Unbowed Maathai stood against Moi and won

Tuesday February 11 2020

Environmentalist Wangari Maathai is accorded the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, 2004. PHOTO | COURTESY

Wangari Muta Maathai once said: “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

The professor of veterinary anatomy and scholar-turned-political activist seems to have been fired by those words, which, many-a-time got her on a collision course with the government.

In the late 1980s, she became a thorn in the flesh of the Kanu government under President Daniel arap Moi, who died last Tuesday aged 95.

Maathai, the first Kenyan female professor, shot into the national limelight when she stood against the ills that were being committed by the regime.

In 1989, she led a vigorous campaign to stop the government from building a multibillion complex at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

Moi planned to build a Times Media Complex, a 60-storey tower that would host Kanu headquarters, offices and shopping malls.



Wangari and other pro-democracy crusaders challenged Moi in the courts and waged an international campaign that culminated in the government abandoning the project in February 1990.

It was her first win against the ruthless Kanu regime. Towards the end of February1992, Wangari, who had just been released from police custody, annoyed Moi further when she joined mothers and relatives of detained political prisoners at Uhuru Park for a hunger strike to push for their release.

Their hunger strike was short-lived as a few days later, police forcefully dispersed them in a violent and bloody attack. Wangari and three others sustained serious injuries.

Following the fracas, Moi called her “a mad woman” who was “a threat to the order and security of the country”.

The violence against the mothers and their supporters made newspaper headlines, which sparked riots in the city.

Civil society and political opposition groups, including the Forum for the Restoration Democracy (Ford) and Release Political Prisoners pressure group, women’s groups among them Mothers in Action and the National Council of Women of Kenya joined in the campaign to have the prisoners freed.


For months, the mothers held daily meetings outside All Saints Cathedral to speak with their growing numbers of supporters as they continued to push for their sons’ release.

Their attempts to deliver a petition to President Moi was foiled by police.

However, the pressure became unbearable, and four prisoners were freed on June 24, 1992. By January 1993, all the mothers had been reunited with their sons.

Maathai would again, in 1998, capture both national and international attention when she led a campaign against fraudulent allocation of Karura Forest.

In her autobiography Unbowed: One Woman’s Story, Maathai detailed how she fought to save Karura Forest from being allocated to private developers by the Kanu government.


The one-time Tetu MP and assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources wrote in her memoirs that in 1998, she had to act after learning that a vast portion of Karura Forest had been allocated to private developers.

Her protest letters to the government went unanswered.

Road construction and laying what looked like a drainage system pushed Maathai and her Green Belt Movement into tree-planting in the forest — an act that was violently met by machete-wielding Kanu youth, who uprooted all the trees they had planted.

It was not until August 1999 that Moi banned excision of the forest following international clamour led by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the US government.

Wangari succumbed to cancer in 2011 — but not before winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace”.