The day Nelson Mandela walked into Saba Saba storm

Nelson Mandela addresses a capacity crowd at a rally in Port Elizabeth on April 1, 1990. [Reuters]

Chaos. Anarchy. That is what Kenya had degenerated into. And it is this environment that one of the world’s most celebrated freedom fighters Nelson Mandela walked into when he arrived in Nairobi.

The reception at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport could not have prepared him for the flames of liberation literary burning in the streets of Nairobi and other major towns. July 10, 1990, was to be historic in many ways.

The deputy president of ANC, Mandela, who was the embodiment of freedom struggle, was in Nairobi. He was accompanied by the iconic face of the apartheid struggle, Winnie Mandela. The two were paying homage to a country that had earned international reputation for dislodging the colonial government in 1963 after a 10-year armed struggle.

What Mandela did not know was that the country that had been free for close to three decades was painfully birthing its second republic. Three days before Mandela’s visit, Nairobi had erupted into a hellfire of violence. The embers of bonfires that had burnt patches of the tarmac roads were still smouldering and the sting of the tear gas still lingered in the air as police battled emboldened Kenyans demanding introduction of multi-partyism.

In what became to be known as Saba Saba, signifying July 7, a state of anarchy had engulfed the capital and quickly spread to other parts of the country after the state arrested ring leaders of multi-partyism Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, lawyers John Khaminwa and Gitobu Imanyara, while scores were on the run.

James Orengo (right), Martin Shikuku and Masinde Muliro during a Saba Saba rally at Kamukunji Grounds in July 1992. [File, Standard]

Trouble started on July 4 when Matiba and Rubia were arrested moments after they declared they would convene a protest rally at Kamukunji in total defiance to the government, which had outlawed the rally.

The day Mandela landed, bodies of 15 people were in various mortuaries in Nairobi, Murang’a, Kiambu, Nyeri and Kirinyaga after they were shot or clobbered to death by police who were quelling riots.

There were reports then that the crusaders of multi-partyism had set up a kitty where they were to pay Sh500,000 for every person killed during the protests. There were reports that some dissidents had been trained in Libya to distabilise the government. The group, which the state regarded as a terror organisation, had allegedly returned to the country and teamed up.

A day after Mandela arrived, Uhuru Kenyatta issued his first political statement when he teamed up with Ceasar Argwings Kodhek, Alfred Getonga, Francis Murai Michuki, and Peter Obonyo Mboya where he called for dialogue.

Mandela is long gone but the struggle he witnessed in Nairobi, birthed multi-partyism.