Youth Of Saba Saba: Rage Fuelled By Innocent Courage by Muthoni Kamau

Volume 17, Issue 3  | 
Published 12/12/2020
Muthoni Kamau

A social justice activist

7 July 1990, the first Saba Saba, was a bloody day. The call for multi-partyism had triggered a fury bottled up for many years by Kenyans, especially the youth. Kenyans born in the 60’s and 70’s had only witnessed Kenyatta and Moi’s oppression and not the direct rule of the colonialists. The earlier generation which lived under colonial rule was somehow mesmerized by the ‘freedom’ they were experiencing under the black rulers. Compared to what they had gone through under colonial rule, this felt like the freedom they had longed for. One cannot underestimate the suffering and sacrifice they underwent in order to kick out the colonial government. It is therefore fair to argue that they were both tired and traumatized and reluctant to notice that indeed there was not much change in the political leadership. The white rulers had been replaced by the black rulers, but their attitude and agenda remained the same.  

The youth of the 60’s and 70’s who had come of age during Kenyatta’s rule, and others who were coming of age during Moi’s rule, however, could only relate to the current oppression. By then the country had almost been silenced - with the busting of the MWAKENYA underground organization in the late 80’s, the Nyayo House tortures and kangaroo courts had sent even some of the most courageous, few scampering for safety outside the country.

The call for a return to multi-partyism therefore, and the subsequent call for a Kamukunji, was enough incentive for the angry and long-suffering youth to come out. Even though the convenors were considering calling off the Kamukunji because of the arrests and subsequent detentions, it was too late - the horse had bolted out of the stable! People came out in their thousands, not only in Eastlands where the Kamukunji grounds are located but also in other neighbourhoods like Kwangware, Kikuyu, etc. The day was bloody as police felled many with their bullets. The actual number of how many protesters died on 7 July 1990 may never be ascertained. This writer was then a 19-year-old waiting to join campus, and was in Kawangware where one had to virtually jump over bodies lying all over the road while looking for a way to leave the area. This scenario increased the determination of all who witnessed it - no matter the show of might by the state, when the people arise they can win against oppression!

The courage exhibited on this day buoyed up more hope for real freedom, and scores of people, mostly the youth, started creating sites of struggle. One such site was the launching in Kenya of the London-based Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group, giving it a home base linked to the one abroad. Mothers of the then political prisoners sought the late Prof Wangari’s help. This led to the staging of the famous hunger strike, the protest demonstration by the Mothers and the establishment of the now well-known and celebrated Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park. The Mothers were supported by youthful activists. Moi was brutal, and so it took a lot of courage on the part of Prof. Maathai and more so the youth around her, even to meet at her house, let alone to execute the hunger strike at Freedom Corner.

RPP became a space for serious organizing of the Saba Saba Kamukunjis and other human rights activities. They were later joined by the Citizens Coalition for Constitution Change (4Cs) and the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC) - the bulk of their ‘foot soldiers’ were in the  RPP. Saba Saba and the RPP cultural week remained the two national events or spaces that RPP actively organized.

Much of the coming out to attend Kamukunjis, and especially political rallies, is usually simply euphoria and the awe of being with politicians (leaders). When RPP and other organizations with a grassroot appeal or orientation were actively involved in planning, however, much more political education went into planning the events. As a result, among the masses attending the rallies there were pockets of politically conscious activists who held a deep understanding and conviction that these actions and events were as yet cogs in the wheel of the bigger struggle for emancipation; and not a show-off or a feel-good adventure for the media or the politicians. Neither were all these lives being lost just so as to replace one president with another who thinks and acts the same. In the early 90’s, the regime was still very brutal, but also the country was in that space or moment of political reawakening. Civil Society then was quite broad and included all outside the state including opposition parties, religious organizations, the NGOs that had started either coming out against oppression or were being formed in that space.

Planning for Saba Saba in the early years of the 90’s was therefore both political and analytical. This means that RPP activists and others were in the struggle not just to remove Moi, but to uproot Moism and its dictatorship and tyranny. They worked consistently and methodically to focus the Saba Saba events on achieving  democracy and justice; while those who just wanted to replace Moi were for the crowds and the press. One needs to remember that RPP had MWAKENYA comrades among them, those whose release the RPP had fought for and who immediately upon release had joined the group - comrades like the late Karimi Nduthu, Tirop Kitur and Kang’ethe Mungai, and those they recruited when they came out of prison like this writer. Political education therefore played a major role in the planning and execution of the Saba Saba events.

This writer remembers one rally in the early years, where execution was almost military in style. The plan was to organize groups of activists to approach Kamukunji from many sides and in many groups so as to divide the police forces on the ground. The aim was to ensure that at least a few people, if not all, got into the field which used to be barricaded from the previous day by the GSU and regular police. It was like battalions approaching the battle field from all sides. It worked. While the GSU and police were engaged in stopping a large group that was being led by Comrade Githuku, the group that was being led by this writer managed to get into the Kamukunji grounds. They were few and were immediately surrounded by some of the GSU and made to squat. These were moments when only innocent courage, born out of an understanding as to why one was engaging in such risky activities, could keep one breathing! There was no ‘prominent’ person among this small group, but this writer remembers standing up in the ground and looking around the periphery of the field, and spotting two ‘prominent’ persons in the struggle, Prof. Alamin Mazrui and Dr Willy Mutunga, who were signalling to her in sign language and low voices that they were in solidarity. The media aired a clip showing this small group surrounded by the gun-wielding GSU, squatting on the ground, and one standing up in defiance; innocent courage surely! It is the same courage exhibited recently by an activist who resisted arrest and led the chant that ‘when we lose our fear, they lose their power’.

A number of things led to this Saba Saba spirit ‘going to sleep’ for a while: first, the organizations that had a tangible connection with the grassroots, and who had the deeper and longer term agenda of true emancipation as opposed to short term electoral success or the acquisition of power - these organizations slowed down or changed face to be more NGO-based than with the grassroots, and eventually closed down. Second, a big chunk of the Civil Society luminaries went into government when Kibaki ascended to the presidency and the democratic space became more relaxed. While there, and running the same machinery left in place by Moi but now for a new ruler, and having known the operatives of the Civil Society they had just left, they started restraining instead of aiding the Civil Society in its mandate of holding the government to account. Added to this was the   systematic attempt by the state (read politicians) to infiltrate Civil Society and weaken the link between organized Civil Society and the masses; thus derailing the even well-meaning activists for true emancipation.

The spirit of Saba Saba has never died in spite of the brutality of the state. It may have reduced its intensity but to date, activists annually commemorate that day in various ways and spaces. However, it seems as though the spirit rhymes with the passion around that which is instantaneously happening in the country. In the 90’s and 2000’s, the passion for change was tremendously high. Politicians who just wanted power kept derailing the masses into believing that the change they desired was the same as the politicians’ desire to ascend to power. A large majority of Civil Society, specifically the opposition parties and the religious sector, therefore changed tune to support the parliamentary route post-Moi.. Organizations that were truly grassroot like RPP and NCEC lost steam; and the bigwigs in Civil Society NGOs took sides politically and have not been able to recover from the political divisions that led to the 2007-2008 debacle. Infiltration by the state has almost obliterated Civil Society, such that Saba Saba is just an event for some to capture media attention and show that they are fighters for change. Others use this space to build their profile so that they can attract the highest bids from the politicians, while others use these events to access donor funding.

While the spirit of struggle lingers on in the oppressed masses, the current generation also needs a genuine spark. And torch bearers who will shine the path so that they can walk the path to true liberation; not to demand for crumbs in the name of inclusion or representation in a hopelessly flawed system, designed to ever hold them in servitude.

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