The state must protect Senator Omtatah from constant attacks

By Irũngũ Houghton

Busia Senator Okiya Omtatah was attacked again this week. Over the last year, he has faced several public verbal attacks and physical house and office raids designed to intimidate the Senator from his legislative and litigative duties as an opposition parliamentarian. Given Kenya’s post-colonial history of assassinations and the weaponisation of state agencies against political opponents under the past administration, we have serious grounds to worry what might happen next.

The Wednesday attack found the Senator away from his rural home but left his wife injured after being brutally assaulted. If family members had not intervened to protect her, it is frightening to imagine what might have happened to her at the hands of the attackers enraged that the Senator was not home.

Kenya has a terrible history of state instigated political assassinations over the sixty years of independence. Our current democratic freedoms are literally watered with the blood of several elected representatives we honour now but were killed either by state officers or their failure to protect them. They include Pio Gama Pinto (1965), Thomas Joseph Mboya (1969), Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (1975) and Robert Ouko (1990).

More recently, several Kenya Kwanza politicians experienced the risks of secret squads, arbitrary kamata kamata arrests, detentions, and extrajudicial killings. The experiences of Cleophas Malala, Dennis Itumbi and Rigathi Gichagua remain fresh for them, their families as well as their supporters. Informed by this, President Ruto committed before the nation after the 2022 elections that his administration would not repeat this culture.

Senator Omtatah is a seasoned public interest litigator. His tireless defence of the constitution, public finances and the rule of law goes back over a decade. While a member of the political opposition, his defence of the public interest and Article 1 of the Constitution long precedes his election as Busia Senator. This track record has earned “Citizen” Omtatah, as he is affectionately called, several national awards. It could be argued also, this secured his seat in the Senate.

Over the last nine months, Senator Omtatah has reported that his office has been raided, he has received indirect and direct threats and this Wednesday, thugs came looking for him in his rural home. The attacks do not seem random or disconnected. They have occurred at times when he has spoken up or litigated successfully against the widely unpopular taxes within the Finance Act or the mandatory SHIF and Housing programme levies.

Senator Omtatah is no stranger to intimidation and physical violence. Anyone who knows him well will tell you that he is fearless and when convinced of his cause, courageous to the last. The recent series of public verbal attacks and night raids must worry and cause those that believe in our constitutional freedoms to protect him.

Article 3 (1) of the Constitution requires all Kenyan citizens and state officers to respect, uphold and defend the entire constitution. This clause not only enshrines our right to dissent, question and campaign against any proposed policy or practise of our 47+1 governments but requires us to act when we see something that is unlawful or against the public interest.

On 16 December 2023, President Ruto was quoted by the mass media stating that those who seek court action to stop the affordable housing project were enemies of Kenya. Further, the sword he held while taking the oath to protect the people and constitution of Kenya was not for cutting vegetables. His remarks were chilling at the time. In the context of the persistent attacks on Senator Omtatah, the remarks must not be seen by any state agency or individual as licence to break the law and violate human rights.

It is time for the President to speak up again and ensure that the attacks come to an end and are investigated. Senator Omtatah’s constituents, his parliamentary colleagues, the Law Society of Kenya and human rights organisations must also demand his protection. The threats and intimidation against Senator Okiya Omtatah must now cease and those responsible must be arrested and charged.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]