NAIROBI, Kenya Jul 19 – Sixteen human rights activists and university students were arrested on Tuesday afternoon when they tried to marched to State House to hand over a petition to President Kibaki, demanding the sacking of Education Minister Prof Sam Ongeri over a scandal involving the loss of some Sh4.2 billion.
The money was meant to fund the free education programme but did not reach the grassroots level, according to an audit report prepared by the Treasury.
The misappropriation has angered most civil society organisations in the country, resorting to a peaceful sit in at the Education Ministry headquarters at Jogoo House since June 19.
Among those arrested was Okiya Omtatah of the Kenyans for Justice Peace and Development and George Nyongesa, the National Coordinator of the Bunge La Mwananchi.
“We want to hand our petition to President Kibaki to sack Prof Ongeri. The President has not spoken about this issue and we want to bring it to his attention,” Mr Omtatah, who led the protest towards State House said, shortly before he was bundled into a police van.
He said they “were tired waiting for action from the Head of State and it is time we have to act.”
The demonstrators first marched to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission offices at the Integrity Centre where they were heartily addressed by KACC director Patrick Lumumba before the proceeded towards State House.
“I totally agree with the cause you are pursuing. Leaders must be taken to task to take responsibility as it happened in the UK over the (News of the World) hacking scandal. Ministers whose ministries have been implicated with corruption must take responsibility and resign,” he told the demonstrators.
“We have handed a petition to the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission and we are now taking another one to the President. We want him to take action. He must sack Ongeri and all the others implicated in corruption,” Mr Omtatah said.
“It is time our leaders took responsibility because they are holding public offices,” he added.
On learning that the protestors were headed to State House, authorities quickly deployed heavily armed anti-riot and plainclothes police officers to block the way and keep the rioters at bay.
“State House is a protected area. We can not allow rioters there. They know that what they are trying to do is wrong and we cannot allow them to do it,” Nairobi Provincial Police chief Antony Kibuchi said.
Another senior police officer who led the anti-riot team said: “We have arrested several of the protesters who were attempting to match to State House. They are in custody. They are about 16.” The officer did not reveal where the suspects were being held.
Capital News independently established that the protesters were locked up at the Kilimani police station where they were being questioned.
It was not immediately clear which charges authorities intended to prefer against the activists.
The demonstrators had earlier thought they were not under police watch and kept chanting on State House Avenue, but were surprised when officers riding in unmarked saloon cars cut short their trip and whisked them away.
Police, some with dogs on leashes, did not spare anyone walking on the usually quiet State House Avenue, as they picked up every one on sight and cleared the area within a couple of minutes.
Some journalists who had trailed the protestors from Jogoo House where they first converged were not spared either and were only released after identifying themselves while already aboard the police trucks.
Within a couple of minutes, State House Avenue was cleared as the remaining demonstrators ran in different directions for fear of arrest. The police did use tear gas during the swift operation despite being on the ready.
A statement from Bunge La Mwananchi, which took part in Tuesday’s protest confirmed the arrests of Mr Omtatah and Mr Nyongesa who is the organisation’s National Coordinator.
“The visit to State House was part of an effort today to petition the President and the Parliament as well to take a decisive position in relation to Prof Ongeri’s responsibility to the Kenyan public in relation the funds that his ministry was charged with administering on Kenyans’ behalf in order to ensure that each Kenyan child does indeed enjoy their constitutional right to free primary education,” the statement said.