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Proxy Wars: The Intrigues Leading to Kenya’s Invasion of Somalia

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Kenya had been spoiling for a fight with Somalia for some time.

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WAR GAMES: The intrigues leading to Kenya’s invasion of Somalia
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“To my daughter I will say, ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.” – Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

In July 2011, while the world’s attention was focused on the famine in Somalia, a plot was being hatched in Nairobi to cross the Kenya-Somalia border and wage a war against the terrorist group Al Shabaab.

Kenya had been spoiling for a fight with Somalia for some time. Cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that the Kenyan government had intentions to militarily intervene in Somalia as early as 2009, and had been trying to convince the United States government about the wisdom of its plan. At that time, the Mwai Kibaki coalition administration had big plans for Kenya’s northeastern and coastal regions, including a large deep-sea port in Lamu and a new transport corridor known as the Lamu Port and South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) that would link the port to Ethiopia and to the oil wells of the newly independent state of Southern Sudan. Creating a safe buffer zone within Somalia to protect Kenya’s ambitious project was part of the plan. Dubbed the “Jubbaland Initiative”, the ultimate goal was to install a Kenya-friendly regional administration in Kismaayo, the capital of Somalia’s Juba region that borders Kenya. According to a newspaper report published in the Daily Nation, in December 2009, Kenya’s then Foreign Minister, Moses Wetang’ula, told a sceptical senior US official that if the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, its success was guaranteed – it would be like “a hot knife through butter”.

However, Kenya’s opportunity for military intervention in Somalia only came in the last quarter of 2011 when David Tebbut, a British tourist, was killed and his wife Judith kidnapped while on holiday at the Kenyan coast. What at first appeared to be the work of pirates or criminal gangs was quickly attributed by the Kenyan government to Al Shabaab, which controlled large swathes of south and central Somalia. (The extremist group denied being involved and, according to the BBC, the British government concluded that “those holding her were Somali pirates, purely after money, and not the extremist insurgency group, Al Shabaab”).

Kenya’s then Foreign Minister, Moses Wetang’ula, told a sceptical senior US official that if the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, its success was guaranteed – it would be like “a hot knife through butter”.

The official reason for Kenya’s mission was to seize control of the port of Kismaayo in order to cut off Al Shabaab’s economic lifeline. The Kenyan forces were assisted in their mission by the Ras Kamboni militia led by Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Islam, popularly known as Madobe. Interestingly, Madobe had at various stages of his career as an insurgent been a member of the extremist organisation Al Itihad, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that took control of Mogadishu in 2006, and also of Al Shabaab. Prior to joining the Kenyan forces, he had fallen out with the Ras Kamboni Brigades founded by his brother-in-law Hassan Turki, a career jihadist who had joined forces with Al Shabaab to lay claim over Kismaayo. American journalist Jeremy Scahill, in his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, says that Madobe’s change of heart vis-à-vis Al Shabaab came about after he spent two years in an Ethiopian prison after he was captured while fleeing Ethiopian and American forces when the ICU fell in 2006.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed “Gandhi”, the former minister of defence and an Ogadeni from the Juba region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” that would serve as a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia. It is believed that the Ethiopian government opposed the creation of an Ogadeni-dominated authority in Jubaland (though Madobe also belongs to the Ogadeni clan) because it believed that such an entity had the potential to embolden secessionist sentiments in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and so Kenya – an important ally of Ethiopia – abandoned the plan.

Contradictory US policies towards Somalia

Contrary to popular belief, Kenya’s decision to invade Somalia was a “proxy war” that the US government was not willing to engage in. Wikileaks cables indicate that while the Kenyan government had been pitching the invasion to the US government for some time, it had always met resistance and scepticism. US officials were concerned that the mission could turn out to be more complicated and expensive than Kenya predicted.

It is possible that the US government realised that its support for the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that led to the ouster of the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu had led to more, not less, instability; hence it did not want to repeat the same mistake. Initially, the United States had mixed feelings about the rise of the ICU, which consisted of groups of businesspeople, Muslim clerics and others who had united to bring about a semblance of governance in a dysfunctional state. The former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, told Scahill that some Somalia experts within the US administration welcomed the expulsion of murderous warlords in Mogadishu by the ICU. However, fears that the ICU (which had gained legitimacy through religion rather than the clan, which has been a divisive factor in Somalia) could morph into something more sinister led to a decision to remove it from power. The then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, is widely credited for convincing the US government to support Ethiopian forces to oust the ICU, an action that the BBC journalist Mary Harper describes as “one of the most counterproductive foreign initiatives towards Somalis in recent years”.

The potential “Talibanisation” of Somalia was probably what prompted the United States to back the Ethiopian forces that pushed the ICU out of Mogadishu in December 2006, just six months after the latter had taken control of the city. The ICU then broke up into factions, the most extreme of which was Al Shabaab, which took control over most of south and central Somalia.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed “Gandhi”, the former minister of defence and an Ogadeni from the Juba region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” that would serve as a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia.

An advisor to the US military told Scahill that the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 was a classic proxy war coordinated by the United States government, which provided air power and paid for the roughly 50,000 Ethiopian troops that ejected the ICU from Mogadishu. The invasion was in line with the US “no boots on the ground” policy, whereby the US financially supports African forces on the ground without actually sending US military personnel to the conflict zones.

However, the advisor also admitted that there were some US forces, including the CIA, on the ground in Somalia. Prior to the Ethiopian invasion, the US had started supporting a new group comprising pro-government leaders and warlords under the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, which accepted US support in exchange for handing over key Al Qaeda members. US support for groups that were perceived as criminals or illegitimate by a large number of Somalis gained the ICU many converts.

The Ethiopian invasion was extremely costly in terms of the number of lives lost and the large scale displacement. Reports began to emerge of Ethiopian soldiers slaughtering Somali men, women and children “like goats”. Ethiopia, which has had historical and bitter disputes with Somalia for decades, and which is feared and loathed in equal measure by Somalis, was beginning to look like a brutal occupying force. Al Shabaab eventually drove out the Ethiopians in 2008. In other words, the Ethiopian invasion succeeded in replacing the ICU with a virulent and lethal force of its own making. And the United States was caught, once again, with egg on its face.

Political scientist Michael J. Boyle says that just as US efforts to eliminate Mohammed Farah Aideed had backfired in 1993, the US decision to remove the ICU was equally disastrous because it succeeded in overthrowing the only force that was capable of restoring a semblance of order on the streets of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. During its short reign, the ICU is credited with flushing out warlords from Mogadishu and with successfully resolving land and other disputes, which Somalia’s weak and highly corrupt Transitional Federal Government (TFG) had been unable to do since it assumed power in 2004.

Having failed to root out extremist groups from Somalia, the United States then embarked on a strategy to include the same groups within the UN-backed TFG, a move that astounded even the most die-hard critics of US foreign policy. It is rumoured that in 2008 a senior US diplomat convinced Abdullahi Yusuf, the TFG’s first president, to resign in order to pave the way for a TFG leadership comprising members of the ousted ICU, which had splintered into various groups, including Al Shabaab, that were opposed to the TFG. Having invested so heavily in Ethiopian forces to remove the ICU from Somalia, it appeared extraordinary that the United States would now be planning for its inclusion in the transitional government.

The then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, is widely credited for convincing the US government to support Ethiopian forces to oust the ICU, an action that the BBC journalist Mary Harper describes as “one of the most counterproductive foreign initiatives towards Somalis in recent years”.

President Abdullahi Yusuf finally ceded to US government pressure and resigned in December 2008, eight months before his tenure was to end. Subsequently, a meeting was held in Djibouti, where there is a sizeable US military presence and where Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (the leader of the ICU), Nur Adde and Maslah Siad Barre (the former Somali president Siad Barre’s son), among others, were gathered to vie for the presidency of Somalia under the auspices of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS). Although the elections seemed to favour Barre, UNPOS, headed at that time by the Mauritanian Ould Abdallah, proposed and selected 275 additional parliamentarians drawn mainly from the ICU to the already bloated 275-member parliament. This skewed the election in favour of the ICU leader who the US government now viewed as “a moderate Islamist”. “To veteran observers of Somali politics, Sharif [Sheikh Ahmed]’s re-emergence was an incredible story,” wrote Scahill. “The United States had overthrown the ICU government only to later back him as the country’s president.”

This hoodwinking and double-dealing would later manifest itself in the Barack Obama administration’s 2010 “dual-track” policy in Somalia whereby the US government dealt with the transitional government in Mogadishu while also engaging with regional and clan leaders, including warlords. Under Obama, covert operations, such as drone attacks, targeted killings and wiretapping, also escalated. Scahill claims that while Obama appeared to be scaling down operations in Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions were being “decentralised” and “outsourced” to secret prisons in other places, including Mogadishu.

KDF blunders at home

It was against this background that the US Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, told a high-powered Kenyan delegation attending an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January 2010 that if the Kenyan troops were defeated, there would be negative domestic repercussions. Carson wanted a more “conventional” method of addressing the Al Shabaab menace and was deeply pessimistic about Kenya’s ambitions to create a buffer zone along its border. Some neighbouring countries also expressed fears that the invasion could have the unintended consequence of strengthening Al Shabaab and making Kenya more insecure.

As the critics predicted, retaliatory terrorist attacks in Kenya escalated after Kenyan forces entered Somalia in October 2011, and particularly during the first few months after the new government of President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in 2013. An analysis by Nation Newsplex showed that there were nine times more terror attacks in the 45 months after the invasion than the 45 months before it.

Having failed to root out extremist groups from Somalia, the United States then embarked on a strategy to include the same groups within the UN-backed TFG, a move that astounded even the most die-hard critics of US foreign policy.

The most shocking attack took place in September 2013 at the up-market Westgate mall in Nairobi where 67 people were killed. What stood out in this and subsequent attacks was the inept response by the Kenyan security forces, including the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF). In an article published in the local press immediately after the attack, a retired military officer, Lieutenant-General Humphrey Njoroge, said that the rescue mission suffered from a broken command structure, poor screening of people fleeing the mall and outright incompetence, which may have handed the terrorists an upper hand. The blunders began in the first hours of the attack. By mid-afternoon, some three or four hours after the terrorists began their shooting spree, the US-trained anti-terrorist Recce squad seemed to have isolated and cornered the terrorists. However, the subsequent arrival of KDF soldiers may have contributed to disrupting the chain of command.

In an article published in Foreign Policy on the second anniversary of the attack, Tristan McConnell, a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, claimed that by the time the Recce squad and KDF entered the mall, most of the so-called “hostages” in the mall had already been evacuated safely, thanks to the courage of a few uniformed, plainclothes and off-duty police officers who responded to emergency calls. “Far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Westgate mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building,” wrote McConnell. “When they finally did, it was only to shoot at one another before going on an armed looting spree that resulted in the collapse of the rear of the building, destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade. And there were only four gunmen, all of whom were buried in the rubble, along with much of the forensic evidence.”

Meanwhile, a judicial commission of inquiry on the three-day siege of the mall promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to materialise.

The following year, in June, more than 60 men were killed in a horrific terror attack in Mpeketoni in Lamu County. As during the Westgate attack, the security services were again implicated in bungling the rescue operation. There were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni abandoned prior to the attack and villagers left on their own to deal with the terrorists. Their frantic phone calls to the police requesting for reinforcements were apparently ignored. Many spent several nights in the bush waiting for help to arrive. Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority blamed the police for failing to heed to warnings about an imminent threat and for not responding to the villagers’ cries for help in time.

The worst attack – in terms of numbers – took place in April 2015 when 147 students at Garissa University College were butchered by Al Shabaab. Again, the security forces’ response was a little too late. According to media reports, soldiers from a military barracks in the vicinity of the university cordoned off the campus but failed to go in and rescue the students. The alarm at the base of the specially-trained Recce squad on the outskirts of Nairobi was sounded at 6 a.m. on the morning of the attack but the squad was put on standby as the military said it could handle the situation. As a result, its members arrived in Garissa nearly eleven hours later, long after a majority of the victims had been killed. Even though a core team had arrived in Garissa by 2 p.m., the rescue operation did not begin till around 5 p.m. It took the officers only half an hour to corner and kill the terrorists. If they had arrived earlier, many lives could have been saved. Most of the students’ parents blamed the delayed security response for the death of their children.

This hoodwinking and double-dealing would later manifest itself in the Barack Obama administration’s 2010 “dual-track” policy in Somalia whereby the US government dealt with the transitional government in Mogadishu while also engaging with regional and clan leaders, including warlords.

Kenyans thought that President Kenyatta’s stand on Kenya’s military presence in Somalia would soften after these attacks. However, this did not happen. Kenyatta said that Kenyan forces would remain in Somalia until the government there was stable. Those demanding for a withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia were labelled as “talking the language of the terrorists” and admonished as unpatriotic.

KDF blunders in Somalia

Four months after KDF entered Somalia – when it became apparent that the forces were not making substantial headway, and after the Somali government sent out feelers that it was not happy with a foreign force within Somali territory – a deal was made for the Kenyan forces to join the other African forces enrolled under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Under the new arrangement, Kenyan troops were “re-hatted” as AMISOM, and were allowed to continue with their mission in southern Somalia. The agreement also allowed the KDF to claim compensation for equipment lost or destroyed during the invasion. According to official sources, the military operation had been costing the Kenyan government about 200 million shillings (about $2.3 million) per month. The new arrangement, funded mainly by the United States and European countries, alleviated this heavy financial burden on the Kenyan taxpayer and also gained the mission legitimacy.

In September 2012, almost one year after the Kenyan invasion, Kismaayo, the prized port that was Al Shabaab’s main economic base, fell to the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces. It was a major victory for the Kenyans, but one that would soon be marred by rumours of Kenyan and Ras Kamboni soldiers exporting charcoal from the port, despite a UN Security Council ban.

It is estimated that before the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces pushed out Al Shabaab from the port of Kismaayo, the militant group was exporting about one million bags of charcoal to the Middle East and Gulf countries every month. (Slow-burning charcoal is a much sought-after cooking fuel in the Gulf states, where it is used to roast meat and also to light fruit-flavoured waterpipes called shisha). When the Kenyan and Somali forces entered Kismaayo, they discovered an estimated four million sacks of charcoal with an international market value of at least $60 million lined up ready for export. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea alleges that the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces continued exporting the charcoal despite the UN ban, and that the export of charcoal more than doubled under their watch.

In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that revenue from the port of Kismaayo – which was being collected through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar – was equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe and Al Shabaab. There were also rumours of KDF and Al Shabaab entering into mutually beneficial financial partnerships at roadblocks where “taxes” were collected from vehicles.

There were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni being abandoned prior to the attack and villagers being left to their own devices to deal with the terrorists.

All these allegations, however, have been denied by the Kenyan government, but they do not surprise many Kenyans, who have still not got over the fact that Kenya’s security forces indulged in a massive looting spree during the Westgate mall attack; until this attack, the Kenyan military was generally viewed as being more disciplined and less corruptible than the country’s notoriously corrupt police force. As the Kenyan opposition leader Jakoyo Midiwo, who has for some time been advocating for the withdrawal of Kenya troops from Somalia, commented, “When citizens of Somalia come to realise what our soldiers are doing on their soil, they are bound to retaliate. When this happens, it is the ordinary Kenyan who will suffer.”

None of these allegations affected how the KDF was viewed at home. In fact, the then Chief of the Defence Forces, General Julius Karangi, who has the look and demeanour of a chubby teddy bear rather than that of a military commander, was celebrated as a hero by the country’s leadership and reports about KDF’s involvement in the charcoal trade in Somalia were largely dismissed.

Part of the reason why the Kenyan forces might have got away with their alleged misdemeanours is because of the lack of a clear and strong command structure within AMISOM. Its headquarters in Mogadishu, dominated largely by Ugandan soldiers, appears to be operating independently, with little collaboration with foreign intelligence agencies or sufficient oversight by donor countries. In fact, when the allegations about illegal charcoal sales appeared in the press, there was no response or threats of withdrawal of funding for Kenyan troops from European Union countries, AMISOM’s largest funders, which surprised many. This could be because the government in Mogadishu, which has the backing of the international community, is almost entirely dependent on AMISOM for security, though there are plans underway to strengthen the Somalia National Army.

In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that revenue from the port of Kismaayo, which was being collected through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar, were equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe and Al Shabaab.

Writer Velda Felbab-Brown, in an article published in Foreign Affairs in June 2015, explains why, despite some success in routing out Al Shabaab, the African Union forces have so far been unable to completely subdue the terrorist organisation. The main reason, she says, is because “offensive operations are decided mostly on a sector bases, with the forces in each area reporting and taking orders from their own capitals”. Because of this fragmented and uncoordinated approach, there is a perception that AMISOM is politically manipulated by troop-producing countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia. When Ethiopia joined AMISOM in 2014, some Somali analysts even wondered how a country that had invaded Somalia in 2006 could be allowed to re-enter it militarily under the banner of the African Union.

Meanwhile, more than six years after Kenyan boots entered Somalia, there seems to be no stabilisation plan for the region, nor any exit strategy for the Kenyan forces. KDF is still in Jubaland and Madobe is its president. Like the Ethiopians, who invaded Somalia in 2006 and stayed on for two years, the Kenyans have started to look and feel like an occupying force.

Because of this fragmented and uncoordinated approach, there is a perception that AMISOM is politically manipulated by troop-producing countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia.

For now, it appears that any decision President Uhuru Kenyatta makes regarding Kenya’s presence in Somalia will be guided by what his military commanders and security experts advise him – and to a certain extent, by the countries funding AMISOM – not by a well thought-out policy to bring about long-term stability in Somalia and to forge stronger ties with the government in Mogadishu.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Politics

Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. With the elections that will determine who will be Kenya’s next president just two years away, the country is slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism.

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost
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This Tuesday the 7th of July 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous and bloody Saba Saba Day (seventh day of the seventh month) upheavals that are still etched in the memory of the many Kenyans old enough to vividly recall those heady days of the struggle for the second liberation. It was a day of infamy, as President Daniel arap Moi, now deceased, unleashed his security apparatus on hapless, innocent Kenyans, killing and maiming many of them for daring to call for a return to multipartyism.

Three days prior, on 4 July 4 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, former Kanu government cabinet ministers who had fallen out with Moi (both now deceased), and Raila Odinga—who had just returned from self-exile in Oslo, Norway—had been arrested on the orders of President Moi. The 4th of July is America’s Independence Day. Kenyan political analysts have always wondered whether it was mere coincidence or a conspiracy between Moi and the American government to have the trio arrested on the very day America would be celebrating its much vaunted independence day. Did the American government have something to do with their arrests? “Why would the Americans, who were friends of the three, allow Moi to detain them on their big day”, Augustine Njeru Kathangu, one of the architects of Saba Saba, has always wondered.

The Saba Saba demonstrations heralded the beginning of week-long urban riots that came to symbolise the determination of Kenyans to maintain their demands for an increased democratic and political space that had been throttled by a dictatorial Moi and a despotic Kanu party. The mounting pressure brought to bear on Moi was such that he was forced to quickly constitute a Kanu Review Committee (referred to as the Committee), which immediately started its work on 25 July 25 1990.

The formation of the Committee by the beleaguered President was, ostensibly, to seek Kenyans’ views on the current state of the country’s politics. But the truth of the matter was that Moi was trying to buy time as he figured out how he was going to acquiesce to plural politics without losing face. Chaired by the then Vice President George Saitoti, the Committee was peppered with Kanu loyalists such as Nicholas Biwott, Peter Oloo Aringo, Shariff Nasir, Elijah Mwangale and Mwai Kibaki, among others.

The Committee visited nine towns during the month of August: Eldoret, Embu, Garissa, Nairobi, Kakamega, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Nyeri. It visited Nairobi twice; on July 25 and on 23 and 24 August1990. Among the more bizarre recommendations that the Committee made was “that Kenya should continue in its tradition of one-party democracy. That all leaders in every sphere of life particularly religious leaders, politicians, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, should cease their confrontational stance and adopt a positive attitude towards issues in order to build a more peaceful and prosperous Kenya”.

With these sorts of recommendations, a contemptuous Moi and dyed-in-the-wool Kanu party mandarins, it was obvious that Kenyans’ agitation for a return to multiparty politics was destined to continue to be bloody and confrontational.

“Moi’s Kanu dictatorship was not ready for changes, but the people had smelt an opportunity and they were willing to push ahead with political reforms”, said Kathangu. A former army man and a devout Catholic who never misses the morning mass wherever it might find him, Kathangu had been planning for the Saba Saba day for two months together with four other people,

“We started planning for the Saba Saba from May”, recalled Kathangu. “I had an office at Musa House on the third floor, on Landhies Road, where we would meet and plan how we were to mobilise for the big day”. Kathangu’s four other compatriots were: Edward Oyugi, a former Kenyatta University don and detainee; Ngotho Kariuki, a tax consultant, university don and ex-detainee; George Anyona, the political firebrand, former MP and ex-detainee; and Kariuki Kathitu, a university don.

Of the five, Kathitu is the least known of those who were associated not only with the planning of that first Saba Saba, but also, more generally, with the second liberation of the 1990s. “Raila joined us much later. Raila is my friend, but I’ve always referred to him as a witness to the Saba Saba movement. He was much more involved with the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy movement formed in 1991, than Saba Saba, which his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and others such as James Orengo, Martin Shikuku and Salim Bamahriz, helped form”.

“Matiba joined us later after he had read the public mood correctly, but also after falling out with Moi publicly”, said Kathangu. “Matiba had had an interesting special relationship with Moi. They had been great friends. When Matiba was the Permanent Secretary for Education, he used to coach Vice President Moi in the evenings, on the proper usage of the English language, mostly on the spoken English. So they knew each other well. Moi had been Matiba’s good student. But when Moi became the president in 1978, his man in Murang’a was Julius Kiano. Matiba’s entry into politics and his routing out of Moi’s man in Mbiri constituency was always going to create a problem between the two.”

Kathangu told me that it was Matiba who recruited Rubia. “Rubia was initially not in the movement for change, but his friend who was an area mate—they both came from the larger Murang’a—invited him along and that’s how Rubia, who had also been facing political frustrations from Moi, joined the opposition. Matiba came looking for us after he was disgraced by Moi. Matiba was a man who once he made up his mind, it was difficult to persuade him otherwise”.

Matiba’s falling out with Moi was triggered by Moi’s open rigging of the Mlolongo (queue voting) elections in 1988 in his Kiharu (former Mbiri) constituency. “Matiba’s queue was the longest for all to see, yet Moi decided it was the shortest so that he could prop up his friend Kiano who Matiba had beaten hands down. Matiba hit the roof, he had captured his entire election process on the video. It was clearly evident Moi was rigging Matiba openly. And that was the beginning of the political problems between Moi and Matiba.”

Boisterous and oftentimes overconfident, Matiba went ahead together with Rubia to declare the return of multiparty politics in Kenya without the agreement of Kathangu and his friends. “He had jumped the gun, that’s not how we had planned to do it, but hey, since Matiba had already let the cat out of the bag, we went along, we didn’t deny them, neither did we deny that that is what we all along been planning to do”, observed Kathangu. “It was one of the first of the mistakes that Matiba would make as we fought for the second liberation”.

Although taken aback by Matiba’s pronouncements, Kathangu and his friends still went ahead to mobilise for Saba Saba day. “Our intentions were to mobilise people to congregate on the sacred grounds of Kamukunji. We’d coordinated and mobilised people from different parts of the country to travel to Kamukunji. People were to come from Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu, Mombasa, Murang’a, Nakuru and the other major towns in the country.”

To start off the day, and as a curtain raiser, the organisers planned football matches at the Kamukunji Grounds in the morning. “The matches were to be supervised by Kathitu and they were to help attract and assemble people at the grounds. At around 1p.m. Anyona and I drove into the grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. When the people saw us—they had been waiting on the wings around Gikomba Market, in Majengo and Shauri Moyo estates—they started moving into the grounds.” The organisers had hired buses to ferry people from upcountry and those buses had arrived in the morning.

“A police officer who later I came to learn was called Cheruiyot—I can’t remember his first name—and who had also camped at Kamukunji Grounds, apparently spotted us entering the ground”, reminisced Kathangu. “Once he saw us and once the people saw us enter the grounds and followed us, Cheruiyot called for extra support and soon combat police came. They beat people mercilessly with their batons and killed many youths with their live bullets”. As the police beat people in Kamukunji Grounds, word got around in parts of the country that mayhem had broken out in Nairobi and consequently, there were riots in Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu and Mombasa”. Kathangu observed that Moi ordered the arrest of more than 3,000 youths for the simple reason that they had supported the political changes being called for by opposition leaders.

Senior Counsel Paul Muite recalls the events of the day vividly: “My friend, the American ambassador to Malawi George Trail, had come to see me in my office at Electricity House in the city centre. He was from the US on his way to Malawi. Trail had been the No. 2 at the US embassy in Nairobi and we had become friends. Mohamed Ibrahim, a lawyer and today a judge of the High Court of Kenya had also passed by to see me on a legal matter. I’d planned after finishing with the two, I head to Karen Country Club to play golf. So I asked them we leave early to beat the lunch hour traffic jam”. He was going play golf with F.T. Nyamu, a Nyeri tycoon who later became the MP for Tetu constituency.

“It is at the club that my wife called me to tell me Matiba and Rubia had been carted away by the police”, said Muite. “In those days if police took you away, you knew you were headed for detention. After I parted with Ibrahim, the police, who had seen me leave my office with him [Moi had always stationed police to watch Muite’s sixth-floor office at the lifts area and on the ground floor], followed him and asked him to tell them where I had gone. Ibrahim didn’t know I’d gone to play golf. When Ibrahim told them he didn’t know my whereabouts, they didn’t believe him”. The police had detention orders with them and as they were talking to Ibrahim, they placed the detention order book on the table and he saw that the first detention sheet was signed and had Paul Muite’s name. The other order was not signed and didn’t have any name. “What the police did was fill the order with Ibrahim’s name and that’s how Ibrahim was detained on the spot by the police”.

Moi also ordered the arrest of Gitobu Imanyara and John Khaminwa, who together with Ibrahim became the most prominent lawyers to be detained Moi during the crackdown on the Saba Saba movement. Gibson Kamau Kuria, who had been detained in 1986, went to hide at the American embassy which then was under Smith Hempstone’s watch. Muite, who had all along ben staying at his house in Karen, escaped the crackdown, all because the police didn’t think he was “hiding” in his own house. “Hempstone piled pressure on Moi to release the lawyers, Imanyara, Khaminwa and Ibrahim and Muite, but Moi was in a dilemma, his government didn’t know where Muite was, so how was he going to also release him?”, said Muite.

It is then that Moi pleaded with Muite to come out of hiding and meet him at State House with an apology for inciting the Saba Saba day riots. “Moi blamed me for the riots and had asked me to write him an apology letter. I didn’t but I still went to meet him”.

The Saba Saba movement gave momentum to the first multiparty political rally held at the hallowed Kamukunji Grounds on 16 November 1991by the opposition leaders of the fledgling and nascent Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), So determined were FORD leaders that they told Moi they were going to hold the meeting “with or without a licence”. Aware of the mounting pressure, internally and externally, Moi grudgingly allowed the meeting to go ahead.

Kenyans were itching for a second liberation, to free themselves from the political stranglehold that had culminated in the sham 1988 mlolongo elections. Buoyed by the winds of change sweeping through eastern Europe—the advent of glasnost (openness and transparency) and perestroika (restructuring), the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Kenyans seized the moment to challenge Moi and his brutal Kanu party, the supposedly baba na mama (father and mother) of all Kenyans as Kanu party stalwarts liked to put it

On the third anniversary of Saba Saba in July 1993, pro-democracy and reformist clergyman Timothy Njoya observed at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi that, “If we can have Moi Day as a national day to thank Moi for the contributions he made to himself, we can also have Saba Saba declared a national day to mark the contribution the martyrs of multiparty movement made to the Kenyan civilisation”. Twenty-seven years after Njoya made that remark, is it time to again reconsider his proposition?

How has Kenya faired 30 years after Moi sent the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) to brutally quell a people’s desire to congregate at the Kamukunji Grounds in the sprawling Eastlands area, home to the Fanonian wretched of the earth?

Going down memory lane to recapture those heady days, I spoke to Gacheke Gachihi, a founder-member of Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and above all, a long-time member of that urban underclass of Huruma which bore the brunt of state brutality. Gacheke is a child of the Saba Saba protests and the reformist political forces that came to define the upheavals of that time. Originally from Molo, he came to the city as a child and was swept up in the political agitation that was taking place in the urban slums.

“Although I was only 12, I was very much aware of what was happening politically”, said Gacheke. “I knew there was something wrong with the country’s politics, because I’d just come from an area that had suffered political violence and was palpable with political fears, tensions and great suspicions”. Now 42, Gacheke observes that his home area of Molo was a theatre of ethnic violence from where many people were internally displaced. “There was a lot of genocidal talk then”.

I asked Gacheke, whether the country had learned anything from the Saba Saba day and what those like him—activists who were initiated into politics by the tumultuous 1990s and the runs-ins with the state’s organs of violence—thought of the anniversary. “The anniversary comes at a time when the country is polarised by the politics of succession of 2022. If Saba Saba was agitating for increased political space in 1990, in 2020 Saba Saba should be reminding us Kenyans of the necessity to vigilantly protect the freedoms that have been gained over the years, fought through blood and great sacrifice”.

Gacheke said that in the 1990s, the youths fought hard to be heard, to exist and to hopefully break the barriers of ethnic consciousness and balkanisation. Now it looks like we’re slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism. “The youth of this country has never been able to act together, to forge a united front and capture political power and help change the trajectory of politics”. The youth caught in the vicious web of disillusionment and dispossession, nevertheless continue to be easy prey for politicians whose only agenda is to perpetuate their hold on power. It is a paradox of politics that today’s champions of political agitation were yesterday’s champions of political of status quo.

Independent researcher and political analyst Jeremiah Owiti was a political science University of Nairobi (UoN) student in 1990. “Politics then were hot and exciting. Kenyans looked forward to political changes that would meaningfully impact their lives. The people were hopeful and optimistic. Not anymore.”, said Owiti. The two biggest political protagonists today—President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and William Ruto who now threaten to tear the country apart—were apolitical when the first Saba Saba protests took place. Uhuru was barely 30 and Ruto barely 24 years old.

Owiti said Uhuru’s friends cut across the ethnic divide, he is a nominal catholic, while Ruto is a fervent revivalist born-again evangelical Christian. “Today, Uhuru, surrounded by Kikuyu sub-nationalists, has become a master [at] evoking tribal emotions and openly calling the Kikuyus to first mobilise on ethnic bases. Similarly, Ruto has become a master of rhetoric and subterfuge, rallying the Kalenjin people to see themselves first as Kalenjin and secondly as Kenyans”.

The behaviour of the two, who were never part of the political reform movement, completely negates the cardinal lessons of Saba Saba, said the analyst. “The very essence of the Saba Saba movement was to fight for political pluralism, not political sub-nationalism as now being espoused by Uhuru and his political-friend-now-turned-nemesis. Their retrogressive brand of politics—whichever way you look at it—is a tragic throw-back to the days of Moi-ism and Kanu-ism. The crux of the matter is that both were tutored by Moi and therefore, they do not know what it is to be a political reformer and what apolitical reforms are all about”.

The analyst said Ruto deems himself a latter-day reformer, anchoring and extolling his reform credentials on the doing, rather than on the talking: “I am a reformer because I act, I don’t talk”, Ruto likes to remind anybody who cares to listen.

Owiti said Saba Saba epitomises the struggle by Kenyans to free themselves from the shackles of the politics of balkanisation, ethnic sub-nationalism and the monolithic politics of us vs them. “Unfortunately even with the promulgation of the new constitution, which was supposed to usher in a new political dispensation, the politics that is being played by both Uhuru and Ruto, champions of ethnic jingoism, does not augur well for the epochal succession politics of 2022”.

The researcher said that, by seeking to congregate at the historical Kamukunji Grounds in 1990, the Kenyan people were saying that the constitution was the supreme law of the land and if it did not allow them to assemble, it needed to be overhauled.

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and the elections that will determine who will be the country’s next president just two years away. The succession politics have already split the ruling Jubilee party into two diametrically opposed camps and made President Uhuru Kenyatta one of the most unpopular presidents Kenya has ever had.

“All the changes we fought for have been reversed”, observed Kathangu. “We’d hoped for an empowered society—economically, politically and socially. We’d also hoped to have a sustainable education system that did not constantly change after every five years. We too had hoped that the land question would be fundamentally addressed. Land is still a big problem in this country and unless and until we solve it, Kenyans will not rest easy”.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power

The seismic Saba Saba event was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance in Kenya. However, thirty years on, many of the people who were at the forefront of the movement have died or have been accommodated by the rapacious state. Nonetheless, the struggle for people-centred democracy continues.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power
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Hands stretch out into the air, flashing the two-finger V-salute as the Toyota pick-up truck, with loudspeakers mounted on its roof, careens over the kerb and back onto the rutted road.

That iconic image of Martin Shikuku, James Orengo, Philip Gachoka and Rumba Kinuthia is etched in the minds of some 20 million Kenyans who were alive on the fateful day that marked the struggle for political pluralism in the country. The November 16, 1991 picture is a re-enactment of what should have happened on July 7, 1990 – the day known by its Kiswahili translation, Saba Saba, in reference to the seventh day of the seventh month.

The men perched atop the car had just changed vehicles after police shot at their truck’s tyre in an attempt to stop them from entering the barricaded Kamukunji grounds on the rim of Nairobi River, which was darkened by sewage and grease, and whose smells fused with clouds of tear gas in the air. It had been 16 months since the first attempt to hold a rally at Kamukunji failed.

On the gray cold morning of Saturday, July 7, 1990, reaching Kamukunji had acquired an urgency symbolising a break in the dam of political repression.

An attempted coup d’état by junior air force officers eight years earlier had floundered and given Daniel arap Moi, only four years into his presidency, the excuse to turn the screws on all opposition.

Dissent had been brewing in Kenya since Moi began consolidating political power by changing the constitution to ban multiparty politics and detaining critics (some of whom fled into exile. But the failed putsch emboldened Moi to take away judges’ security of tenure, and to blatantly rig the 1988 elections, which filled Parliament with his lackeys.

The lone government-owned radio and television service ruled the airwaves, alongside “free” newspapers that would not go to press until State House supplied its front-page photograph of Moi, and whose editors regularly fielded calls from the president. In those days, Kenyans relied on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s Kiswahili Service to learn what was going on in their own country.

Five months prior to the planned Saba Saba meeting, Moi’s foreign minister, Robert Ouko, had been brutally killed. Ouko’s dismembered body was dumped on a hill in his rural constituency. It was widely believed that his murder had been planned by people close to Moi.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience. He had declared debate on multiparty politics stirred by clerics closed even before it began.

Open defiance seemed like the only channel for starting a national conversation.

As its opening gambit, the Moi government declared the Kamukunji meeting illegal, and arrested Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, three of the senior politicians who were organising it, before subsequently detaining them without trial.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience.

Other countries confronted with dictatorship in Africa had often gone the way of the muzzle with military coups d’etat; Kenyans put themselves on the line at the risk of permanently separating body from soul. The men on the pick-up truck were the second-tier leaders, and there was another tier below them, and yet another across the length and breadth of the country.

A movement – dubbed “The Second Liberation” – began to form in spite of restrictive laws on assembly and association, grouping people together in organising cells.

Saba Saba had been prefaced by the mysterious appearance of leaflets secretly printed and dropped around the country, inviting people to the meeting. Relying on a network of football clubs and private sector transport workers (matatu touts) travelling across the nation, people were put on buses to Nairobi for the day of confrontation. It put a match to the tinder that had piled across the country and exploded into four days of confrontations between the police and the public. The wall of fear had cracked.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Saba Saba was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance. It was meant to be the first of eight public rallies – one in each province – to rally the public for plural politics and open government. Frantic attempts would subsequently be made to negotiate down demands for freedom by offering internal reforms in the ruling political party monopoly, KANU, but they were insufficient to stem the tide of change.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Sixteen months after Saba Saba, Moi grudgingly capitulated and agreed to term limits and to repealing constitutional bans on multiparty political organising, only to use this as an instrument for fanning ethnic animosity. Within months of the return of political pluralism, some 19 new political parties had been registered by dint of the efforts of state operatives, who also engineered a split inside the opposition Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party.

A miscarriage of democracy

Moi retained power for two terms despite securing only a minority of the votes in the 1992 and 1997 elections. The spirit of Saba Saba revisited the country in a series of protests on July 7; then August 8; September 9 and October 10, 1997 in attempts to demand free and fair elections.

Moi split the movement by offering compromises to share slots in the electoral management agency with the opposition and repeal laws constraining public assembly. Once again, it seemed that the Saba Saba campaigners had only achieved a Pyrrhic victory.

The euphoric victory of the joint opposition candidate, Mwai Kibaki, in the 2002 election when Moi was retiring imbued the nation with a new sense of optimism and the possibility of citizens reclaiming their power. But this optimism was quickly dashed by regression to some of the old wily ways, including mega corruption scandals.

It took the violent and bloody protests in the aftermath of the 2007 election – a citizens’ revolt against loss of confidence in the judiciary and the electoral body – to produce a new constitution in 2010. The post-2007 election violence recorded over 1,300 deaths, over 5,000 injuries and rapes, as well as massive displacement – which invited the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The digitised movement

Many of the people who were at the forefront of the Saba Saba protests have died or have been accommodated in the rapacious state. As the state grows more dangerous in deploying deadly force in a throwback to the dictatorship of yore, the public appears friendless and with few defenders.

Still, the spirit of citizen power that fuelled Saba Saba still roams the land like a vagabond. The pain, angst and trauma of decades of protest have blunted the desire for public-spirited action, only interrupted intermittently by fresh outrages.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback. Changes to the executive to share its power with county governments continue to be undermined; Parliament appears to have lost power and public trust; and the judiciary is fighting daily for its independence.

Plural politics and expanded public voice have not resolved many of the problems that make life in Kenya a seesaw between hope and despair. Police routinely break up peaceful assemblies and turn them into riots, complete with clouds of tear gas, truncheons raining down on bodies and bullets cutting through crowds.

Yet, some things have changed. Citizens may still not control the organs of the state –and there is great frustration with the government from which they are alienated – but they continue to claim their power through an intersection of greater awareness, increased voice and technology.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback.

Sometimes, these strides can appear insufficient, but citizens have overcome their fear of dictatorship, and continue to evolve new tactics to make their voices heard even in the potentially repressive context.

Between that seismic Saba Saba event and the passage of a new constitution in August 2010, some 17.1 million Kenyan children were born and continue to walk the earth. The children of Saba Saba, progenies of the legacy of struggle, have come of age but they have not always been shielded from the scars of the history that birthed their freedom. They are better educated, more expressive and greatly aided by technology, but they continue to wallow in want, are beset by unemployment and are confronted daily by police brutality.

With 45 million Internet subscriptions, Kenyans are the continent’s second largest social media users, after South Africa. Young Kenyans are most active on WhatsApp and Facebook, but it is the fabled Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) who routinely take down the country’s critics and wage war on perceived moral or ethical wrongs within and across borders.

In April 2020, Deputy President William Ruto blocked US-based Kenyan law scholar Makau Mutua on Twitter over the latter’s criticism of him. Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended his social media accounts – only a year after deactivating multiple accounts when he came up for air from a deluge of criticism that threatened to engulf him online.

Freedom is never given; it is won. The lesson of Saba Saba needs to be preserved through the generations because it reproduces the courage of the independence struggle in which ordinary people stand up to those who bully them.

It remains to be seen whether mobile phones and computer keyboards will be sufficient to hold the dam.

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Politics

The Spirit of Saba Saba Lives on in Devolution

Despite various setbacks, devolution has produced tangible results and demonstrated that Kenyans are determined to have a form of governance that is responsive to people’s needs and desires. In many ways, devolution embodies the spirit of Saba Saba.

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Chaos has never stopped Kenyans from building the country they want, and if there was ever a moment that summarised this spirit, it is Saba Saba – the date of a meeting that never took place.

It has been 30 years since opposition leaders Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia announced that they would lead a public rally to press for the return of multiparty democracy. Whatever their political motives, Matiba and Rubia triggered a tsunami and unleashed the thunderbolt that is the Kenyan spirit.

President Daniel arap Moi went to extremes to kill the idea, using every possible public institution to try and disrupt and scuttle the meeting. He ordered the detention of key supporters of the movement on 6 July1990, banned gatherings and issued myriad warnings through the police, his cabinet, the media and every state organ. On July 7th, 1990, the date of the meeting, roads were blocked and baton-wielding police stood as a visible threat all over the city of Nairobi and towns across the country. Blows rained down on people heading out of the slums. Hospitals and clinics scrambled to tend to those injured. There were tear gas-burned eyes and lungs across the city, but especially near the Kamukunji venue that had been ringed by police.

The meeting never happened but the day-long run-ins with power demonstrated what had been born – and has never died.

The political chaos of that moment only emphasises the spirit of Saba Saba – the spirit of Kenyans’ determination to have the country they want. A year later, political pluralism was a reality, and with it began the expansion of the democratic space. Almost immediately afterwards, the push shifted to reforms with multiple milestones.

Twenty years later, in 2010, a new constitution was in place, and with it the promise of a different country.

True reformists vs. impostors

When fully implemented, the 2010 Constitution will permanently disrupt the way Kenya has been governed, and will guarantee a basic quality of life and dignity for every Kenyan. But a lot has to happen before then.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

The shift saw one-time supporters of the oppressive KANU regime take to wearing the proverbial sheepskin, learn the language of reform and insert themselves back into the machinery of government, thus interfering with the design like badly written computer code. Behind the scenes, the abuse of state instruments, primitive accumulation of capital and rabid theft of public resources took up again as it had since independence, thereby slowing down progress.

But while impostors are clogging the pipes of government delivery, an army of Kenyans across the country, including a growing number within the political leadership, are keeping the spirit of Saba Saba alive, and are now quietly working to unblock the system and put things where they should be.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

Devolved governance through the 47 countries is bringing government closer to the people. For some counties, such as Mandera, devolution has brought basic services and infrastructure, such as tarmacked roads, for the first time. Despite a lack of equipment, doctors performed the first ever Caesarean section at Modogashe Sub-county Hospital in Garissa County in 2016, safely delivering a baby boy and saving the life of his 18-year-old mother who had been in labour for two days. That was just days after doctors at Balambala, another ward level hospital in Garissa, conducted a similar procedure.

These stories of first time medical operations in what were once abandoned rural areas have become almost ordinary as counties take control of health services by upgrading and building facilities, recruiting staff, and ensuring that equipment and medicines are available.

The ongoing construction of the 750-bed Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital will change the face of healthcare beyond the county and tick many boxes for health sector needs in the region. This health facility will be the third biggest referral hospital in the country in terms of bed capacity. The first phase of this Sh6 billion investment is scheduled to open later this year.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties. The Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) and the Ministry of Health currently run like a monopoly medical store that the counties are forced to buy from. Governors have tried to negotiate with the central government to have KEMSA restructured and give them a bigger say in management and control so they can plan collectively for the whole county and leverage economies of scale to get the best price and quality for drugs and equipment. To no avail.

In mid-2015, and after much protestation, governors from all 47 counties caved in to pressure and signed onto a Sh38 billion medical equipment leasing deal, despite the concerns they had, including the lack of specialists to operate and maintain the equipment and the fact that no one had assessed local priorities for health in the different counties. Around 100 hospitals were arbitrarily designated to receive a package that included dialysis machines, ultrasound machines, theatre equipment, intensive care unit (ICU) equipment, incinerators, sterilising units and an assortment of cancer treatment machines. The bill for all this was sent to county governments.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties.

With that controversial move still unresolved, mid-2018 saw the central government telling counties they must now pay double for the leased equipment – a collective bill of Sh9 billion each year, according to Isiolo Governor, Dr Mohammed Kuti, who heads the Council of Governors Health Committee. Enquiries were casually brushed off by the Principal Secretary for Health, Peter Tum, who told the media that the central government needs to buy more equipment due to a rise in demand. Meanwhile, a report released this year by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled “The Leasing of Medical Equipment Project in Kenya: Value for Money Assessment” found that some of the equipment lying in county stores was gathering dust while other equipment is yet to be supplied.

The case of Nairobi: A return to dictatorship?

The chaos – authoritarian style – serves as a constant backdrop to the progress and fits the tradition in which Saba Saba came into being.

It is a style that was very much in evidence early this year when the central government moved in to take over the running of Nairobi City County. The usual political shenanigans on display, Nairobians watched in bewilderment as Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko found himself at State House at the televised signing of a document that gave away the keys to Nairobi City County coffers. A new Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) was hurriedly imposed on the county in February without consulting the electorate that put Sonko in the seat of governor. Treasury quickly allocated and disbursed Sh26.4 billion to NMS.

Nairobi has been through some crazy times, with the governor at odds with almost all the executives he himself appointed. Sonko’s governance style included quarrels with the elected members of the county assembly (MCAs), dismissals of staff and allegations of corruption made against Sonko and by Sonko against other county officials.

Despite the political noise, Nairobi city has for the first time in a decade gone through a rainy season without loss of life or property to flooding. Like it or not, credit goes to the Sonko-led clean-up that saw months of drain-clearing last year. Street lights are working, potholes have been filled, fire stations and county clinics have received facelifts. Working with the Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Nairobi City County gave the road network in Eastlands an unprecedented makeover, with the repair of 38 roads totalling almost 80 kilometres.

Accolades aside, Sonko should never have been the Governor of Nairobi, not least because of a criminal past that he himself admits to. But as the political chaos goes in Kenya, behind-the-scenes machinations gave Sonko a clean pass to the position; he was even awarded the national honour of the Elder of the Burning Spear.

Early efforts to impeach and remove him from office on grounds of abuse of office, corruption and violation of the Constitution would have been the right way to go but stalled when MCAs withdrew their motion. However, the forceful takeover staged by the central government is difficult to understand, and predictably, a court declared the takeover illegal in June this year.

Annual audits of county government’s financial accounts by the Auditor General have found many gaps and reports of corruption and abuse of office are common. No sitting official has yet been removed but several impeachment motions are flying in.

Devolution is oiling local economies

Sonko’s counterpart from Kirinyaga County, Ann Waiguru survived an impeachment hearing in June that spoke to concerns about the state of health service delivery in her county, among other issues. What was most interesting in the testimony given against her during hearings before the Senate was the emerging fact that residents now travel to the neighbouring counties of Embu and Meru where specific health services apparently work better.

This is the oil of devolution. Devolution is working and people now have more choice as to where they get their services. Beyond impeachment, the competition between counties will eventually underscore the effectiveness of leadership – and that is pushing governors and county leaders to work harder and faster than ever.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges. When power was first switched on last year, and residents were able to buy milk from a store fridge for the first time, small businesses immediately began to think bigger, eyeing the massive food demands of towns in the vicinity, like Garissa, Malindi and Mombasa.

A 10-kilometre tarmac road changed the face of Maralal and the activities conducted there when it was launched in 2016 along with almost 35 kilometres of street lights in the town centre. Wajir County also got its first tarmac road, properly finished with drainage, foot paths and street lights, in 2018. The 25-kilometre stretch built at a cost of Sh1.2 billion is a local tourism attraction in the county.

Rural roads into the interior of every county are multiplying although not as fast as some would like.

Once more, counties hit the political wall when the chairperson of the Council of Governors, Wycliffe Oparanya approached central government to request the transfer of authority and money for feeder roads directly to counties. Currently, funding goes to the Kenya Urban Roads Authority and Kenya National Highways Authority who are quick to act on big highways but move slowly on roads that affect the lives of millions of rural people. Again, the counties’ request was denied.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges.

Such strictures have caused counties to try a different approach. It started with a few counties in the Lake Victoria region coming together to discuss shared problems and a growing realisation that working together on common interests had considerable advantages. For example, the issue of malaria as a health concern is a greater issue for Lake Basin counties than it is in non-Lake areas and the opportunity to tackle it together made sense.

The Lake Region Economic Bloc was born and is now a formally registered institution created by 14 counties and headed by a Council with the secretariat located in Kisumu. This allows it to leverage economies of scale in contracts and encourages inter-county trade as a collective. It has so far raised has Sh1.3 billion for its proposed banking initiative from contributions by counties. Other initiatives proposed include a ring road around Lake Victoria to encourage trade.

It is a model that has sparked much excitement and six economic blocs now exist. Last year, the six economic blocs met in Kirinyaga to learn from each other where it emerged that one of the blocs, the Frontier Counties Development Council, has already benefited from a Sh120 billion World Bank grant for projects. Compared to the 2020/2021 county share of national revenue of Sh369 billion to be shared between 47 counties, the potential of these blocs to move resources for development is clear.

The Frontier Counties Development Council comprises 11 counties. Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani brings together the six coastal counties. North Rift Economic Bloc has eight county members while Mount Kenya and Aberdares Economic Bloc consists of 10 counties. The newest is the South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc that comprises Makueni, Machakos and Kitui counties. Nairobi, Narok and Kajiado counties are not members of any bloc.

While this bigger devolution picture is emerging, it can never displace the foundations being shaped on the the ground. The development strides in Makueni County have inspired many news headlines. But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

Sitting at an official public meeting in the capital Wote often feels more like a social gathering as Governor Kivutha Kibwana ends meetings by reciting the poetry he writes in Kikamba or by provoking shrieks of raucous laughter from the audience. The sense of community is reinforced when the Senator for Makueni and other local leaders regularly chip in. (Kibwana’s latest poem is about COVID-19.) In 2018, Makueni hosted governors from the other 46 counties for a benchmarking conference on the county’s successful public participation approach.

But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

As he approaches the end of his second term as governor, Kibwana is gunning for the presidency. Other governors expressing the same interest are Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega, Hassan Joho of Mombasa, Amason Kingi of Kilifi and Alfred Mutua of Machakos. That field is likely to expand, and for the first time since independence, Kenyans will be offered a field of candidates with a track record they can measure.

A different presidency will emerge if a former governor takes the helm in this changed environment where new rules are establishing, new players are emerging and citizens are the indisputable referees.

Until that time, like the athletes who have brought this country such fame and honour, Kenyans continue to press forward undaunted by the distance that remains, taking in the political hurdles and chaos as they come and always intent on the goal.

Embodied in the celebration and remembrance of Saba Saba is this spirit of Kenya – patient, determined, resilient and unfazed by chaos.

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