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Bloody battles and Kasarani meeting that changed Kenya

By Kamau Ngotho | December 5th 2021
Former President Daniel Arap Moi with KANU delegates at Kasarani, December 3, 1991. [File, Standard]

Many Kenyans are waiting with bated breath for the outcome of two historic gatherings expected at the Kasarani sports complex in a few days.

First is the Friday ODM party jamboree, where 6,000 delegates are expected to endorse Raila Odinga as the party's flag-bearer in next year's presidential race.

Next, on a yet to be specified date, will be the Jubilee Party's National Delegates Convention, whose climax is expected to be the expulsion of Deputy President William Ruto and his allies, who have decamped to the United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

The extravaganza to be attended by thousands of delegates from across the country is also expected to herald the rebirth of the party, including a resolution that President Uhuru Kenyatta remains the party leader even after he ceases to be Head of State, a deliberate signal that he isn’t about to quit the political space yet.

It will not be the first time history will unfold at Kasarani. It's at the same venue 30 years ago when after two years of bloody confrontations, the country's sole party, Kanu, conceded to the formation of other political parties.

Tears of blood

I was only two months into my job as a journalist when the crusade to demand a multi-party system kicked off in January 1990. It began on January 1 when in a New Year sermon, Presbyterian clergy, the Reverend Timothy Njoya–citing the fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of one-party authoritarian states in eastern Europe the previous year–declared 1990 the “year of multi-party in Africa”. He called upon President Daniel Moi and the ruling party to allow what was inevitable lest they be swept aside by the wind of change.

In those days, uttering such words was equated to treason. Knowing the repercussions of his speech, Njoya had taken precaution and printed the sermon, giving copies to friendly media houses–just in case. The Daily Nation printed the sermon verbatim.

All hell broke loose as soon as the newspaper hit the streets. The much-feared Permanent Secretary for Internal Security Hezekiah Oyugi ordered the arrest of the paper's Managing Editor George Mbugguss. But knowing what to expect, he had already gone into hiding.

Reverend Timothy Njoya. [File, Standard]

Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers and Kanu honchos foamed at the mouth in condemning Njoya and the newspaper. The more sycophantic of them called for the detention of the clergyman and proscribing of the newspaper.

The foul atmosphere got worse in February when Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko was found murdered. Security agents took advantage of the tense moments to arrest political hotheads allegedly for questioning in connection with the killing. They in fact wanted to frighten them not to join the crusade for multi-party politics.

In the meantime, Moi embarked on countrywide rallies. At one of the rallies, he vowed that change would only happen over his dead body. At the same rally, Kanu Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho declared the party would rule for the next 100 years. In April, Moi held the last of the anti-multi-party rallies at Kasarani Stadium where he decreed an end to the debate on the matter. He claimed Kenyans had made it clear they didn’t want many parties.

Saba Saba fever

No way, Mr President, replied the Anglican Church head of the Kisumu Diocese Henry Okullu the following day. “You cannot close a debate that hasn’t even began,” the clergyman told the President. As expected, Rev Okullu's comment caused rage with calls for his detention.

But his assertion was spot on. The debate had only started. Early in May, two former Cabinet ministers–Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia–held an international press conference where they called for change to multi-party politics, and demanded a fresh election and limitation on the presidential term. To rub it in, they asked for a permit to hold a public rally at the city’s Kamukunji grounds on July 7 to hear the views of ordinary Kenyans.

By coincidence or design, on the same day US Ambassador Smith Hempstone addressed a luncheon in Nairobi warning that American economic assistance would only go to countries that “nourish democratic institutions, defend human rights, and practice multi-party politics."

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – regarded as the father of opposition politics–and his son Raila joined the fray. So did many quiet opposition figures who came out of the woodwork now that the giants had spoken.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Sheria House, 1991. [File, Standard]

Once again, that unmentionable substance hit the fan. Kanu leaders screamed and cursed from every rooftop. The toxic atmosphere got even more poisoned when the government pounced on Matiba, Rubia and Raila and detained them without trial. On July 7, defiant crowds poured into the streets. Police responded with live bullets, leaving over 30 people dead and scores injured. The struggle continued. In the tail-end of the year, the government responded with a carrot of cosmetic reforms but stubbornly said no to a multi-party system.

No let-up

Early September 1991, the scattered opposition forces came together to announce the formation of the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford). To avoid arrest, the founders said theirs wasn’t a political party but a pressure group of the like-minded. They applied for a permit to hold a consultative rally at the Kamukunji grounds on November 16, but gave notice they would go ahead and have the meeting with or without a permit.

The government dug in and vowed pull out all the stops to subdue the marching tide.

Meanwhile, it was clear to all and sundry that Kenya was headed for an explosion as the government and the opposition dug in.

Not ready to countenance Kenya–regarded as the pillar of stability in a troubled region–going to the dogs, powerful players on the international arena acted. Meeting at the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of State and government meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister John Major prevailed on Moi that economic and political reforms in Kenya were no longer debatable but a must.

Elsewhere, the US stoked the fires when Congress froze military aid to Kenya and promised tougher sanctions. The last nail came on November 26 when Kenya’s European development partners met in Paris and decided there would be no further assistance to the country until there was tangible roadmap on economic reform and expansion of democratic space.

Finally, the government had been cornered. On December 3, 1991, Kanu delegates grudgingly agreed to the formation of more political parties.

Postscript: When ODM and Jubilee delegates leave Kasarani after their respective stage shows, they would better reflect on the report filed by American journalist Robert Press of the Christian Science Monitor magazine on the day Kanu delegates gathered at the same venue 30 years ago. He wrote: “Outside the arena where delegates converged, a young woman with a baby strapped on her back sold bananas from a green plastic bucket.

Nearby, two teenage boys sat behind a pile of peanuts wrapped in newspapers, which they sold at three cents. Will the political reforms President Moi announced improve the lives of Kenya’s poor such as the young mother and the two teenagers? Will those accusing Moi and his ministers of corruption and human rights abuses establish a more just and honest government if they win multi-party elections? The jury is out.”

Three decades later, the jury is still out.

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