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On 7 July 2023, thousands of Kenyans gathered at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi in response to Azimio La Umoja’s call to express their discontent with the government and demand change. The rally, which had begun calmly with an address from Azimio leaders, culminated in clashes between squadrons of riot police and groups of protesters in Nairobi. Violent protests also took place in other parts of the country.

Raila Odinga’s call in early July for nationwide Saba Saba rallies came amidst the rising cost of living and the recently voted controversial Finance Bill 2023. In his statement delivered on the 4th of July, the Azimio leader cited high taxes on consumable goods, the failed bipartisan talks on the reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the audit of the 2022 elections as the reasons justifying calls for protests, picketing and civil disobedience on the historic Saba Saba Day. Odinga referred to the 7 July 2023 mobilisation as symbolising the beginning of the nation’s Third Liberation struggle.

The first Liberation struggle was against colonial rule, the armed resistance that culminated in independence in 1963. At the time, Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta declared that his administration would wage a war against poverty, disease, and ignorance in Kenya but despite these grandiose promises, his administration and that of his successor were ultimately accused of the same failings that had characterised the colonial administration.

The Second Liberation movement therefore emerged in reaction to the government’s unfulfilled promises, restrictions on free speech, human rights violations, and, most importantly, the one-party doctrine enforced by Daniel arap Moi’s regime. The Saba Saba Rally of 1990 would come to signal the beginning of the second wave of Liberation that culminated in the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

Saba Saba Day, as we know it, had no political significance in Kenya’s history until the late Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia fixed it as the date for the first of a series of rallies to demand the reintroduction of multi-party politics in Kenya. The advocates for a return to multi-party politics set the stage for 7 July 1990 when they first applied for a licence on 11 June from Fred Waiganjo, then Nairobi Provincial Commissioner, to address a rally at Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi. The government turned down their request and instead issued a strong warning to the general public against attending the Kamukunji meeting.

As political tensions mounted, the government arrested and detained Matiba and Rubia, who were perceived as the key protagonists of multipartyism. Their lawyers and other leaders like Raila Odinga, John Khaminwa, Gitobu Imanyara and Mohamed Ibrahim, were also arrested. The movement persisted despite government harassment in the form of arrests, detentions, and threats, and on 7 July, Kenyans turned up at the Kamukunji grounds.

The 7th of July gained ominous significance after riot police moved in to disperse the crowd gathered at the Kamukunji grounds, turning the peaceful gathering into a frenzy of violence. For three days, the unrest that had started in Nairobi spread to other parts of the country, including Kiambu, Murang’a, Nyeri, Thika, and Nakuru. About 20 people were reported to have lost their lives, and 39 others were injured.

The pressure exerted by the Saba Saba movement played a crucial role in accelerating reforms in Kenya and as a result, Section 2A of the constitution was amended, and multi-party democracy was restored in the following year. The constitutional amendment limited the president’s stay in office to two terms, and consequently led to Moi’s retirement in 2002 after 24 years in power. The movement’s struggle climaxed with the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, which firmly established devolution and explicitly defined the division of powers between the different arms of government.

The 7th of July gained ominous significance after riot police moved in to disperse the crowd gathered at the Kamukunji grounds, turning the peaceful gathering into a frenzy of violence.

Over the years, more and more organisations – especially civil society organisations – have observed this day by holding protests to highlight various social problems including police brutality, the high cost of living, corruption, and unemployment. Opposition parties also hold Saba Saba rallies at the Kamukunji grounds every year to commemorate the Second Liberation and challenge the government of the day regarding the governance and socio-economic problems besetting the nation.

Since the 7 July 1990 Saba Saba Rally, which birthed multipartyism and the 2010 Constitution, subsequent Saba Saba Day commemorations have not culminated in any significant changes. Part of the reason is the disintegration of the movement that initially comprised Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the Church, politicians and lawyers. And even where CSOs and political parties appear together to commemorate Saba Saba Day, one cannot help but notice the divergent viewpoints advanced by both camps.

Whereas some CSOs took part in the demonstrations last July 7, the incongruities of the issues raised between them and the Azimio team stood out. Top on the agenda of the CSOs was the high cost of living, with issues touching on the bipartisan reconstitution of the IEBC and the audit of the 2022 elections conspicuously missing from their list of demands. Moreover, the Church – a key player in the original Saba Saba – avoided making known its support or opposition to the rally. With unharmonised agendas and the absence of other key players, 7 July 2023 would fail to leave an indelible mark in its wake.

Secondly, ever since that first rally on 7 July 1990, the face of the movement demanding change has remained a mosaic of politicians who have historically opposed the government. In effect, while the principal key figures in the first Liberation (Jomo Kenyatta, Oginga Odinga, and Paul Ngei) were different from those in the Second Liberation (such as Charles Rubia, Raila Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba), the leadership of the Second Liberation is still reflected in the Third Liberation. If the thesis that one movement succeeds another is accepted, then the dominance of Second Liberation leaders in the third struggle defeats the course that is being advanced.

Thirdly, lack of acknowledgement of July 7 by the government as a nationally recognised day to celebrate the heroes and heroines of the Second Liberation renders the holding of a peaceful and meaningful ‘Kamukunji’ difficult. July 7 then appears to be no more than a day for protests and government criticism, and with the gatherings termed illegal more often than not, protesters end up battling with police officers, leading to death and destruction of property.

Moreover, the impression that the country is stuck in an endless cycle of history repeating itself discourages adherence to the movement. While the first liberation movement led to independence, the very issues that led to the struggle for freedom – such as land issues, discrimination, and tribalism – have continued to dominate subsequent Saba Saba rallies; the Second Liberation brought to the fore the issues of human rights abuses, corruption, and inequitable resource distribution that have been the hallmark of successive governments.

Persistent calls for political reforms continue to cast a shadow over the Third Liberation movement, whose focus should instead be on issues of economic growth and development. While the controversial Finance Bill 2023 is the elephant in the room, it has not received serious attention as have the calls challenging the legality of the president’s election to office. The opposition held protests in March and April demanding that the electoral body ‘open the servers’ and calling for a bipartisan reconstitution of the IEBC and an audit of the last general election.

Persistent calls for political reforms continue to cast a shadow over the Third Liberation movement, whose focus should instead be on issues of economic growth and development.

As a result, the struggle for the Third Liberation, symbolised by the 2023 Saba Saba rally, has been criticised for lacking sincerity and clarity regarding its main agenda.

Even while it has entered the annals of Kenya’s history, the meaning and importance of Saba Saba will continue to remain divorced from the Third Liberation. The relevance of the movement, therefore, is closely linked to the participation of the people, the CSOs and the Church, and not just the political class.