Saba Saba marred with protests and arrests

Saba Saba demonstration on July 7, 1990. From Left: Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Raila Odinga and Charles Rubia. IMAGE/COURTESY


Demonstrations, protests, arrests and tear gas marked this year’s Saba Saba 30th anniversary.

Activist Editar Ochieng and Wilfred Olal of Mathare Social Justice Centre have been arrested, with some being booked at police stations.

Lawyer John Khaminwa, human rights activists George Kegoro and Florence Kanyua have gathered at Kilimani Police Station seeking the release of protestors.

In the city centre, groups of protestors marching with placards were met with heavy security presence.

The protests are happening on the 30th anniversary of Saba Saba, the day on which nationwide protests took place in 1990 to demand multiparty democracy from the Moi regime.

Saba Saba event was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance in Kenya.

That iconic image of Martin Shikuku, James Orengo, Philip Gachoka and Rumba Kinuthia is etched in the minds of some 20 million Kenyans who were alive on the fateful day that marked the struggle for political pluralism in the country.

The November 16, 1991 picture is a re-enactment of what should have happened on July 7, 1990 – the day known by its Kiswahili translation, Saba Saba, in reference to the seventh day of the seventh month.

The men perched atop the car had just changed vehicles after police shot at their truck’s tyre in an attempt to stop them from entering the barricaded Kamukunji grounds on the rim of Nairobi River. It had been 16 months since the first attempt to hold a rally at Kamukunji failed.

Dissent had been growing in Kenya since Moi began consolidating political power by changing the constitution to ban multiparty politics and detaining critics, some of whom fled into exile.

Five months prior to the planned Saba Saba meeting, Moi’s foreign minister, Robert Ouko, had been brutally killed. Ouko’s dismembered body was dumped on a hill in his rural constituency. It was widely believed that his murder had been planned by people close to Moi.

The Moi government declared the Kamukunji meeting illegal, and arrested Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, three of the senior politicians who were organising it, before subsequently detaining them without trial.

The men perched atop the car had just changed vehicles after police shot at their truck’s tyre in an attempt to stop them from entering the barricaded Kamukunji grounds on the rim of Nairobi River. IMAGE/COURTESY

A movement – christened “The Second Liberation” – began to form in spite of antagonistic laws on assembly and association, grouping people together in organising cells.

Saba Saba had been preceded by the mysterious appearance of leaflets secretly printed and dropped around the country, inviting people to the meeting.

Relying on a network of football clubs and private sector transport workers (matatu touts) travelling across the nation, people were put on buses to Nairobi for the day of confrontation.

When national newspapers and the international media credited the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Saba Saba was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance. It was meant to be the first of eight public rallies – one in each province – to rally the public for plural politics and open government.

Desperate attempts would subsequently be made to negotiate down demands for freedom by offering internal reforms in the ruling political party monopoly, KANU, but they were insufficient to stem the tide of change.

Sixteen months after Saba Saba, Moi reluctantly yielded and agreed to term limits and to repealing constitutional bans on multiparty political organisations.

Within months of the return of multipartism, some 19 new political parties had been registered on account of the efforts of state operatives, who also engineered a split inside the opposition Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party.

Moi consolidated power for two terms despite securing only a minority of the votes in the 1992 and 1997 elections. The spirit of Saba Saba revisited the country in a series of protests on July 7; then August 8; September 9 and October 10, 1997 in attempts to demand free and fair elections.

Moi splintered the movement by offering bargains to share slots in the electoral management agency with the opposition and repeal laws compelling public assembly. Once again, it seemed that the Saba Saba campaigners had been shortchanged.

The jubilant victory of the then joint opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 general election when Moi was retiring permeated the nation with a new sense of optimism and the possibility of citizens reclaiming their power. But this optimism was quickly plunged by regression to some of the old ways, including mega corruption scandals.

The bloody and violent contested 2007 election brought about by a loss of confidence in the judiciary and the electoral body recorded over 1,300 deaths, over 5,000 injuries and rapes, as well as massive displacement invited the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Majority of the people who were at the forefront of the Saba Saba protests have either died or have been accommodated in the insatiable state.The state grows more dangerous in deploying deadly force in a relapse to the dictatorship of antiquity, the public appears isolated and with few defenders.

Still, the spirit of people power that fuelled Saba Saba still wanders the land like a vagrant. The pain, apprehension and trauma of decades of protest have blunted the desire for public-spirited action, only interrupted sporadically by fresh indignation.

“We do not choose political freedom because it promises us this or that. We choose it because it makes possible the only dignified form of human coexistence, the only form in which we can be fully responsible for ourselves. Whether we realize its possibilities depends on all kinds of things — and above all on ourselves.” ― Karl Popper.