A generational event which changed Kenya forever

The 1990 Saba Saba Putsch In A New Light:

I had just left detention without trial a year before – a 6 footer weighing 70 kgs, but still as determined as ever to fight for a New Kenya, free from the suffocating stranglehold of KANU’s one party rule. After detention by that party, one was supposed to become a non-person, full of fear and feared by those around him.

Nonetheless, Dr John Khaminwa had agreed to take me as his pupil, in his chambers in Jubilee Insurance Exchange, to finish my advocacy pupillage, which had rudely been cut short three years before, to go and serve detention time at the GK Naivasha Prison, where one of the key leaders of the Saba Saba movement was to set foot in the next 24 hours.

Dr Khaminwa had called me hurriedly to accompany him in a walk to Mr Paul Muite’s office in Electricity House, the latter had called him to his office in a dire emergency. These were the days when even the most brave, did not want to be left alone in the hands of the Special Branch, whose operational bases were in Nyayo and Nyati Houses.

In Muite’s 2nd floor office were Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, two of the luminaries and charismatic icons of the Saba Saba patriotic movement who were being shadowed by the police. The duo had fallen out with KANU for some time then and called a meeting at Kamakunji Grounds to decide the country’s future. The field was revered because those who had stood there in the past to face the crowd were fearless freedom fighters – whatever else they became later in life.

The two also were well known popular fighters: Matiba, a former Permanent Secretary and Minister who had conquered the Mt Kenya summit many times over and was a man of great business acumen; Rubia, a former cabinet Minister, who, after the assassination of JM Kariuki in 1975 had told Kenyatta off, and was sworn to finding out to whom the assassins had reported the murder.

The Kamukunji Grounds were famous in the fight for freedom and justice in Kenya from colonial times and had gained notoriety as the place to ‘Let the People Speak’. It was the field where important directional issues on the destiny of the country had previously been taken. It was like the grounds were sacred because those who had stood there in the past were known patriots and articulate freedom fighters, who feared nobody and tolerated no nonsense.

Matiba, Rubia and now the lawyers, had their tete a tete on the strategies to liberate our country, as the Special Branch characters hovered in the corridors and in the basement of the house. A demand had already been made to the two to call off the Saba Saba meeting, but none would bulge as tension and expectation spread across the city. Saba Saba had come to be associated with the fall of right-wing one party dictatorships across Africa. The undemocratic and coercive parties had come to be accepted in the West, after Africa’s independence from the 1960s, as the Cold War raged with the communist East.

It was soon time, at about 11am, for the two brave sons of Murang’a to leave Muite’s office, to find a crowd, as if in electronic communication, had formed in front of the entrance to the Electricity House running into the street. Matiba now took opportunity, as he stood on the elevated steps at the entrance and started addressing the crowd, to shame those who had come to prevent a public meeting of those who held multi-party ideas, divergent from KANU. He flashed the movements two finger salute to the roar of the crowd and said:

‘The good people are already here,’ he bellowed. ‘May be we should start our meeting here and now, which would be a marathon meeting running into Saba Saba, two days away.’ he continued.

Rubia, the first African mayor of Nairobi and no stranger to street fights now urged him on: ‘We are here, the people are already here and may be only those who do not want to attend Saba Saba are not here,’ he said.

‘I am already thirsty, this early,’ Matiba said, addressing himself to the kiosk keeper by the entrance of the building, ‘Please give me a bottle of cold coke’ he told him, as the men from the dreaded branch looked on helplessly.

‘Take this can, it is on me, Mr Matiba,’ the kiosk owner said, as he handed over the coke to him via a forest of raised hands.

Soon afterwards, Matiba’s car pulled up to take him to his College House office, on University Way as Dr Khaminwa, Charles Rubia and I, took the short three minute walk, along the Aga Khan Walk to Rubia’s office in Uganda House Arcade, off Standard Street, where he ran a tour and travel business.

For the rest of the day after the impromptu pre-Saba Saba warm up assembly on Harambee Avenue; the two were not followed as the men from the Special Branch took stock and plotted their next moves to pre-empt the main Saba Saba event. That evening the event received additional media attention and popular impetus to take place, whatever the consequences.

The following day both Matiba and Rubia were arrested and detained without trial, their detentions orders having been prepared overnight. They did not disappear, like other detainees before them, who had been detained in Kenya in the 1980s.  Past detainees had sorted out the pre-official, illegal disappearances, whether the earlier detainees were being credited with this or not. As the Special Branch oppressively sorted the patriots out and cast them into prison, the detainees in turn resisted the police for their infringements of the law.

When I was myself detained in July 1986, only a short four years before, I disappeared for three months, swallowed in the belly of Nyayo House Torture Chambers which was a secret dungeon. This was a time when I was starved and tortured with great bestiality, and under every circumstance is a period to be cut short. I resurfaced in October 1986, at Naivasha Prison, a walking skeleton still holding on to life and keeping my head above my shoulders.

Detained in short order soon afterwards were Raila Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara, Mohamed Ibrahim and Dr Khaminwa for a second time. This was the Moi regime’s answer to the popular Saba Saba. As is now clear, he was playing his last cards with the dreaded administrative detention of patriotic Kenyans.

Detention without trial reduced into a blunt instrument of statecraft

A most interesting detention during the time was that of Dr Khaminwa, who was apprehended and detained when he went to the Nairobi Provincial Police HQ to look for Mr Matiba. The devious Special Branch must have applauded itself for casting the bait at the brave Khaminwa, who remained unsuspecting of the trap, as he walked directly into their territory. For them it was to detain the lawyer and his client together to instil fear and despondency on the judiciary and the members of the public. When I was myself detained in October 1986, my advocate, Dr Gibson Kamau Kuria followed me in detention at Naivasha, in March 1987 because of taking my instructions on torture seriously.

‘Disappearance’ of the political opponents of dictators was a new weapon of choice of many US supported right-wing dictatorships. In Central and Latin America, in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, etc, many opponents of these regimes had disappeared in the late 1970s and 80s, never to be seen again. Argentinian military dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla was infamous for promoting these disappearances, torture, abduction of children of his opponents, etc. and had previously visited Moi in Kenya ostensibly on holiday: he had apparently given Moi lessons on the ‘how and why’ to make people disappear. Moi had taken his lessons well and after 1982 he pioneered the ‘disappearance’ of some of his political opponents in Kenya.

Saba Saba marked the sudden death of the institution of detention in Kenya, which was as old as the country itself. I say so because detention without trial could still be invoked under article 58, Kenya Constitution 2010, under instances of genuine national emergency threatening the life of the nation. There have to be an objective basis for it to be ushered into our national life, as such a declaration, by the president, could within 14 days be countermanded by the National Assembly.

A declaration would have to comply with the provisions of international law, which under articles 2(5) and (6) of the constitution is part of our domestic law. The provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, which Kenya ratified in 1972, would have to be taken into account and the covenant does not allow or condone peacetime administrative detentions, when the national courts are operating normally and there is no genuine emergency.

Historically speaking, where we are today is that the first detainee in Kenya was Waiyaki wa Hinga who was detained by the British on 14 August 1892 at NITD (Native Inland Trading Depot) Kabete and died later in the year at Kibwezi, as he was being frogmarched to Fort Jesus Prison, Mombasa. The last detainee is Raila Amolo Odinga detained three times by the Moi Regime in August 1982, September 1988 and July 1990 and last released in March 1991. Next year, we mark as a country the first 30 years in our national history without the application of the arbitrary detention without trial.

The Saba Saba event was not to be stopped by Moi forces however feared and loathed. The inaugural day witnessed a political meeting at Kamakunji Grounds and running battles with the police who made every attempt to disrupt the ‘unlicensed’ meeting and dispersed crowds wherever they could find them. This prevented a continuous meeting but also ensured that the Saba Saba message was dispersed to all the neighbourhoods in Nairobi and its environs. There were also disrupted Saba Saba meetings in Nakuru, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nyahururu, Limuru and other places. 

Saba Saba was Kenya’s generational transformative event which moved the country and the thinking of many Kenyans away from the dominant one party state rule, allied to communism, to multiparty democracy. Competitive multi-partyism has not yet been realised ideologically, but the nation is slowly moving in this direction, as it also frees itself from the grip of bad governance, leadership promoted tribalism and disabling public corruption, which has inexorably translated into vote buying during elections. During the last four General Elections in Kenya after 2002, four different political parties have assumed power, meaning that preponderant individuals have been elected, not political parties with a social-economic ideology.

The Saba Saba rise was epochal like others before it

The onset of colonialism at the end of the 19th century saw rising resistance to colonialism and the British imperial policies as land confiscations impoverished communities, wherever the railway went followed by white settlers. From 1909 to 1922, Kenya was in civil and territorial turmoil as the Giriama people led by the indomitable Me Katilili wa Menza resisted land confiscations, forced labour and conscription of the able-bodied into the 1st World War which brought a brief skirmish at Taveta after a German incursion from Tanganyika.

In Western Kenya, there was the Nandi Resistance which was also mainly motivated by land confiscations for white settlement to enable planting of tea and livestock farming. The Nandi, led by Koitalel arap Samoei, rose in rebellion and he and many of his kinsmen were killed (or exiled) away from their homeland.

At Dagoretti Corner, in 1922, residents in the area held the first organized political meeting, which was led by Harry Thuku, who had formed the East Africa (Kenya) Association after dissolving the Young Kikuyu Association. This movement is now acknowledged as the very first African political organisation, which was modelled on the Young Baganda Association in Uganda and the Tuskegee Institute in Southern USA. The meeting demanded that Kenya Africans be issued with title deeds to protect them from colonial land confiscations.

Maybe without these Saba Saba-like popular actions, Kenya could not have come by the Devonshire White Paper in 1923, which declared Kenya a predominantly African country and it could well have moved in the direction of countries like Zimbabwe in 1921 and South Africa in 1911, which at the times were allowed by the colonial office to become white-led self-governing countries.

A generation down the line was the decade of communal action in Kenya from 1952 to 1963 when Kenya was mainly under a state of emergency. During the period political detainees came from every corner of the Republic, from the coast (eg Timothy Mwinga Chokwe) to the shores of Lake Victoria (eg Ramogi Achieng Oneko). At the top of the anti-colonial dissent was the widespread Mau Mau rising which climaxed with our country’s independence in 1963. A generation later was the Saba Saba reshape and remodelling of Kenya.

Independence without the freedoms in Kenya led to Saba Saba

Moi’s result to detention without trial in his efforts to stem the tide of change in the 1990 was a microcosm of the decades of pre-independence action from the onset of colonialism. During the Mau Mau period, over 11, 000 Kenyans were killed and 100, 000 deported from their homes. Independence came to our country amidst huge sacrifice by the non-white races, yet to be acknowledged or recognized by those who were the biggest leadership beneficiaries. The Saba Saba event was a public declaration that oppression leads to popular resistance.

The Saba Saba rising was resultant from the abuse of Kenya’s independence, which did not deliver freedom to its people, as the new leaders built an authoritarian state to the exclusion of a majority. From a vibrant pluralist democracy at independence, when Kenya had a population of only 7 million to 1990, when the population had risen to 17 million, Kenya had little to show or be proud of in terms of the empowerment and endowment of a majority of her people after attaining the age of majority in independence.

There are still rampant social, educational, economic and communal injustices perpetrated on more than half the population in Kenya and many people continue to live below the poverty line. Believe it or not, there are more Kenyans today who are still shackled by illiteracy, poverty and disease than our country had at independence.

The only restraint there is today is the disinclination by a majority of our people to use force in an effort to achieve social economic ends. Time and events everywhere have proved that political violence does not work and only leads to more violence and chaos.

To realise better, knowledgeable and empowered Kenyans who are better fed and clothed, we need to impart critical education and more social and economic evaluation of what has gone wrong in our country. Poverty knows no tribal boundaries and the greedy and corrupt impoverish all irrespective of tribe. We just have to open up our minds to new persuasions, accept each other as equal and that all are entitled to human rights and a better life. ‘No Kenyan shall go anywhere else in Africa, or beyond for that matter and call it home.’

Editors’ notes, written especially in view of the fact that the South Asian presence in Kenya’s history is often omitted:

  1. Re political meetings in early Kenya – We understand a ‘political meeting’ is one that is concerned with government policies. No doubt Waiyaki wa Hinga, Mekatilili wa Menza, Koitalel arap Samoei, Moraa wa Ngiti and other freedom fighters held political discussions concerning the colonial government’s policies. In 1901 and 1903 in Nairobi and Mombasa respectively, Allidina Visram and AM Jeevanjee founded Indian Associations with the express purpose of demanding equal rights from the Colonial government. In 1914, AM Jeevanjee and others founded the East Africa Indian National Congress (EAINC). On Sunday, 10 July 1921, Harry Thuku (a close friend of Manilal Desai who printed his broadsheet, Tangazo), formed the East Africa Association and held political meetings all over Central Province for political purposes (AM Jeevanjee’s driver (Haikoko) drove him to some of these meetings). Radical members of the EAINC and the Baganda Association were involved; two notable events which alarmed the colonists were the Jeevanjee Tea Party and Thuku’s telegram to the UK Prime Minister stating, amongst other issues, ‘Next to missionaries, Indians are our best friends’. It was an Indian man who worked in a government department who warned Thuku of his impending arrest which was executed on 14 March 1922. (Ref: Harry Thuku’s Autobiography.)

    Maybe without these Saba Saba-like popular actions, Kenya could not have come by the Devonshire White Paper in 1923 
  2. The Devonshire White Paper was the Colonial Office’s solution to the Indian Question in Kenya. The Colonial Government, in response to the demands of the White Settlers, was increasing the restrictions on the Indians in terms of land, education, health care, trade, segregation, etc. Hence the sharp rise in Indian political agitation. The Colonial Office in the UK had some sympathy with the Indians and this enraged the Settlers who threatened insurrection and even spoke of shooting some Indians. To settle this extremely volatile and antagonistic situation, a conference was held in London with leaders from the European and Indian organisations in Kenya and East Africa, as well as from India. The Duke of Devonshire presided. In order to wriggle out of the quagmire, African Paramountcy was declared (an idea first mooted in 1919). Needless to say, not only had the Indians lost out but this ‘concession’ to the Africans was never implemented. But as stated by the author, it did save Kenya from being   brought under Dominion status as was the case in Zimbabwe and South Africa.


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