Stephen Mwangi is the administrative coordinator of Mathare Social Justice (MSJC), a Kenyan organisation that seeks to “promote social justice through engaged community and social movement platforms.” Its work is centred in Mathare, Nairobi's largest slum. In addition to Stephen’s role in both the establishment and administration of MSJC, he has trained as a lawyer in order to better represent the interests of the residents of urban settlements.

On his childhood

My name is Stephen Mwangi and I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. I grew up in Mathare. We lived for a while in Mathare 4A but we had to leave the area because of the post electoral violence. Our house was totally destroyed. People were evicting (Kenyan ethnic group) Kikuyus from there so they burned down the house and stole everything. So we ended up settling in Mwangakuwa. My mother did not make it; she was traumatised about how much she had lost and after two years she passed on.

I remember one time when I was a child, around 8 years old, I was playing cards with my friends. Gambling is not legal in Kenya so the police came. I could not see the policeman because he was coming from my back; he caught me and slapped me. I didn’t understand why he was slapping me. Later on when I asked my elder brother, he told me that when you see the police you simply run away. Since then every time I see a police officer I always relate it to violence but back then I didn’t think of it as violence. I just thought that these are people who want to beat you up, chase after you, people who you definitively want to run away from because if they catch you they will slap you and kick you.

On the choice of non-violence

Until recently, I didn’t think of violence as a term that describes things with much specificity. Back then it was just a normal neighbourhood. Everybody was running from the police, from angry neighbours, everybody was being tear-gassed when the police came, so for me it was a normal thing. People being shot was normal. So I didn’t think of it as violence until I met people that were seeing this as outsiders, who saw it as an abnormal thing.

I always had a feeling of contesting violence from the police but when I came to put words to it and understand the law properly was after high school, around 2015. That was the time when I heard about activists. I came to understand why these people were being chased, why they were being arrested and beaten on TV. So when I met some of these activists, that was when I found my basis for human rights work.

Seeing how the police caused so much violence, seeing people lose their lives and nothing being done, seeing families losing a breadwinner or a mother losing her son, once you understand how much damage violence can cause then you won’t be advocating for violence. In any case, violence cannot be a remedy for violence. I have even seen 2 cases in the last 3 months of police being stabbed, and right afterwards the police killed 3 men in Mathare. When they chose violent means to deal with the problem what else could be expected? Just more violence. So I feel that the best way to deal with this kind of violence has to be a peaceful way. Understanding the police, understanding the community and seeing which are the best ways for the police to do their job and for the community to be safe. I feel non-violent means will always be the best way to achieve peace and even justice.

On the role of the UN declaration

To be honest, when I was beginning this work I didn’t read through the Declaration. Most of the engagement that I put into this work was through reading the Constitution of Kenya. And when I read through it I found that there are a lot of protections for anyone who is engaging in the work of human rights defence, there are many guarantees that they should be safe. I found much basis in the Constitution.

The Declaration is mostly a document clarifying the role of HRDs; most of the rights that have been put in the Declaration can also be found in the Constitution of Kenya. I did not read the Declaration at first but I ended up referring to it later on in my classes in law school, also in different interactions that I had with different individuals and rights organizations in Kenya. When I went through it, I found that it is quite related to the laws we have but I also realised that Kenya has not accepted the terms of the Declaration. However, even without ratifying the Declaration itself the laws of Kenya already protect the work of human rights defenders. Defenders are not outsiders, they are still citizens of Kenya and it is stated quite clearly under Article 3 of the Constitution that any person can go to court as an individual or as a group or association and claim that a right has been violated. And the work of defenders is to promote and protect human rights and also to document any cases of human rights violations and bring them to court or to international bodies.

Now when we are engaging with defenders we bring it up; we let them know how far they can go in their work and what kind of protection they have within the law and what kind of challenges they should foresee. However, we do not bring it up as the Declaration but within the laws of Kenya.

On how defenders contribute to the rule of law

There was a time when my friend came over to my place; we had a drink and he went home at 9pm. He left and I was preparing to watch a movie when he called me to say that he had been arrested. I was quite shocked because he was not the kind of person that I would expect to be arrested. He told me he had been taken to a police station around Dandora. I was not prepared for that but I had an idea of what to do. I took the Constitution; I put it in my bag, put on a jacket and left for the police station.

When I got there, I asked what charge he had been arrested for and requested to look at the Occurrence Book (OB). The police gave it to me not knowing that the police officer that arrested my friend did not book him in the OB. So when I did not see his name I asked the officer to release him because there is no way you can be in a police station without having been charged. The police officer refused, saying that he could not release him because the offense had not been recorded. Then I got the Constitution and I read them the rights of an arrested person and reminded them of the fact that an arrested person’s name has to be recorded in the OB. It ended up being an argument but I emphasised the importance of even police officers respecting and upholding the rule of law. After five minutes of discussion, the Officer Commanding the Police Station (OCPS) came to the room and asked what was going on. He was quite angry and might have wanted to put me in as well. So I explained to him the situation and when I was done he called me to the side and told me that sometimes police officers make mistakes and that it was good that I corrected him in a very polite manner. My friend was released. I couldn’t believe it.

After that, I felt really proud that I had found the courage to go to the police station and explain to the police officers what their duty really is, explain to them why it is important for them to respect the rule of law just like any other citizen. Every time I go to a police station I remember that day, how I dealt with the situation, and I feel encouraged to do more of this. I have not only done it once. I did it for some other people, some I did not even know, they just called me, and I used the same strategy: the rule of law, what the rule of law stipulates and why it is important for the police officer and for the suspects.

On risks and protection gaps

The first point of risk is the threat of physical harm to the human rights defenders themselves or to their families. We have had instances of defenders being killed and families of defenders threatened with physical harm. Other instances are malicious prosecutions, which are the most common. Even when a defender goes to a police station to help release a young person who has been detained they can also be detained with the charge of creating disturbance in a police station. Malicious prosecution is the tool that the government chooses to counter defenders’ work. The best way to deal with this would be to make sure that Kenya ratifies the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, because if they did then we would have very good grounds of holding them to account. They should recognise a human rights defender and once they do that also recognise the importance of the defenders’ work. Because any person should be able to walk into a police station and lodge their complaints.

On the right to be protected

Criminalisation comes in so many ways because the state, by not ratifying the Declaration and not domesticating the laws themselves, does not recognise the importance of the work of human rights defenders. It is only very recently that court officials, judges, magistrates, were explained about the work of defenders, we saw this through the targeting of people who protect rights as activists. Even when you bring up an argument, whether on TV or in a newspaper or with individuals, you could be shut down because of being an “activist”, activist being considered a bad thing. But everybody should be an activist. Everybody has a right to live well and when that right is violated and you speak out against it you are an activist, a human rights defender.

Human rights work has been criminalised in Kenya. We have seen it through defenders that have been working with us like Gacheke Gahiki or Wilfred Olal, who have gone to court many times, not for engaging in criminal activities but just because they were in the streets or they have gone so many times to a police station to protest against abuse of police force and use of firearms. There have been charges of illegal assembly, creating disturbance in a police station. It is very easy for a defender to end up in court or even to end up in jail, because there are no special mechanisms. The Declaration has not been domesticated into internal law and therefore it is much easier for anyone defending rights to end up in court because the work of defenders is not being recognised. If a police officer wants to arrest you they can just do it, when you go to a police station they can just create a charge of creating disturbance in a police station and what law do you have there to protect you?

On the right to freedom of assembly

There are situations that defenders come across where they cannot fully exercise this right. Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya clearly states that any person has the right to peacefully assembly, to picket and to demonstrate. Again, you see state laws that seen to be taming that right. For example, the Public Order Act stipulates that for assemblies you have to notify the nearest police station through the OCS. When it comes to assembly, any reason you would have to demonstrate often comes spontaneously. You are meeting somewhere and you realise that a certain police officer has just killed 10 people, which is even normal in Mathare, and the community is so angered about it that they spontaneously organise themselves and go to the police station. That is not allowed and the government can easily incriminate people for that. There were so many people who were beaten up by the police and also killed in the last elections that we had. People went to the streets to demonstrate against electoral violence and then the police had enough reasons in the law to either arrest people or to dismiss people using lethal force, and in most instances people ended up in jail for spontaneous assemblies. So, while on one end we have a right guaranteeing peaceful assembly, we also have an entire act that goes into details in limiting this right.

On the right to communicate with international bodies

Personally I have not experienced any backlash for communicating with internationals. I would say that engaging with our partners abroad has created a network and a sense of security. If something were to happen then we have contacts with most of the diplomatic missions in Kenya. I have heard of cases where people have been targeted for the specific reason of being suspected of being a spy for a foreign government, but I don’t have first-hand information about this.

My experience with communicating with international bodies has so far been positive. When we have been under threat or forcefully detained we have been able to get a good response, whenever a diplomatic mission calls or gets involved. I can give examples of situations of people being released from detention when the OHCHR or someone from an embassy gives a call to a police station.

On safeguarding mental health

There are a number of tools, if I can call them that. One is knowing how bad the situation could be if we didn’t have human rights defenders doing the kind of work that they do. Every time that I am feeling that I cannot do this anymore, this is too much for me, I think about that and keep going.

The kind of network we have of defenders is also very encouraging. That there are people who have been in this kind of work longer than I have been and are still going on is an encouragement. A person like Mama Rahma, with the kind of threats and situations that she has been able to deal with, is so encouraging.

International solidarity is also key. The kind of international solidarity that we have it makes me feel that I can even do more than I am doing right now. Like the work of PBI, knowing that I can call them when there is trouble anywhere is an encouragement. Frontline Defenders are also key to protect the work of human rights defenders. I have two daughters and when I think about the kind of life I want them to live, I think that I should do more.

If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to our Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.