Karimi Nduthu defiantly stood up in court in 1986 and declared: “Change, like death, is inevitable.” A student leader at the University of Nairobi, Karimi’s words would ring true within the next five years, as the government finally gave in and allowed multipartyism.
Karimi was an avowed political activist. As an Engineering student at the University of Nairobi, then a hotbed of social and political agitation, Karimi clarified his purpose in life; he wanted to be the change he aspired for his country – which was quite audacious given that the Kanu dictatorship was at its zenith in the mid-1980s.
Karimi was arrested during the Mwakenya crackdowns of 1985/6, when public intellectuals and university students were hounded and charged on trumped up charges. In court, Karimi made the now-famous declaration, instead of pleading to save his skin. He was jailed for 14 years.
More activists were jailed in the next five years as the government cracked down on dissent. A small but powerful movement, consisting of activists and mothers of political prisoners, began at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park. The fearless women would be continually clobbered by riot police, rushing to All Saints Cathedral for shelter before returning to Freedom Corner. Among those fearless women who braved the pain and cold for what eventually became a year-long protest was Veronica Wambui, Karimi’s mother. Wambui was there to represent her son and his friend, Tirop Kitur, whose parents lived far from Nairobi.
In 1992, as the wind of change that Karimi had so eloquently predicted finally blew in his direction, he was released from jail. He and other activists soon took over the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) to push for the release of all other political prisoners.
Karimi, ever the fearless social and political activist, continued to push for social justice. For him, the 1992/3 ethnic clashes were rather personal tribulations as his family lived in the epicentre of the violence. In 1996, four years after he was released from prison, Karimi was found hacked to death in his home. He had been finalising a report on State involvement in the ethnic clashes of 1992. He was only 35 at the time. A book on his life, titled Karimi Nduthu: A Life in the Struggle, was published in 1998 by the New York-based Mau Mau Research Center. The book tells the short yet profound story of a young and passionate rebel whose life ended painfully and abruptly.