Many would easily confuse Mr Okiya Omtatah for a mad man or just a busybody with no ambition in life. For a man who is always in dark suits without a tie, you may mistakenly assume he is an advocate especially because he is always in the court corridors. It is only after you interact with him that the contrary is revealed. We remember meeting Mr Okiya in his office and the first impression was that of a man who is always on the move. With the numerous bulky court files in his bag and the considerably packed office with huge files neatly arranged and marked, it is no doubt that he would easily pass for an advocate. In fact when he talks he oozes a lot of knowledge of the law and in particular the provisions of the Constitution not to mention other Acts of Parliament. But the truth is, he has never stepped into any law classroom. So why possess all the knowledge of the law and yet he is not an advocate? The answer is quite simple, he is an activist. He is that one courageous soul that has sacrificed his numerous opportunities in life among them that of being a priest, an engineer and writer but above all his life so as to fight for the rights of others, the rights of fellow Kenyans. He is the boldest man who made it possible for the period of voter registration to be extended to allow for more Kenyans to register. He is the man who had the guts to file a petition to block the Communication Authority of Kenya from installing systems meant to monitor mobile devices. That is Okiya Okoiti Omtatah, the great son of Busia County and a hero to thousands, if not millions of Kenyans.
Okiya Omtatah was born in Busia County on 30th November 1964 and had four elder sisters. He was the only boy in his family and thus subjected to different treatment from his sisters. In his early years, he had to dress like his sisters to prevent any suspicion that he was a boy thereby protecting him from ‘evil eyes’. He grew up in Teso South and was baptized in the Catholic Church. He joined class 1 in 1971 and completed class 7 in 1977. Thereafter, he joined St. Pauls’ Secondary School for form 1 and 2. It is here that he met a missionary priest who greatly influenced his convictions in life to date. He later joined St. Peters School in Mukumu in 1981 for Form 3 to 6 where he passed in his “A” levels in 1983. Due to his exemplary performance, he was called to join the University of Nairobi to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce Degree. It is at this point that his sacrifices began. Instead of joining the university he opted to join St. Augustine in Mabanga, Bungoma where he pursued a Diploma in Philosophy. It was while schooling for priest hood that he suffered an injury that affected his brain leaving him epileptic. Following this injury, he had to make another sacrifice; that of leaving priesthood since his condition could not allow him to continue. His health deteriorated severely that he had to be taken to Aga Khan Hospital where he was diagnosed with grand mal, a permanent health condition. But that did not stop him from seeking treatment. He had to get better, one way or another for his life to continue as he had planned. Indeed his desire did not go in vain. On 17th December 1987 during one of the football matches, a young man approached him and told me that if he could get Kshs. 1500 then he would talk to his father to prescribe some medicine for him. He requested the amount from his parents and paid for the medication after which the seizures stopped within 12 days. The disappearance of the seizures was to be confirmed later by Aga Khan Hospital. It was then that he joined the Kenya Polytechnic to pursue Mechanical Engineering and Automotives. How then did Okiya Omtatah find himself in activism?
According to Okiya Omtatah, his activism dates back to his days in high school. He remembers with nostalgia that during those days, the level of freedom of expression permitted in St. Peters Secondary School began was so high. He notes that the school had an isolated area known as the “Stone of Wisdom” where they were allowed to say anything and everything regarding the school without any fear of victimisation. Moreover, even though his evaluation reports indicated that he was an obedient and respectful boy there was always that BUT outspoken. He also notes that a story given by one Irish father known as Father Grot on Africans not appreciating Metaphysics challenged him to want to prove him wrong. He later wrote the play ‘Luanda Magere’ in a bid to disapprove Father Grot by illustrating the metaphysical quest among the Luos.
Indeed many factors influenced Mr Okiya Omtatah to join activism. Unlike most activists who are driven by the desire to revenge the injustices that they have faced in their lives, Okiya argues that the paramount force of his activism is his religious beliefs. Those beliefs that he has grown to acknowledge as the ultimate word are his foundation for activism. He notes that when he joined St. Augustine to pursue priesthood, he met a priest who taught him the principles of the Good Samaritan that he subscribes to date. Moreover, during his Catechism, the importance of being his brother’s keeper and God’s witness was regularly impacted to him. The teachings of the Old Testament also came in handy through the Biblical illustration of the structure of the society consisting of the prince (the government) and the prophets (citizens who deal with the public interest actions) who are mandated to do justice just as the prophets of Jewish council were to do justice. It was not just about having a religion to worship God but also to play a role on fellow citizens by facilitating the will of justice, love and fairness.
Apart from religion, Okiya notes that one of the most influential persons in his activism life has to be the Late Professor Wangari Maathai. While describing how Maathai influenced his activism, Okiya observes that he was really fascinated when she went and protested against the construction of the Kenya Times Media Trust Complex at Uhuru Park in 1990. To see that an individual could make the government refrain from committing unjust acts against its citizens really inspired him to be an activist. He notes that then the only option was to have demonstrations. It was during that period of fascination that he published the book ‘Voice of the People’ in honor of the Late Wangari Maathai.
Okiya Omtatah actively took part in activism both in pre-2010 and the post-2010 Constitution. In Pre-2010 he was popularly known as the man in chains because of the numerous times that he chained himself during protests. Though he notes that he has not abandoned the chains, he observes that then the only option was to participate in demonstrations. To him, this was in many ways ineffective because they would protest for two to three days and thereafter everything would go back to the way it was without the resolution of the injustices that had taken them to the streets in the first place. Ultimately, the only thing they achieved was publicity. However, with the promulgation of the new Constitution, Okiya observes that things are different. He notes that the Constitution has made it possible to engage effectively through the court whose orders are binding on the various institutions. Unlike previously where courts would reject to hear a matter for lack of locus standi as the case was in Wangari Maathai vs Kenya Media Trust Limited, Civil Case No. 5403 of 1989 eKLR, under the new Constitutional dispensation, Article 22(1) allows every person to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom has been denied, violated, infringed or threatened. Based on this provision, Okiya Omtatah notes that he can now take petitions to court against any violations of the provision of the Constitution without being barred for lack of locus standi. He further asserts that participating in protests is now the last resort when seeking to address any social injustice. Instead, he prefers to first approach the courts and where the implementation of such court orders fail then demonstrations would follow.
Mr Okiya Omtatah is, however, quick to note that the implementation of Article 22(1) of the Constitution has been coupled with its share of challenges…………………..READ FULL ARTICLE ON THE FEBRUARY EDITION