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New dawn as ‘Third Liberation’ beckons

By | July 8th 2010

Twenty years ago yesterday, swirls of tear gas left men and women scampering for exits that turned out to be blocked by baton-wielding, helmeted police. On that day, Kenya’s future was written under the crunch of police boots and in the blood and sweat of a few, heroic daredevils who called it the Second Liberation.

In those dark days, no more than three people could congregate to talk without first applying for a police permit. Even talk at social places was muted with furtive glances over the back, in case secret police overheard them.

It was a time it was criminal and treasonable to "imagine, encompass or discuss" the death or infirmity of the Head of State. All these super laws were enshrined in the Independence Constitution, a document the heroes of the Second Liberation sought to amend.

This could only be possible if they formed a different political party as the sole ruling party was intolerant of dissenting opinion. But even this was easier said than done since Parliament had earlier changed Kenya from de facto to a de jure one party state, with no room for opponents.

The scene was, therefore, set for confrontation, and Saba Saba Day was born and has remained a defining feature of our national calendar. Brutal tactics were employed to batter proponents of multi-partyism into submission, leaving some scarred and paralysed, others behind bars on trumped-up charges and others in exile.

Yesterday’s congregation of these heroes was picture-perfect celebration of the ideas and ideals they fought for. In 27 days, they shall know whether their tortured, battered and whipped selves usher in a new beginning as a revised constitution is unveiled if Kenyans overcome katiba fatigue, 20 years on.

Oppressive clauses

A constitution is defined as: (1) a written statement outlining the basic laws or principles by which a country or organisation is governed or (2) the document or statute setting out the fundamental laws or bylaws of a country or organisation.

Writing one is very time-consuming, deeply emotive, potentially divisive, but may also be eternally satisfying exercise — once it is enacted. This cauldron of emotion is where Kenyans find themselves today.

That some clauses in the Constitution were oppressive and had been misused by successive regimes to entrench political mileage is not in doubt. The liberators struggled for their right to self-determination, which is an integral part of human rights law and which has a universal application.

As Wolfgang Danspeckgruber put it: "No other concept is as powerful, visceral, emotional, unruly, as steep in creating aspirations and hopes as self-determination." It evokes emotions, expectations and fears, which often lead to conflict and bloodshed. It is a fundamental condition for enjoyment of other human rights and fundamental freedoms, be they civil, political, economic, social or cultural.

A constitution is not a statement by rulers for the subjugation of another lot. Its clauses are informed by compromises all around since no one has a monopoly on universal truths.

That was why the former regime backed down in the face of international censure and unending mass action that it brokered a peace deal under the aegis of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group. The result has been a trip to Bomas of Kenya, Kilifi, Naivasha, the august House and town halls across the country to agree on a new constitutional dispensation. National focus and debate is on the Proposed Constitution due to climb the weighing scales at the referendum on August 4.

As with the 2002 clamour for pluralism, vested interests have divided public opinion on the draft laws. But the vote count will determine whether these rebels of yesteryear fought the good fight or they would have to take to the trenches again to continue the fight to expand democratic space.

Hard-line positions

The 2005 national referendum left the country divided along regional and ethnic lines as arenas of debate became vestiges of hate speech, militancy and hard-line positions, resulting in the explosive post-election violence of January 2008.

We must recognise that constitution making is, largely, a political process and everyone to exercise sobriety, encourage compromise, reconciliation, and rise above biases based on ethnicity, gender, race and creed.

As we stand on the threshold of a new dawn, there must be middle ground that can accommodate everyone’s vested interest. And what better gift to these indefatigable heroes than a new constitution?

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