The Star (Nairobi)

9 February 2013

Kenya: Yusuf Hassan Fights On After Surviving Assassination Attempt

Yusuf Hassan is a reluctant politician who says he entered mainstream politics after a long career in journalism and in the UN system with the sole aim of helping Kenya achieve true liberation.

The irony of life is not lost on him as he recovers in a Nairobi hospital from the December 7, 2012 assassination attempt on his life by suspected terrorists. In his case the irony is that those who strive for social justice put their lives at greater risk than those who work to deprive others of their rights.

On that December evening unidentified assailants hurled a hand grenade at Hassan as he emerged from a mosque in Kamukunji constituency for which he is seeking re-election on March 4. Five people died in the attack and several others were injured, including Hassan who sustained fractures in his legs.

As further part of life's irony, the horrific incident occurred just outside of Hidaya Mosque, as a crowd of worshipers dispersed from the evening prayers.

Hassan has just greeted and lectured the small crowd on politics and what needs to be done in Kamukunji when the grenade was thrown at them.

"I heard a crack; something like someone throwing a stone on one of the roofs, and then there was a bit of smoke and a flash; and a sound like gunfire.

Immediately, in front of me I could see its impact. There was a delay before I was hit and the people who were standing in front of me bore the brunt of it.

Two youngsters were lifted off the ground. I tried to react before realising that I had been hit on both legs badly," Hassan says. Five people died in the attack and several others were injured. Hassan sustained serious fractures in his legs, needing surgery to implant steel rods in both.

"On one [leg] almost all the muscle and tendons were torn apart and fell on the floor. People were screaming all over, lying on the ground and that is all I can remember," he says.

Nonetheless, Hassan remains philosophical about the assassination attempt. He touchingly says that the attack has humbled him and brought him closer to his family.

"It clearly shows how fragile we are as human beings. How life is short and how important it is to use the little time we have on earth to make a difference, to make a contribution and change society. It also tells me that I should spend more time with my family and those who are close to me," he said.

Looking back, the tall, suave and highly articulate Hassan says: "I had no fear whatsoever that my life would be in danger for the simple fact that I had gone into politics to try help make a difference. I didn't imagine anyone would want to end my life."

Such a view could be seen as naïve considering Kenya's perilous politics but then Hassan is a person whose trust in the decency of Kenyans is deep-rooted.

In his heyday, he was known as a political firebrand, a constant thorn in the establishment which at one point confiscated his passport. Some would argue that he has now joined the same establishment he was fighting against and so has effectively sold out.

The African struggle

Hassan disagrees. He says there have been three phases in the African struggle towards freedom and each required different means. The first was the fight against colonial rule, which in Kenya's case could only best be tackled through an armed struggle, as pioneered by the Mau Mau Kenyan Land and Freedom Movement.

The second was the battle against a dictatorial one-party system that could only effectively be challenged by the kind of firebrand activism for which he was famous.

He becomes animated when he reminisces about his life as an activist with movements such as the old Ukenya organisation, which was banned in Kenya and which he had chaired while in exile in London during the Moi era.

Other Ukenya activists included Kenya's best known novelist Ngugi wa Thion'go and the country's foremost Swahili poet Abdilatif Abdalla as well as the lawyer and former MP Wanyiri Kihoro and his late wife Wanjiru Kihoro.

Then Kenya lived in the dark age of a dictatorial one-party system and Hassan proudly says that "Ukenya fought for the right to vote, the right to a multi-party system and the right to freedom of speech. Rights that are now all part of our constitution".

However, in spite of the achievements so far Hassan is keen to stress that Kenya still has some way to go before becoming a fully-fledged democratic state.

"Democracy is not merely to have the right to elect a member of parliament or to have periodic elections," he says. "Democracy must also mean the right to clean water, the right to shelter, the right to human security and the protection of human dignity and the human being. For me democracy is much broader," he adds.

However, Hassan says that with the reintroduction of multi-party politics and with its new constitution Kenya is now in its third phase -- fighting for social justice, equity and developing an immature democracy.

He believes the current struggle is best waged from within the establishment. "You cannot achieve change in isolation. I've said that I'm not going to be a spectator; I'm going to be an active participant in the struggle for change in my community and country. And I'm satisfied to an extent that in the short period I've been in parliament, I've been able to do that," he says.

Even his political rivals agree that Hassan has positively changed Kamukunji during his brief time in Parliament. Hassan himself cites the bursaries he handed out to 3,500 deprived children of Kamukunji as his proudest achievement as MP.

He is also credited with the 21 roads that have been built in the area during this period. Some of these roads link up to the city centre and have already contributed much in improving commerce in the bustling neighbourhood. Thus Eastleigh's commercial hub now sees thousands of visitors daily, a feat that was previously impossible due to lack of access.

Regeneration

Business revival and the regeneration of Kamukunji as a whole is a singular achievement also noted by Hassan. He mentions the rejuvenation of Kamukunji's Kikomba market, the second largest second hand clothing market in Eastern and Central Africa, as well as the Burma meat market in Shauri Moyo which the government had shut down last May citing its 'unhygienic conditions'.

"All these places are seeing regeneration. We're doing quite a lot of rebuilding and reconstruction. I'm confident that if I'm given more time [as an MP], we'll be able to - brick by brick - build the whole of Kamukunji, so that we'll have a cleaner, healthier, safer and better Kamukunji," he says.

Improvements have also been made to the sanitation and health of Kamukunji's residents. Whereas previously sewage systems in the area's slums were non-existent or blocked, significant rejuvenation of the sewage networks have reduced urban environmental diseases that are unique to third-world cities like Nairobi.

The electrification of Kamukunji is another of Hassan's achievement. Before his election as an MP certain parts of Eastland were in complete darkness.

These areas are now lit with security lights and street lights, improving safety levels and increasing trading at night. Despite being a victim of an assassination attempt and the numerous bomb explosions in Eastleigh, Hassan surprisingly looks as effervescent as ever. He credits the Kenyan people for his buoyancy and confidence.

"The majority of Kenyans are hardworking, upright, in want of good leadership and a prosperous country that is moving forward and they're willing to work across ethnic and religious lines. I think my optimism is built on that particular group of people of Kenyans who will move in the right direction when this country needs to change," he says.

The escalating violence in Tana River, along with the ongoing conflicts in Baragoi and North Eastern Kenya bring back sour memories to Hassan.

War scarred his fondest childhood memories. An ethnic Somali born in Nairobi to an itinerant trader father, Hassan recounts his travel to Garissa as a boy to learn Qur'an. Living in Tana River he found himself among a rich diversity of plants and wildlife, including elephants, hyenas, lions and crocodiles.

"We spent a lot of time poking fun and throwing stones at the crocodiles, particularly when they came out into the sun; it was almost like they were tourists coming out to soak the sun. We had a lot of fun playing around with them during the periods that we were out of school. That was one of the earliest memories that I have of who I am and being at peace with the natural habitat," he says.

Shifta war

The so-called Shifta War of 1963 to 1967 in North Eastern Kenya and Garissa in particular sadly cut short the halcyon days of his childhood.

Instead, his idyllic experience was quickly followed by his most harrowing early memory. "This was a very tragic time in the history of our community.

Thousands of our people were killed, thousands were injured and thousands of others were displaced as refugees both internally and in the neighbouring countries. That is probably the most traumatising and tragic memory that I have. I lost many of my beloved relatives, sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunties, and there are some who we do not even know if they're still alive or not because they've fled the conflict and have not returned," Hassan says.

The experience, he says, later made him empathise with the displaced people of the Rift Valley. But he accuses the current Kenyan government and its predecessors of failing to address the country's previous wars.

"The issues of many of the victims of the Mau Mau struggle and many of the victims of the Shifta War have not been resolved. There have been no post-mortems and there has been no attempt to empathise with the people who have suffered horrendously during these cruel, terrible wars in our country," he says.

Kamukunji residents turned up in their thousands during the TNA party elections to vote for Hassan as their parliamentary candidate while he lay in his hospital bed recovering from grenade attack injuries

. "I'm thankful to the people of Kamukunji for showing me their humanity. I've received thousands and thousands of messages of solidarity wishing me well.

I have been touched by the feelings of these thousands of Kenyans of different ethnic groups, different religious groups and different backgrounds. They have really given me a lot of courage and energy".

He is confident that on March 4,they will return him to Parliament with an overwhelming majority of votes as they did in the previous poll.

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