Stella Nyanzi

Stella Nyanzi is arrested by police officers as she organised a protest for more food distribution by the government to people financially struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

| Sumi Sadurni | AFP

Kenya a safe haven for dissidents, opposition chiefs on the run

What you need to know:

  1. This month, Ethiopian lawyer and civil activist Teshager Tsigab became the latest dissident to seek refuge in Kenya, claiming the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was after his life.

In the recent past, some of the most prominent opposition leaders and dissidents who have been tear-gassed, arrested and beaten by the police, held in solitary confinement, charged on frivolous grounds or had their lives threatened, have sought refuge in Kenya.

This month, Ethiopian lawyer and civil activist Teshager Tsigab became the latest dissident to seek refuge in Kenya, claiming the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was after his life.

Mr Tsigab comes from Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, where PM Ahmed ordered a military offensive in November last year after an army base was taken over by forces loyal to the regional government of Tigray.

Since the war started, Tigray elites like Mr Tsigab are either in hiding, behind bars or have been killed.

“It is by luck that I am alive,” Mr Tsigab told in his first media interview after his dramatic and lucky escape.

According to Mr Tsigab’s lawyer, Ms Zahra Omar, Kenya is quickly becoming a safe haven for dissidents and those who feel persecuted in their own countries.

“Kenya has become a regional hub for the politically persecuted people seeking asylum, considering cases like that of Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lissu who fled from Tanzania to Kenya and Uganda’s firebrand activist Stella Nyanzi,” Ms Omar says.

Teshager Tsigab

Lawyer Teshager Tsigab. 

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

Friendly regime

Prof Luchiri Wajackoyah, an advocate who specialises in immigration, believes President Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime has made it easier for the politically persecuted to seek refuge in the country.

 “For the first time in Kenya’s political history, the President has come up strongly to uphold human rights. We have even seen the strengthening of the Universal Human Rights Index (UHRI),” Prof Wajackoyah says.

The UHRI, run by the Office of the High Commissioner United Nations Human Rights, is a central repository of human rights information.

During President Kenyatta’s regime, no Kenyan has so far escaped from the country to seek political asylum abroad. This is unlike during the presidency of Daniel Moi and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, when hundreds escaped from Kenya fearing arrest, detention and being killed.

Early this month, Dr Nyanzi fled to Nairobi from Uganda, citing political persecution by President Yoweri Museveni's government.

Dr Nyanzi, a former research fellow at Makerere University who ran for Kampala Woman MP’s seat in the January general election, arrived in Kenya by bus “in disguise” to avoid detection by security agents. Her children are also “in a safe house” in Nairobi.

“The abductions and detentions of political actors were getting closer to me, my children have been targets of police trailing, I just left prison in February last year and I don’t want to go back,” Dr Nyanzi told in a previous interview.

Godbless Lema

Former Tanzanian MP Godbless Lema(Left) with his lawyer George Luchiri Wajackoyah at the Kajiado Police station on November 9, 2020, where he was detained after fleeing to Kenya over fears for his life.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Dr Nyanzi was released in February last year after the high court in Uganda quashed her conviction for referring to President Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post. After leaving jail, she was arrested at least five times, mostly for staging or taking part in protests.

In November last year, Tanzanian politician Godbless Lema, the former MP for Arusha Urban Constituency, fled by road with his wife and three children to Kenya to escape what he termed  threats to his life. Mr Lema has since got asylum in Canada.

Mr Lema was arrested by Tanzanian authorities together with other politicians in the aftermath of the October 28, 2020 elections in Tanzania, but was later released on a police bond without a charge.

Another notable Tanzanian who has sought refuge in Kenya is Tindi Lisu, who faced off with John Magufuli in the 2020 presidential election.

In September 2017, Mr Lisu was flown to Kenya after being shot several times in Dodoma.

Between 28 and 32 bullets were sprayed on Lisu’s vehicle, a black Toyota SUV, as he arrived at his house in Dodoma.

The Tanzanian opposition chief underwent more than 20 operations in Kenya and Belgium in order to recover.

Jonathan Moyo

 This file photo taken on April 23, 2008 shows then Zimbabwean independent parliamentary candidate and former information minister Jonathan Moyo attending a forum on the Zimbabwean crisis at the Mail & Guardian critical thinking forum at the Atlas studio in Johannesburg.

Photo credit: Gianluigi Guercia | AFP

In July last year, Zimbabwe asked Kenya to expel Mugabe-era Cabinet Minister Jonathan Moyo amid claims that he was organising mass protests against the southern African country's government.

Prof Moyo fled Zimbabwe during the 2017 coup that saw Robert Mugabe toppled from power and Emmerson Mnangagwa installed as the country's president.

Prof Moyo was the brains behind G40, a faction within the ruling Zanu-PF party that was scheming to propel Grace Mugabe to take over power from her husband, at the expense of Mr Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s vice-president at the time.

Notably, LGBT refugees are also finding a safe haven in Kenya.

According to the civil society group Human Rights Watch, Kenya is a rare regional haven as it the only East African nation where someone can seek asylum and be registered as a refugee based on their LGBT status.

Kenya is a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) (now the African Union), Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, charters and legislation that oblige the country to allow anyone seeking asylum into the country, whether their entry is by legal or illegal means.