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It is 34 years since the seminal Saba Saba pro-democracy protests and 14 years since the promulgation of the “new” Constitution with a Bill of Rights that widened and strengthened the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people.

The Bill of Rights gives every person “the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities”. However, it is apparent that little has changed in the attitude of the state when confronted by a citizenry determined to exercise their constitutional right to protest.

I have not been on the streets for the peaceful #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, but I have followed the protests, and the reaction from state players on social media apps as well as in the more traditional media of print and broadcast.

When the police, both uniformed and plain-clothed, began harassing, threatening and eventually arresting and abducting the young protesters and their supporters, including medical professionals, I was reminded of the dark days leading up to and following the July 7 Saba Saba protests of 1990.

The government’s reaction to the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, which has gone from disbelief, to being determined to crush the protest at all costs, appears to be straight from the playbook written by the Kanu government in the 1960s.

If there was a “how to react to protests playbook”, the government and politicians associated with it have done everything they found in the version that was refined by the regime of President Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s and 1990s.

This includes offering inducements and issuing threats, and when that fails, spewing insults, ridicule and abuse. All the while making strong suggestions that a third force – usually foreigners – is behind the protests. Because surely, the people were happy and living in peace until they were stirred up by some hidden hand that “poured money”.

The original Saba Saba was the first protest I ever covered as a reporter and despite an interval of 34 years between Saba Saba and the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, the government’s knee-jerk reaction to any opposition from the streets has remained constant throughout the years.

Members of the security forces picking up individual activists and some of the leading lights of the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests have been a chilling reminder of the dark and frightening days of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In those days too, the feared police Special Branch would swoop in in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn to pick up people whom they believed were a threat to the state.

Underlining this echo of times past, author and social commentator Nanjala Nyabola posted on X: “This is a historically common tactic in Kenya and usually effective to chilling dissent because it draws less attention than arresting people en masse.”

Basically, despite all that has passed since Saba Saba and the eventual promulgation of the new constitution that Saba Saba had set us on the road to, the state’s tactics in dealing with street protests continue to follow an old, discredited formula.

As I see it, their first choice is always violence. The police, who always seem to relish the chance to crack a few skulls, are sent out first. Their mission always seems to be to unleash brute force under the guise of maintaining law and order. 

So you have uniformed police getting busy with their fimbos, teargas, water cannons and general violence against anyone and everyone on the streets, as long as they look like the profile they have of a protester.

Meanwhile, the more sinister plain-clothes officers (in the 1990s they would have been members of the Special Branch) sneak up on their targets at night or away from the limelight and drive them to a police station where they try to menace a “confession” out of them using psychological torture.

In the 1990s the mental torture would have been accompanied by physical torture and perhaps been followed by detention without trial. Fortunately, reforms after Saba Saba outlawed detention without trial, and so far during the ##RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, there have been no reports of physical torture. 

The tactics in the playbook adopted by both the uniformed cops and the plain-clothed ones are meant to sow fear and despondency in the hearts and minds of protestors, in the hope that such acts will get them to back off but so far they do not seem to have been successful.

Meanwhile, if you go by the playbook, there are a third lot of officers looking for the protest leaders, whom they might wait to arrest later, preferably under the cover of darkness when their targets are not surrounded by several other protestors. We’ve all seen this happening.

The next thing that happens is that once a few protestors have been bashed and a few others have been rounded up by the police, the pro-government politicos are ready to make their presence felt. These politicians will often want to sound as though they have intel that nobody else has and will often come out with baseless claims as to who funded the protests, what the greater aim of the protests really is (usually to topple the government) and why the protests must be stopped.

Those speaking will often be those perceived by the public to be close to the executive. As they are getting their show on the road, then ministers, government spokespeople and depending on the situation, sometimes the president himself, depending on the strength of feeling and the mood on the ground, will make their thoughts known.

How did the Saba Saba protests pan out and how is the government’s reaction in 1990 comparable to their initial reaction in 2024?  

Like the #RejectFinanceBill2024, the Saba Saba pro-democracy protests were nationwide. Unlike the current protests, however, the 1990 protests were put down within a day. That said, the ripple effect of the Saba Saba protest was felt for a long time.

It must be noted that the Saba Saba uprising was brought about by poverty, injustice, disregard for human rights and a lack of free public participation in national affairs. Despite using the might of the state ruthlessly to crush the Saba Saba protests, President Daniel arap Moi and his government insisted on euphemistically referring to the protests as “disturbances”.

Three days ahead of the protests, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, the politicians who had called for the demonstrations, were arrested and eventually detained without trial. Meanwhile, other organisers of the protests – including George Anyona and Njeru Gathangu – were beaten up, and tortured by the police.

A number of human rights lawyers and other activists fled into exile to escape the same fate or possibly worse, and it was left to Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro and James Orengo and others to make their way to Nairobi’s Kamukunji grounds to press the case for democracy. 

On the day, an estimated 6,000 people showed up at the rally – which had been declared illegal – to hear what they had to say. The government dispatched riot police to disperse the crowds and arrest the political leaders using force, teargas and batons.

The crowd refused to go quietly and began throwing rocks at the police and stoning cars. Meanwhile, the opposition leaders hopped onto the back of an open pick-up truck, rousing their supporters all through Nairobi’s Eastlands estates – Kariokor, Kariobangi, Ngara and elsewhere. This ride in the back of a pick-up truck led to the iconic photograph of Shikuku and Orengo flashing the two-finger salute as they drove down Jogoo Road. 

Although reports about the casualties and deaths on the day differed from newspaper to newspaper, the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) would later estimate that the protests led to 39 people dead, 69 people injured, and over 5,000 people arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

One major difference between 1990 and today is how the news and information on the protests is getting out to the general public. In 1990, during the Saba Saba protests, the government wanted to act as though that Saturday had never happened. But on that day, as I wrote here, only the Sunday Times obeyed the “orders from above”.

That Saturday evening, the Moi government’s spin doctors went into overdrive. To begin with, they contacted the three main Sunday newspapers of the time – the Sunday Nation, the Sunday Standard and the Kanu-owned Sunday Times, where I worked – and tried to stop them from carrying the stories and pictures of the protests.

When the government saw that their approach to kill the story had not worked properly, they released a statement in which they claimed that the protests were the work of “drug addicts” and that unnamed foreign powers had been behind the protests both morally and financially. However, socially progressive church leaders (believe it or not, there were once such people) spoke truth to power and said the protests were a “rebellion” against the government.

Saba Saba was one of the key events that forced the Moi government to grudgingly make some changes which included the restoration of the security of tenure of the judiciary and sections of the civil service. Other changes included the scrapping of the law that made Kenya a one-party state.

Fast-forward to the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests. The news and information is going out in real time via social media, live TV and radio broadcasts. Newspapers don’t have to wait for the next day, but can publish immediately online.

Try as it might, the government appears unable to effectively counter all this news and information. The worst it could do would be to turn off the internet, but this would cause so many other problems and in any case there are ways around this, such as the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). 

The state has, however, been left with some basic options. These include its initial violent lashing out using excessive force on unarmed peaceful protestors, abductions and unlawful detentions of selected individuals in the movement.

The state’s reaction echoes the dark days of 1990, which at times during the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, I have felt, are not as distant as I might have hoped; the pro-government politicians retain the same attitudes as their counterparts from the past. Reacting to the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa tried to paint the protestors as a small elitist group of spoiled brats.

Ichung’wa claimed, nonsensically, that the protestors are children of the wealthy, citing their use of smartphones and ride-hailing apps to take them to and from protests. His clinching argument that the protestors come from privilege and should therefore be dismissed, was that they had their meals at KFC outlets and “24/7” access to electricity, unlike many rural Kenyans.

This attempt at divide-and-rule, trying to cause a schism between the haves and the have-nots, was so transparent and predictable that there cannot have been much thought put into it; clearly a move borrowed from the section of President Daniel arap Moi and Kanu’s playbook dealing with popular opposition movements back in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ditto for the video statement by Government Spokesperson Isaac Mwaura trying to paint the issues that the protestors have raised about the Finance Bill as “disinformation and misinformation”. In fact, it was he who was spreading fake news while commenting on a record-breaking 12-hour plus space on X (formerly Twitter) attended by almost 60,000 Kenyans on Saturday, June 22.

Mwaura claimed that the space, which was attended mainly by supporters of the protests, was sponsored by unnamed foreign powers. He also averred that it was attended mainly by Kenyans in the diaspora – as if that somehow disqualified them from caring about what happens in Kenya.

Trying to justify the government’s claims of foreign influence in the protests, Mwaura said that as yet unnamed foreigners might have been spurred into action by President William Ruto’s recent statements on issues such as Ukraine, where he has “called on Russia to stop its aggression”.

Mwaura also suggested that President Ruto – and therefore Kenya – had upset foreign powers with his calls for change in the world’s financial architecture to accommodate the needs of Africa.

Reading between the lines of Mwaura’s statements, it would seem President Ruto had managed to unite the Russians and our newest favourite allies, the Americans, against Kenya. Engineering such unity of purpose would be an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

For me, the most fascinating throwback to the 1990s was a case of life imitating art, involving Dagoretti South Member of Parliament John “KJ” Kiarie, who made his name by doing imitations of Joseph Kamotho, one of the Kanu government’s chief propagandists of the 1990s. Kiarie rose in Parliament to claim that the images from the Occupy Parliament protests on Tuesday were fake.

According to Kiarie, a self-proclaimed digital photo expert, and as reported on Citizen digital, the photos widely shared on the internet following the Tuesday protests were actually old photos downloaded from various protests across the world. 

Kiarie appears to have seen the error of his ways and issued an apology from his comments shortly after a letter from his fellow Dagoretti High School alumni condemning his statements about the protest as not a reflection of their school values. 

In the final analysis, despite the government’s best (or worst) efforts, it would appear that instead of turning the public against the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests, it has only succeeded in fanning the flames and radicalising other generations.

How this will all end has yet to play out, however, like the Saba Saba protests, the #RejectFinanceBill2024 protests have already ensured that Kenya will never be exactly the same again. Greater reforms will eventually see the light of day.