Changing faces of the legendary Saba Saba rallies

Kenya: In an ideal situation, Saba Saba Day (July 7) would be a national holiday - a mega celebration in acknowledgement of Kenyan heroes and heroines and their role in the strides Kenya has made in the last two decades whose peak was the enactment of the new Constitution in 2010.

However, 24 years since the initial Saba Saba rally, the changing faces of the famous day remain the mosaic of politicians who have historically been opposed to Government stance, starting with crusaders Kenneth Matiba, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Charles Rubia among others.

Currently, calls for Saba Saba are being championed by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga - whose father was a key pioneer of the push for the second liberation, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang'ula - whose Ford-Kenya party was the offspring of a splinter of the original Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), which was among the parties that pushed for multiparty democracy.

The initial objective of the Saba Saba rallies was to push for multiparty reforms, freedom of speech and assembly, and fundamental freedoms.

The Kanu regime had argued that multiparty politics would destroy national unity and foster tribal conflict. It was widely believed that the regime had orchestrated the 1988 elections in which some popular politicians were rigged out and denied an opportunity to occupy public office.

This forced former Cabinet minister Kenneth Matiba to resign from Kanu and partner with former Nairobi mayor Charles Rubia to lead the country in the demand for political reforms.

In 1990, the two made an initial proclamation of the Saba Saba protests for the restoration of multiparty democracy by agitating for the repealing of Section 2A of the Constitution, which had rendered Kenya a de jure one-party State in 1982.

The Government of the day responded by arresting Matiba, Rubia and Raila three days to the rally in the hope of neutralising the Opposition's zeal for Saba Saba. Former Kitutu Masaba MP, the late George Anyona, and a host of other politicians and academicians were also arrested and detained.

But veteran politician Martin Shikuku (deceased), Siaya Senator James Orengo, clergyman Timothy Njoya and former Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara led the remnants of the agitation to the street in protests that turned chaotic and bloody.

A rally was organised at the famous Kamukunji grounds to force the Kanu government to yield to their demands.

The Kanu regime believed that a multiparty system would lead to "fractionalisation and violence in Kenya's ethnically heterogeneous society". Paramilitary troops were sent to disperse the Saba Saba rally, which ended in violence.

Many leaders fled into exile as the Church insisted that the widespread anti-Government rebellion was as a result of national poverty and limited public participation in the affairs of the nation.

Raila, Matiba and Rubia never participated in the initial Saba Saba rally because the Government kept them behind bars until June 21, 1991, a year after they were arrested.

In February 1990, Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko had been found murdered in one of the mysterious deaths that remains unsolved to date. Six months later, the then Eldoret Anglican Church Bishop Alexander Muge, an outspoken critic of the regime, was killed in a road accident.

Analysts have linked the subsequent uprising to these two deaths coupled with agitations for an expanded democratic space and a multiparty system. Meanwhile, pioneer crusaders have laughed at attempts by CORD to fashion and liken their Uhuru Park rally to the original Saba Saba.

"What saddens me is that unlike the original Saba Saba, this one does not reflect the ideals of the founders. Saba Saba crusaders held Opposition rallies across the country in 1990. For the Opposition to zone the rallies to only their strongholds is ridiculous," said Imanyara.

Saba Saba (1990) was the culmination of a long struggle for democracy.