money isn’t the final appeasement for Makori.
No sentencing has been passed for the death of the chiefs, one of whom Makori was accused of killing.
“That is the fundamental question that I want answered by the authorities in Kenya,” Makori said. “They have to answer as long as I am alive, because I’m going to pursue it. Someone somewhere has to be held accountable.”
Last year, Makori wrote a letter to the Kenyan attorney general from his base in America demanding that he open investigations on the chiefs’ killings.
“In that letter, I informed the attorney general that I have reasons to believe the security officials in Kisii were involved in the killing of the two chiefs, and that is why I was used as a scapegoat to cover up the killings,” Makori said.
The complaint was referred from the attorney general to the director of public prosecutions, with whom Makori said he is currently pursuing the matter.
“It is in the best interest of justice for me and the relatives of the slain victims that the case is opened up,” Makori said. “I conducted my own independent investigations before I came to America. I have overwhelming evidence that will expose security officials in Kisii as complicit in the killing of the two chiefs, by at the very minimum failing to protect their lives.”
He holds an associate’s degree in liberal arts. Anticipating graduation in May, Makori wishes to pursue a master’s in public administration, contemplating a focus in law.
“You can see why I want to do law here,” he said. “My focus is to work with the UN, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International so we can protect the many people in difficult situations in the different countries of Africa like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where people are suffering so much. They could take advantage of my resources.”
Makori still feels like the time he spent in the filthy Kenyan jail cell happened just yesterday.
“This instance made me sick. I was very sick when I came to America,” he said. “I became very ill. I suffered a severe headache from time to time. I thought my life would never be the same again.”
Clippings from The Kansas City Star and several Kenyan newspapers covering his hearing show Makori sobbing at the witness stand.
Makori, thanks to his coverage of Kenya, received an award recognizing his distinguished work as a columnist for global issues from the National Association of Black Journalists-Kansas City Chapter while he worked at the Kansas City Star.
“I had never cried, and I didn’t realize that crying could heal someone’s heart,” he said. “I felt relieved. It [eventually] occurred to me that there was a lot of pain in my heart for a long time, and from time to time that I talked about this, I cried.”
This particular retelling of his story didn’t elicit the same torrent of tears that occurred the day of the hearing, but Makori admitted to enduring headaches throughout his narration.
“I look at myself and think I don’t know what happened,” he said, “but I made it.”