As we looked for a silent corner to sit at a Chinese restaurant along Mombasa road, Hassan Omar, the vocal human rights commissioner, summons a waiter and orders tea.
It is some minutes to midday, the temperatures are at boiling point and his choice of beverage came across as odd.
By the time the waiter returns with tea, I am already engaged with Omar on his work at the human rights commission.
And it is towards the end of the interview that I learnt that Omar is a big lover of tea, as he ordered another cup of the beverage.
Our discussion is interrupted from time to time by passers-by waving greetings to him, with the more eager ones walking up to where we are seated to shake his hand.
I would see others pointing towards our table — perhaps informing their friends who the bespectacled man with a ‘box’ hairstyle was.
While those Omar has rubbed the wrong way think he is a rabble-rouser, he is a hero to individuals whose rights have been trampled upon.
The 36-year-old rights defender says as a young man growing up in Mombasa, his dream was to become a fighter pilot.
Omar hangs his boots — or more appropriately his gloves — today as a commissioner of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) after a five-year stint.
In September 1995, he left the military training school where he had enrolled as a cadet because the training was not as sophisticated as Tom Cruise’s Top Gun movie, which had inspired him to pursue a career as a soldier. He later joined Moi University for a law course.
The discharged cadet was later suspended indefinitely from the university in 1998 after he led a strike in solidarity with striking teachers while serving in Moi University Students Organisation.
He only resumed studies in 2003 after President Kibaki gave amnesty to all expelled and suspended university students.
“During my suspension, I was actively involved in human rights advocacy and training under the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and the Muslim for Human Rights,” he says.
Omar, who was born in Kibokoni in Mombasa old town, attracts both admiration and dislike in equal measure due to his nature of work.
When he is not keeping Vigilant House mandarins on their toes, he is rubbing the political class the wrong way.
And today as he leaves the commission, he believes he has given his all in serving Kenyans.
“I want Kenyans to remember me as the man who defended them fairly and always spoke for them all the time,” he says.
The only child in the family, Omar says he is passionate about fighting injustices in the society and his drive has always been to see a society where human rights are respected.
“I believe in the respect of the dignity of human beings and my main motivation has always been to see a fair society where the mighty does not trample on the rights of the poor,” he says.
He says whereas his time at the KNCHR had both its high and low moments, he believes he lived up to his mandate.
Omar joined the commission in 2007 aged 31, the youngest and perhaps most inexperienced member of the team at the time.
“I got the job while doing my internship and I knew it would be challenging given our age differences and knew we would not get along all the time,” he said.
He was KNCHR vice chairman at some point, but resigned after a disagreement with his fellow commissioners.
He exonerates KNCHR Chairperson Florence Jaoko from blame over incidents that he blames on his other colleagues, who had expressed dissatisfaction over the way he was handling some issues in the media.
“They started a process of censure and I did not want to bother them into such lengthy administrative procedure and decided to resign. It had nothing to do with my perceived differences with the chair,”he says.
He cites the time when human rights activists Oscar King’ara and Paul Oulu were killed in broad daylight as the lowest moments during his stint at the commission. Fort an article in relation to this, see All That is Necessary.
“It sent shivers down the spines of human rights defenders that we were facing the real danger of being wiped out by a ruthless force,” he said.
He says the commission has worked tirelessly to ensure police are accountable for their deeds and is happy that police operations, especially as regards human rights violation, have been put under the spotlight.
Omar plans to vie for the Mombasa County senate seat in the election to be held later this year.