I was asked to spare myself from joining colleagues that would come out into the procession to mark the 30th anniversary of saba saba and instead remain on standby to serve as legal counsel if the services of a lawyer were to be needed on the day. The plan was that people taking place in the procession would assemble in their neighbourhoods early in the morning on saba saba day, from where they would march into, and converge at, the city centre. If they all succeeded, this would result in a massive get-together in the city, a fitting commemoration of an anniversary that honours the agitation by citizens for a resumption of multiparty democracy in the country.
While the law does not give police the power to licence public processions, they usually behave like it does, and habitually refuse to give a licence to meetings which, for political reasons, they would not like to see. The police had already declined the notification of the procession on that day, an early sign that they were likely to treat any procession as an unlicensed meeting which they would, therefore, not allow. As legal counsel, I was to be on standby to negotiate safe passage as the police were likely to block the procession and, in the worst-case scenario, to assist with the release of any colleagues that might be arrested as a result of their participation in the procession. Boniface Mwangi had advised that I should turn up in a suit, as this was likely to make the police more amenable to listening to me.
On saba saba morning, I was still at home when, at 9.30 a.m., a call came through that a number of colleagues had already been arrested and were now being held at the Kilimani police station. I immediately rushed there.
On arrival, was surprised at how quiet the police station was. Was it not supposed to be holding a large number of demonstrators? Later, a crowd of people would build at the police station. I would then come to understand that I was among the first responders, arriving at the police station before a crowd built.
On approaching the front office desk, the officer at the desk confirmed that, indeed, they were holding a number of people for allegedly participating in an illegal public procession. When I asked if I could speak to one of them, it was Editar Achieng who emerged from the cells behind the report office. Editar is a well-known activist and leader in Kibera, and was a candidate in a bye-election that took place in 2019, following the death of the local Member of Parliament, Ken Okoth.
Editar explained that the cell was holding 19 people, arrested in Kibera a few minutes earlier. They had assembled on the open grounds next to the compound that houses the local provincial administration offices, commonly called Kwa DC, ready to walk into the city centre. The police had asked them to disperse, before arresting a number of the in the process. Of concern to her was the fact that at least two of those arrested in Kibera, and now held in the cell, were two little girls, minors in the eyes of the law.
When, at the front office, I inquired whom I could discuss the situation about which Editar had briefed me, I was informed that the Officer Commanding Station, (OCS), was away and that in his absence, I could speak to the deputy. Information was already coming in about other arrests around the city. People assembled in Mathare and seeking come into the city had also been arrested. A number of police stations around the city –including the Central Police Station, KICC police station, Muthaiga station, and Kamukunji station– were now also holding people that the police had arrested that morning.
In all the places, the OCS could not be found with the available police now saying that any decisions regarding the fate of those arrested would have to await the OCS.
On speaking to her, it immediately became clear that the arrests around the city were well coordinated, reflecting a centralised decision not to allow any saba saba protest on the day. No doubt the notification of the meeting had only acted as a forewarning to the police, allowing them time and opportunity to coordinate their action. In this regard, police had acted at the earliest opportunity to nip the protests in the bud, and having carried out arrests so early in the morning, and with the whole day still ahead, they were unsure whether other people would come out to protest later in the day. It was clear that having police were now playing for time, waiting to see how the whole situation developed before they could make any decisions on those they had arrested.
As I wondered what to do next, lawyer Haron Ndubi emerged from one of the offices at the far end of the compound. He had just visited the Divisional Commander for the Kilimani area, to whom he had turned when, like me, he failed to find the OCS. Ndubi informed me that the PCIO had told him that this was a matter for the OCS and when the two of us went to see the Deputy OCS, a woman called Sarah Hassan, she now told us that since we had already seen the PCIO the matter was now above her and there was nothing she could do.
Eventually, the veteran lawyer, John Khaminwa, arrived at the police station. By then, a large crowd had gathered and were now hanging around a gazebo within the police station, the writings on whose walls proclaimed that it was donated by the Riara Group of Schools. Every so often, Sarah Hassan would come to the gazebo out of concern about the crowd build-up but we would tell her that the only way to diffuse the build-up would be by releasing those in the cells. The crowd now received Khaminwa rapturously, and it immediately felt that his presence had brought a massive layer of protection to all of us.
As part of the leadership that had gathered at the station, we conducted Khaminwa around visiting the same police officers that we had already spoken to. Invariably, the police treated Khaminwa reverently, and in one office a policeman offered him his own seat rather than have Khaminwa stand like the rest of us.
Throughout my time at the police station, Al Amin Kimathi, based in Isiolo, had remained in touch over the phone and now suggested that, rather than indulge the police in the evident run-around, we should constitute a delegation of civil society leaders that would seek audience with the Inspector General, to protest over the arrests and the lack of information about how those arrested were being treated.
Led by Khaminwa and together with Ndubi, Peter Kiama and DK, we visited the County Commander for Nairobi, having decided that it would be better to start here rather than with the IGP. Again, the presence of Khaminwa easily opened the door to the office of the County Commander, who informed us that a decision had been made that all persons arrested in relation to the saba saba protests and now the police stations around the city, would be released before the end of the day. Outside the County Commander’s office and in the presence of the Chair of the Law Society, Nelson Havi, who had joined us there, we addressed the media, emphasising the historical importance of saba saba and decrying police action that had evidently undermined the freedom of assembly.
By the time I made it back to the Kilimani police station, those held in the cells there had already been released and were now resting in the gazebo. It would take a trip to the Central Police Station, and more calls to the County Commander, before those held there were released. At the time of release, the process of taking their fingerprints, ready for court the following day, was already underway.
Reflecting on the events of the day, I was struck at the composition of the people that had come out to participate in the saba saba protests. Most of them were from economically-deprived neighbourhoods around Nairobi: Korogocho, Mathare, Kibera, Kariobangi. The original saba saba was staged by elite politicians, who went up against other elite politicians. In the context of the one-party situation that prevailed at the time, the two groups had belonged to the same party and, on falling out, one group constituted itself as the opposition that went up against the group that had remained in power. While, over the years, politicians had participated in keeping the memory of saba saba alive, and while some had, on occasions, instrumentalized the day for their political ends, their absence was now loud and most evident, leaving members of the lower classes as the keepers of the memory of this day. A remarkable remake of saba saba has been its appropriation of its leadership by the lower classes of Kenyan society who, when saba saba first started, were only part of the rank and file and not the leadership.
This reality justifies the conclusion that over the years, Kenya has seen the emergence of a level of class consciousness that may not have been present in the first saba saba. As some of the poorest people in the city, the people who came out on saba saba this year knew they had relatively little protection from police brutality. Their courage in coming out in this manner, under the circumstances, was monumental.
Lawyer Khaminwa involved in the first saba saba 30 years previously was on hand to lead a legal response to the arrests that took place that day. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic to which senior citizens are disproportionately pre-disposed, Khaminwa took a greater risk in coming out that day. As he explained later, he had come out because the 30th anniversary of saba saba seemed a special occasion that he felt compelled to do something about. A few of those arrested that morning were minors and had not been born when the first saba saba happened. Majority of the rest were also not born or would have been very young 30 years ago, and did not have an experience of the first saba saba. It is remarkable that Kenya’s reform movement has managed to keep the memory of the saba saba alive for so long, handing its commemoration to a generation of actors that were not even born when the first saba saba took place.
Finally, in addition to political reforms, saba saba has now also become the staging for demands relating to social justice and economic inclusion, and agenda that was not very strongly articulated in the beginning but which has grown over time.