Saba Saba: The start of a journey that is yet to be completed

Martin Shikuku addresses the crowd at Kamukunji with James Orengo during the first Saba Saba rally in July 7, 1990. [File, Standard]

Saba Saba was a spirit. The global life-force of democratic change and liberation in a troubled world. It began in faraway places in Romania, Azerbaijan, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

Ordinary peoples of these countries were crying for freedom from nearly five decades under oppressive communist rule. When Eastern Europe coughed, oppressed peoples everywhere caught the cold. July 7, 1990 (Saba Saba) in Kenya, became only the symbol of a bigger struggle that had gone on for many years – in the country and beyond.

The entire biosphere, and especially the Third World, was groaning under the weight of political oppression. The coercion was a factor of the ugly ideological competition that ruled relations between the capitalist Western world and the Socialist Eastern bloc, after World War II. The communists wanted to take communism everywhere. The capitalists wanted to contain them. As the giants wrestled, the grass suffered all over the globe.

The ideological divide bred terrible dictatorships across the world. Terrible rulers of the brand of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Jean Claude Duvalier of Haiti, enjoyed open support and protection from the two blocs.

What counted was who was allied to whom. Others were Agusto Pinochet in Chile, Idi Amin in Uganda, Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Marcus Nguema in Equatorial Guinea, and dozens of others across the world. Kenya hovered somewhere between a democracy and a dictatorship. Holding of regular elections, every five years, the presence of an active Legislature and the keeping of the military away from politics, tipped the balance towards democracy. Yet all was not well with the Eldorado of East Africa. She had her own strands of repressive tendencies, which came to a head in the period 1983-1988.

It was these repressions that the global Saba Saba spirit came to break down, with Kenya squarely in the mix. The worldwide landmarks of repression and liberation had common threads. Yet, each country played out its own detailed drama in its own local political theatres. It was an amazing moment to be alive and awake, with amazing happenings to witness. Subsequent generations in countries such as Kenya may very well want to ask: “So what went wrong, after all that energy?” The answer is that we dropped the ball.

But first, the background. It was the American Democrat, Bernard Baruch, who first used the expression the Cold War (1947), to describe the hostile tensions between America and her allies, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other hand.

Iconic writers and journalists, George Orwell and Walter Lipmann, went on to popularise the notion of the Cold War – as a war of propaganda, espionage, arms race, Space Race and caustic rivalries and proxy violence, that found their way into every corner of the world. The notion of neutrality – embraced in the global non-aligned movement that began in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1961 -- was a myth. Everyone was aligned, either to the East or to the West.

In April 1949, the Americans and eleven allied nations entered into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) alliance, as defence pact after World War II. Nato would blossom into a 30-strong nation alliance. The essence of the pact was that aggression against any one of these countries would be taken as aggression against the rest. The economic strand of this pact was to spread and defend capitalism in every corner of the globe.

Unique conditions

In converse, in 1955,  the Soviet Union assembled in Warsaw city, Poland, with six socialist allies, to sign “a friendship accord.” They called it the Warsaw Pact. Its objectives mirrored Nato’s. If any of their members should be attacked, the rest would join the fray. But they would, meanwhile, spread socialism to every country in the world. And so, between the two pacts, were born the circumstances that would necessitate the Saba Saba spirit, 45 years after the end of World War II.

While each country, such as Kenya, incarnated Saba Saba in its own unique conditions, the overall thrust was the same. Winston Churchill was the man who coined the notion of the Iron Curtain (March 1946), to refer to the East European countries that served as a buffer zone between Moscow and the Western countries. Yet there was a sense in which iron curtains of dictatorship existed everywhere in the Third World. They were factors of Nato and Warsaw turning a blind eye to local misrule and even aiding dictators, provided that the dictator was their blue-eyed ideological baby, who did their bidding.

Kenya belonged to the Nato’s blue-eyed family. For 25 years, she enjoyed unqualified support from the West. This was regardless of corruption in high places, political assassinations and misrule generally. The cracks began showing about 1988 when the Cold War started showing signs of demise. Nato, under President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, brought the Soviet Union to its knees at the end of the 1980s.

With that done, blue-eyed babies became irrelevant. It was everybody for themselves. Hence, from Lisbon to Lilongwe, all the way to Lusaka and Nairobi, the heartbeat of change could be felt everywhere.

The big cats had left the scene. Oppressed mice wanted space. Those who were quick to discern the blowing global wind of change moved swiftly to adjust their sails. In Tanzania, for example, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was quick to note what was happening. Nyerere had in his own way ruled Tanzania with a heavy socialist hand. He had jailed dissenters, like Bibi Titi Mohamed and Michael Kamaliza, while others, like Oscar Kambona, were exiled for being critical to Nyerere’s Ujamaa.

Smelling change from afar, Nyerere stepped down from the presidency in 1985, making way for Ali Hassan Mwinyi. He remained the president of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). But, as he saw one socialist dictatorship after the other collapse in the next four years, Nyerere advised CCM to embrace change. Tanzania adjusted her sails. Kenya refused. She would dance the jungle dance of change for a long time, and seems keen to continue dancing.


The year 1990 was the defining season, some 27 years after independence. It marked the start of what has come to be known as Kenya’s Second Liberation. The contestation for liberation would go on for a solid 20 years, with the new Constitution of Kenya (2010) as the climax. Voters aged 18 to 20 were not even born when the struggle began. But how did Kenya get here?

The country began reversing the gains of independence within months of Uhuru. Articles 9 and 10 of the first amendment of the Constitution in 1964 created the Office of the President and handed it on a silver platter to the Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta.

Article 10 of the 1964 amendment reads, “Notwithstanding the provisions of Section 33B of the amended Constitution, the president-designate shall assume office as President of the Republic of Kenya on December 12, 1964, as if he had been elected in pursuance of the amended Constitution.”

While dressed in the garb of legality, the ascent of the first president to office lacked popular mandate. It was to be the start of marginalisation of the law and the creation of an imperial presidency. The signs had come earlier, however.

In December 1963, a state of emergency was declared over the North-Eastern region of Kenya. To be legal, it required ratification by 65 per cent of the members of the Independence Senate. Tom Mboya, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, declared rather imperially: “Whatever the Senate decides, we will impose a state of emergency.” The gateway to misrule was flung wide open with those remarks. From then till his tragic demise on July 5, 1969, Mboya would lead Kanu in amending the Constitution to satisfy political convenience of the moment.

Death of devolution

The next phase was the frustration of devolution. To the very end of regional assemblies in 1965, the regional governments were deliberately starved of funds. The ploy was to kill devolution. And it succeeded. And in June 1964 Mboya banned public gatherings saying they were “undermining established authority.”

Mboya also condemned what he called “destructive criticism against the government.” It would become a common refrain throughout the 40 years of the Kanu regime. Kadu protested in vain. In any event, moves had already begun for Kanu to swallow Kadu.

Having lost the election to Kanu in May 1963, Kadu was a dying horse. Her MPs were lured, one after the other, to cross over to Kanu. Multiparty democracy was beginning to be killed. With it, too, was dying the alternative voice of reason, as well as freedom of thought and conscience. It began that early, with the 1980s and ‘90s only as the climax.

On November 10, 1964, Kadu’s leaders – Ronald Ngala and Masinde Muliro – led Kadu to cross the floor to join Kanu. Their chairman, Daniel Arap Moi, had already defected ahead of the rest. Kadu dissolved itself. Kenya became effectively a one-party State. The stage was set for the very worst that could happen under a one party State. From then on, it was roller-coaster mission for Kanu under presidents Kenyatta and Moi.

While under Kenyatta Kenya remained a multiparty democracy in principle, Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Charles Njonjo removed all doubt by enacting a one-party State in only one afternoon, on June 9, 1982. The 19th Amendment made Kenya a one-party State by law. The president warned the University of Nairobi community that the government was going to crack down on them. The university had fashioned itself into the alternative voice, in the absence of an Opposition. Some lecturers, the president charged, were “arming students to cause chaos in the country.”

Njonjo justified the one-party move in Parliament with the words: “We are only regularising what already exists. Kenya cannot afford the luxury of another party. More than 99 per cent of Kenyans want and support this one-party system.”

For his part, Kibaki said: “If someone questions the legitimacy of this government, how in all seriousness can he expect sympathy or even the freedom to go on questioning the legitimacy of the government?”

It was a bad season. Lecturers began fleeing the country one after the other, even as others got detained without trial. The country would wake up to front-page newspaper headlines on Fridays, announcing who had been detained. So the headlines read, “Mutunga detained.” Another one would read, “Mukaru detained.”

Even the president’s close friends and business associates were not spared. One particularly notable case was that of Mwangi Muriithi, the intelligence boss. He was mysteriously transferred to head a vegetable factory in Naivasha. He declined. He protested that he was a professional policeman. He knew nothing about vegetables. The following Friday the papers read, “Muriithi detained.” When his lawyer, John Khaminwa, filed a habeas corpus application in court, the following Friday’s papers read, “Khaminwa detained.”

Meanwhile, Kenyans disappeared mysteriously. Bodies would be discovered in forests and others floating in sacks in rivers around Nairobi. Others seemed to fall from Nyayo House in what looked like suicides. The choice of Nyayo House was strange. Why not any other place?

It would be many years before it came in the open that they were victims of State persecution. Dissent was anathema. An underground movement called Mzalendo Mwakenya was whispered about. It published a clandestine fiery publication called Mzalendo Mwakenya. Woe unto you, if you should be caught with a copy.

The clampdown spread to mainstream publications. Beyond Magazine, a quasi-religious publication, was banned. The editors, Bedan Mbugwa and David Makali, were jailed. Pius Nyamora’s Society was banned. The publisher fled into exile. Salim Lone’s Viva went ahead of the two. Lone fled into exile, too. Whenever a publication was banned, Kenyans were directed to destroy all the back numbers. It was illegal to be found with any edition of a banned publication, no matter how innocent the content may be. The daily press exercised intense self-censorship, to remain safe.

Riot police disperse university students during Saba Saba rally in Nairobi in July 1997. [File, Standard]

But the hand of mischief did not spare even those who spoke for the system. Robert Ouko was an eloquent and charismatic individual. He spoke with collected aplomb and carried himself with perfect decorum. It was this man, who as Minister for Foreign Affairs, articulately defended the Kenya government against mounting accusations of human rights abuse. He was a system’s apologist, whom the system mercilessly destroyed.

It was the great irony of history that upon returning home from a sterling performance in the US and Norway, Ouko was killed in a most grisly manner. The remains of his partly burnt and broken body, with a bullet wound in the head, were found on the banks of the Nyando River, near Got Alila hill, a short distance from his rural home in Koru. The death remains a mystery, 30 years later. It was, however, one more plank to feed the mounting unrest and popular uprising in the county.

The suspicious death in a car crash in August the same year, of Eldoret ACK Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge, only added fuel to the fire. Muge had joined the voices that were calling for the end of the one-party State. Bishops Henry Okullu and Timothy Njoya went further to call not just for multiparty democracy, but also for the resignation of the Kanu government.


And so it was that in 1990 Kenyans said enough was enough. At the start of the year, the government announced plans to build a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park. The Kanu-Kenya Times Towers was intended as the new Kanu headquarters. Wangari Mathai of the Greenbelt Movement led civil society activists in resisting the move. Regardless, the Kanu bigwig of the moment, Peter Oloo Aringo, led party stalwarts and Nairobi Kanu branch toadies in breaking the ground for the controversial project.

Human rights

President Moi led a high powered government team to America and Norway to look for $200 million (Sh20 billion) for the project. Bad publicity about human rights, however, saw them return empty-handed. Throw in mounting agitation for political pluralism. Throw in a steadily collapsing economy, largely due to corruption and erratic projects. Throw in the death of Ouko a few days later. Crown it with serious food challenges in the country, and ethnic tensions. You had the recipe for a drawn-out season of protests. No number of detentions, police beatings or demolition of slums could stem the tide.

President Moi appointed a special committee under Vice President George Saitoti, to take views from Kenyans on the way forward for their country. This was basically a band-aid stop-gap measure, calculated to slow down dissent. It did not work. For, in May 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia – two wealthy politicians from Central Kenya, became the new face of the agitation for change.

Apart from their legendary wealth, they also had a massive following from their backyard. They seemed to worry about the State to no end. To make matters worse, they were said to be in conversation with Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku and other disaffected political bigwigs. May – June 1990 was a high voltage political season. Rubia and Matiba announced that they would hold a multiparty rally at Nairobi’s Kamukunji grounds in Shauri Moyo, on Saturday, July 7, 1990. The more the government rained heavy weather against the call for the rally, the more the citizens seemed to get excited about the prospective rally. Unable to take it anymore, the government arrested and detained Rubia and Matiba on July 4.

Agitation continued, regardless. People now called not just for restoration of multiparty democracy. They also called for the release of the two leaders and all other detainees. On the material day, thousands of Kenyans marched to Kamukunji, from all directions of Nairobi. The media ignored State warnings and covered the event fully. The event itself was a cocktail of violent confrontations between the police and the people. The riots spread to all slum areas in Nairobi and to parts of Thika, Nakuru, Kiambu and Nyeri. Up to 100 people may have been killed in the fracas.

A new crackdown began on Opposition leaders. Those who did not flee the country were arrested. There was strange drama as leaders were flown on a helicopter from Nairobi and arraigned in courts in their home districts. Other active players, besides Rubia, Matiba, Shikuku and Muliro were the people who went under the generic label of Young Turks. They included people like Raila Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara, Kiraitu Murungi, Paul Muite and Mukhisa Kituyi. Lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria also played an active role.

Other strands of the resistance flowed through the Federation of Kenya Women Lawyers (FIDA), fronted by such lawyers as Martha Koome, Abida Aroni, Nancy Baraza and Martha Karua. They were courageous and defiant to a fault. The Church, too, remained vigilant and persistent. Sunday worship was looked forward to with eagerness, for the freshness it provided amidst the rot.

The universities had been reduced to bystanders at the best. At the worst, they were now apologists for the system. Progressive scholars had long fled or been detained. Those left behind had been hit into submission. Regardless, the one-party State’s goose was cooked. And, although the Saitoti Report later in the year tried to gloss over things and to lie to the president that Kenyans did not want multiparty democracy, Moi relied on Special Branch intelligence reports instead. He caved. He directed that Section 2A of the Constitution be removed, to restore multiparty democracy.

It had been a long walk, spanning 27 years. Yet it was only the start of a journey that remains incomplete. What went wrong? We dropped the ball. But that is a story for some other day.

Saba Saba remains a landmark in the struggle for democracy and good governance in Kenya. It revealed just how tired Kenyans were with the one-party State and bad governance. Hopefully, even as parties reach out for each other and forge new unions in this new age, Kenya will perhaps guard against a return to that age and focus on completing the unfinished Saba Saba business.