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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: The Man Kenya Can Never Forget

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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget, writes DAUTI KAHURA and BETHUEL ODUO, who’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time in Kenya’s political history.

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JARAMOGI OGINGA ODINGA: The man Kenya can never forget
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If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget. Jaramogi and Tom Mboya were both were nationalists of great distinction from the Luo community who as seasoned politicians posed a threat to the founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s autocratic national designs. Tom Mboya died young, by an assassin’s bullet, on July 5, 1969. Jaramogi died an old man, a mzee, at the age of 82 years on January 20, 1994, after having been tormented by both Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes effectively from 1969 after his fall out with Kenyatta and through the 80s and 90s during iron-fisted Moi’s reign. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga death anniversary on January 20th, twenty-five years since his passing, was marked quietly in a manner that diminishes his immense contribution to the Kenyan national project.

If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget

No history book on Kenya would be complete without his mention. Jaramogi was the vice president of the nationalist party Kanu when Kenya African Union (Kau) merged with Kenya Independent Movement to form Kanu on May 14, 1960. He was later to become the country’s first Vice President, after Kanu won the 1963 general elections under Kenyatta. When his friend Pio Gama Pinto was killed in 1965, Jaramogi knew he was a targeted man because of his ideological position. Pinto, then was a nominated MP and an avowed communist who was Jaramogi’s confidante. Jaramogi would form the socialist party, Kenya People’s Union in 1966, banned in 1969 leading to his detention under house arrest by his former ally Jomo Kenyatta.

I first set my eyes on Jaramogi on November 16, 1991. Bethuel Oduo my collaborator on this writing project and my senior, had met Jaramogi much earlier, but this day in November, remains fresh in our memories. It was the first licensed political rally organized by the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), the fledging opposition movement led by Jaramogi as the interim chair. Oduo and I attended the meeting held at the symbolic Kamukunji Grounds, a historic public space that hosted a number of significant nationalistic political rallies during Kenya’s pre-independent agitation struggles for freedom in the late 50s and early 60s.

This was my first time I was attending a political rally as an impressionable young man in my twenties. I had never seen such a mass of people in such diversity, gathered in one place for a common cause. The atmosphere was electrifying. I could feel the palpitations, as throngs of humanity waited anxiously for the address by the opposition leaders. 1991 was the year that Kenya restored political pluralism after being a de facto one party state since 1969. The old Kenya Lancaster negotiated constitution, previously criminalized a meeting of more than 10 people through Public Order Act 56, which was repealed, just like Section 2A, that proclaimed Kenya to be one party state.

I gathered that many people, young and old, had come specifically to see the legend Jaramogi, a man who had borne so much in the tumultuous and vicious climate of politics in Kenya. “I last saw and heard Jaramogi in 1969,” a man next to me said, “I wonder what he looks like today, but he’s going to talk to us today…what a great feeling.”

A group of emerging opposition politicians, christened the “Young Turks”, among them James Orengo, Paul Muite, Prof Anyang Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara banded together with veteran politicians Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro among others in what was threatening to be an unprecedented opposition coalition set to end Moi’s dictatorial 14 year rule. The force behind this movement was the enigmatic Oginga Odinga and the man of the moment.

Jaramogi was about to address his first meeting after 22 years of state imposed political isolation. Jaramogi spoke in a shrill voice. The microphone held by Prof Ouma Muga, one of the masters of ceremony for the event. The other master of ceremony was Kimani Wanyoike. Jaramogi seemed to voice my thoughts.

“I have never seen so many people gather in my lifetime,” said Jaramogi “This is the first time most of you are attending a political meeting out of your choice.” It felt like he was talking directly to me and he had my full attention as he launched into a 45 minute address.

“Why is Kenneth Matiba not with us today? Why is George Anyona, Edward Oyugi, (Augustine) Njeru Kathangu, Rumba Kinuthia, Koigi wa Wamwere, Ngotho Kariuki and many other freedom fighters not with us?”

“Why are our sons and daughters still in exile? Why are brilliant people who can teach in our universities wasting their lives overseas? Why was Robert Ouko murdered? Was he murdered for speaking about corruption? Was he murdered for speaking his mind in the cabinet? Why was (Alexander) Muge murdered? Was it because he exercised his freedom to preach the word of God to condemn sin and corruption?” He had captured the mood in the country in distress and the masses of people were beyond ecstatic.

Of the six ford movement founder members, Jaramogi Oginga, Philip Gachoka, Ahmed Bahmariz, Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro and George Nthenge, only Nthenge is alive today. George Nthenge who became Kamukunji constituency MP in the first multiparty elections in 1992 recalls the moment. “Jaramogi was an old man and he knew that if he brought nine other elders together, the government would not risk international condemnation by arresting us. This is how Masinde Muliro and Martin Shikuku were sent to recruit me. Ahmed Bahmariz was also recruited, but we could not get three other elders to bring the total to nine.” Today Nthenge still runs his curio shop at the City Market, a shop he has maintained for well over four decades.

Jaramogi was not only the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya. He was a noted Pan Africanist and his credentials remain unquestionable. In January 1992 during an interview with the Nairobi Law Monthly magazine, Jaramogi spoke of his relationships with people like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison in 1990. “Kwame lived before his time. He had seen Africa through and through. And he lived as if Africa was one country. He was very diligent, hardworking and a person that one could admire. He was instrumental in dedicating me to struggle for Kenya. He told me: ‘you fight in your own country for Kenyatta, Kenyatta is in London, but he is a nationalist of the first order’”.

Although exiled in Guinea in 1966, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s former President was very close to Jaramogi to the extent that he still found time to pen a foreword to his book Not Yet Uhuru, Kenya best political treatise to date.

On Nyerere, Jaramogi had this to say: “I know Nyerere as a very intelligent person and great nationalist. He refused a big salary and lived on the minimum that he could…Nyerere actually considered public opinion important.”Jaramogi himself would later talk of how he could not justify earning a salary, (making reference his role as VP in the independence cabinet) while his duties had been distributed to other cabinet ministers, in a bid to punish and tame him. So he quit government.

Jaramogi considered many global leaders and Pan Africanists as close friends. The list included Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Milton Obote, President of Uganda, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Ahmed Ben Bella former Prime Minister of Algeria and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

In the Nairobi Law monthly interview, Jaramogi also spoke on the icy relationship that had existed between him and Tom Mboya before his violent death. “Mboya was for the West and had a liking for America. On my part, I had been to the Soviet Union, China and Japan and generally the East to find out what went on there. People took this to mean I was the ‘good boy’ of the East and Mboya of the West.” The politics of the Cold War, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union had ramifications on Kenyan politics.

Jaramogi was detained at Hola detention camp, a remote town on river Tana, Tana River county between 1970-1972. Former chief justice Willy Mutunga who spent a stint in Hola after the abortive (August 1st) 82 coup, remembers occupying the same cell as Jaramogi. “Jaramogi was a selfless nationalist, who was never interested in self-aggrandizement and Pan Africanist, who truly loved his country and continent,” observed the former chief justice.

After his release from detention in Hola, Jaramogi remained under house arrest in Kisumu until Kenyatta’s death in 1978. President Moi on assuming the power attempted to rehabilitate Jaramogi by appointing him the chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board in 1979. It was a way of telling him to revive the cotton farming, which had collapsed after his disagreement with Kenyatta. Jaramogi said as much in the Nairobi Law Monthly interview: “The cotton industry had really gone down and Moi needed somebody to bring it up. I did my best and people actually saw that the cotton industry was coming up.”

But as fate would have it, in April 1981, Jaramogi’s tongue ‘slipped’ during a fundraiser in Mombasa when he sensationally claimed Kenyatta had been a land grabber and that is why they had differed with him. Subsequently, Moi relieved Jaramogi of his position. It is rumoured that the inner circle of Moi’s cabinet that included the powerful attorney general Charles Njonjo engineered the sacking. A retired politician from that era who requested anonymity recalls Njonjo allegedly telling Moi. “’If indeed it’s true you are following the footsteps of Kenyatta, is Odinga saying therefore, you are also a land grabber?” When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia.”

In 1981, the then MP for Bondo, Jonas Ochieng Ougo suddenly tendered his resignation, occasioning a by-election. The truth of the matter was that he was hoping to pave way for Jaramogi, to be elected as the next MP. The Siaya Kanu sub-branch on orders from Moi effectively barred Jaramogi from contesting and that is how William Odongo Omamo aka Kaliech found his way back as the MP for Bondo. Ougo had been Jaramogi’s student at Maseno who would later teach Raila Odinga at Maranda School before moving on to become the head teacher at Friends school Kamusinga, in Kaimosi, Bungoma county.

When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia

The idea to form another party came to Jaramogi after his attempts to re-enter parliament had hit a brick wall. The following year in 1982, teaming up with George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusii land, Jaramogi and Anyona walked to Sheria House and asked the registrar of political parties to register their party, the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). John Khaminwa had written Kasa’s constitution. This would mark the genesis of Khaminwa’s reputation as the lawyer for detained Kenyans; become a marked man by Moi’s regime. Indeed after the August 1982 abortive coup de ’tat, he was detained alongside politicians and university dons, considered rebels by Moi. Jaramogi’s son Raila would also begin his long spell of detention for his role in the coup but also as many believed for the sins of his father who Moi could not detain.

Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.

With the return to plural politics in December 1992, Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo constituency in Siaya, while his son Raila was elected the MP for Langata constituency in Nairobi. For the first time, a father and son were both elected MPs. A year later, Jaramogi was dead and his first-born son Oburu Odinga replaced him. The two Odinga brothers were duly elected MPs of the August House.

Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.

When the Luo people migrated from Uganda and Sudan and landed on the other side of Lake Victoria in the 15th century, they were led by one Ramogi Ajwang, who is believed to be the patriarch of the Kenyan branch of the Luo. That is how Oginga Odinga acquired the name ‘Ja-Ramogi’. ‘Ja’ is a prefix which means ‘he who belongs to.’

In his life time, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga came to assume a persona that was larger than life and sometimes stranger than fiction. Mzee Odungi Randa, Jaramogi’s former handyman told us in Kisumu.

“Jaramogi was labelled many things by his detractors,” “Communist, dissident, rebel, tribalist, trouble shooter, rogue element, yet he remained firm and resilient and focused on his nationalist ambitions.”Although wealthy by all standards, he never flaunted it and throughout his life, he embodied the philosophy of egalitarianism, said Randa.

By the mid 1940s Jaramogi had formed Bondo Thrift and Trading Corporation. As the company grew, he toyed with several names to rename the expanding corporation. In 1947, he settled for Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO). Jaramogi said he named the company Luo Thrift, because he wanted the Luo people to feel the company was part of them, hence proud of it.

“Kenya People Union was formed after Jaramogi felt those who risked their lives for Kenya to attain independence had been short changed and sidelined by the very same people they had fought colonialists together,” observed Randa. “It was the case of the Mau Mau freedom fighters versus the home guards that was repeating itself.”

In Nairobi, we went looking for Jaramogi’s one time neighbour at his Jerusalem estate houses in Eastlands. Thomas Onyango Daniel, now his late 40s, grew up in the same block that his family shared with Jaramogi. He remembers a quiet old man with an aura of wisdom. “It was not easy to see him leave or come to the flat,” recalls Onyango. “He remained an elusive figure to my mind until 1990, when the clamour for multiparty started in earnest. All of a sudden, Jaramogi’s house became a beehive of important people coming to see him”. Despite his elusive character, Onyango remembers Jaramogi as a kind man. “When he was around, he would invite us children to the house to drink brown uji (porridge).

Jaramogi had two houses near Jerusalem shopping centre: one on the ground floor and the other up the stairs. “When around, he spent most of the times in the upstairs one, that is where he would meet and entertain his guests,” said Onyango. “I remember him always dressed in a khaki shorts and his signature trademark, the akala (rubber sandals made out of motor vehicle tyre) shoes. All the time he was there, there was a constant stream of people flocking to see him.” To date, the matatu stage near his houses is referred to as Kwa Jaramogi.

Thomas Odoyo 65, from Agoro Nyakach recalled the year 1966 when there was a heated campaign rally in Pap Onditi, as two contestants went for each other’s neck.“Yusto Nyamolo Okal was running against Jaramogi’s candidate Ondiek Chilo. At the rally, fracas ensued between Okal’s supporters and Jaramogi’s youth wing led by Ndolo Ayah.” Odoyo described Ayah as Jaramogi’s ardent supporter. He could not stand Tom Mboya whom he had fundamental personal differences with.”

Interestingly, Ayah had been a student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda in the early 60s. Together with him was Pamela Odede, the daughter of Walter Odede, the late freedom fighter and member of the Legislative Council (Legco). Ayah and Pamela were an item in college. On the invitation of the Makerere Students Guild, Tom Mboya, went to give a talk at the university campus. Pamela, who attended the inaugural lecture, was smitten with the young flamboyant politician from Kenya. TJ persuaded her to abandon her studies at Makerere, to become one of the pioneers of the 1961 airlift which TJ had organized. In her group, were Wangari Muta Mathai, Ojwang K’Ombudo, Muthoni Muthiga, Beth Mugo and Nicholas Mugo. Nicholas married Beth and Tom married Pamela and Ayah never forgave TJ.

It is at the Pap-Onditi rally that Jaramogi’s mystical powers came to light. “When the two opposing crowds became really hostile Jaramogi pointed at Nyamolo Okal with his left hand and told him in Dholuo, “Nyamolo Okal in ema iketho bucha kamae, wanane ka nine od bura?” (Nyamolo Okal, you are the one who is messing up my rally, we shall see whether you will see Parliament). After the confrontation, the rally aborted and people dispersed cursing the ‘spoilers.’ Nyamolo became a marked man in Jaramogi’s political terrain. Nyamolo was the first Kenyan to head Kakamega High School after graduating from Makerere.

“For being anti-Jaramogi Okal acquired Equatorial Printing Press located in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. The business was the first African owned commercial printing facility. He was rewarded by being single sourced to supply books and stationery to the then Kenya School Equipment Scheme,” said Odoyo. And true to Jaramogi’s word Nyamolo never saw the gates of Parliament. “He unsuccessfully contested the Nyakach constituency seat in 1966, 1969 and 1974. After the assassination of Mboya, things started going south for Nyamolo Okal. His business empire collapsed and he eventually died a poor desolate soul.” According to Odoyo, Jaramogi’s curse ‘his left hand’ had come to pass.

“Yes it is true that Jaramogi’s left hand was shorter than the right one, but really, did it have extra-ordinary powers to condemn people to political oblivion?” posed Mark Otieno. Otieno narrated a story about Jaramogi and his political son James Orengo. “One day in the mid-1980s, Jaramogi was in a good mood, so Ajimmy (as he referred to Orengo) asked Jaramogi whether it was true his left hand had magical powers and if he pointed at anyone with that hand, he would remain cursed. Jaramogi laughed sarcastically and replied ‘Mano ji ema wacho ok an” (It is hearsay and not from me).’”During this period, both Jaramogi and Orengo were constant victims of state humiliation.

“ Orengo took his frustrations to Jaramogi: ‘Ka en adieri, kare Moi machandowani ok isieme gilwetino chieng’moro owere kodwa.’ (If it is true about (Jaramogi’s hand), why then don’t you use it on Moi, who is giving us trouble, so that he can leave us alone?) Jaramogi ended that discussion by stating, ‘Piny nonene nyasaye ema ong’eyo’. The world (in reference to Moi) will deal with him…it is God who knows.)” Otieno said that was vintage Jaramogi: people tendered to build mystery around his personality. “Just like his son Raila, he was considered an enigma of sorts and invisible. Many of his staunch followers believed it was not easy to harm him in any way.”

Orengo was Jaramogi’s legal adviser and Jaramogi treated Orengo like his real son. Jaramogi knew Orengo’s dad, Apollo Orengo Onunga, who was a police inspector. That is why Orengo, being a son of a cop has on numerous times said he does not fear the police, because he grew up in a cop’s homestead. Still, Jaramogi’s dotted on Orengo because of his sharp legal mind.

“At the age of 29, Jaramogi made Orengo an MP for Ugenya constituency,” narrated Otieno nostalgically. “Jaramogi one day during the campaigns came to Ugenya, he didn’t get out of his car, but people gathered around it. He told them: ‘you know I’m not allowed to speak, so I was just passing by, but, by the way, when you see that son of Apollo, please pass my regards.’ The people quickly understood what Jaramogi had told them. Orengo was voted in overwhelmingly. His son Raila, somehow took over that mantle and whenever he endorses you, consider yourself elected.”

Mzee Solomon Owino told us that Jaramogi would deliberately give nicknames to some of his political friends and loyalists. “He coined names like Ondiek‘Chilo’Miguda, Okuto Bala (the former ambassador to Russia), Achieng ‘Nyakech’Oneko. Ondiek is the Luo word for hyena, okuto is salty rock and nyakech is an antelope or a gazelle. He nicknamed Oneko nyakech, because of his tall slender body frame. Jaramogi said some of his supporters in their great support for him were like the vicious hyenas. They would stop at nothing in his defense.”

Among the Young Turks, Jaramogi also had a special nickname for Paul Kibugi Muite: Obiero –the true son of the home. But the literal translation of Obiero in English language is placenta. “Jaramogi was fond of Muite because he would tell him he had the dark complexion of a Luo man,” opined Mzee Owino. Jaramogi surrounded himself with emerging young and versatile oppositionist politicians, who were quickly given the moniker Young Turks by the Kenyan mainstream media. They included, Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Kiraitu Murungi, Mukhisa Kituyi, Paul Kibuge Muite, Prof Ayang’ Nyong’o and Prof Ouma Muga.

Achieng Oneko was a bosom buddy of Jaramogi. It is Achieng Oneko who introduced him to Jomo Kenyatta in 1952 in Kisumu for the first time before he was detained. They had a closed meeting at Maseno Store, a big shop that was part of LUTATCO initiative.

Elated by Kenyatta’s visit to Maseno Jaramogi would later write him a “thank you” note in his book Not Yet Uhuru.

“You can’t imagine the happiness I derive from your one day visit to Maseno on Tuesday. I really enjoyed your company heartily and hope we will have more moments like this in the coming days of our self-government. In this, I am your disciple to the hilt. You were so much at home and felt so very native to the house, as if Maseno had been your home Kikuyuni. I will never forget that memorable day…when you return again to us in August as you have promised to do. I hope to attend many meeting with you and give you as much assistance as will be possible from nationalist and businessman.

I remain, always,

Your disciple in nationalism.”

That meeting could possibly have been the first where the Luo-Kikuyu unity was mooted. In that meeting, Kenyatta told Jaramogi: “We must get to know one another. The Kikuyu must know the Luo thoroughly. The Luo should select 12 influential elders to tour Kikuyu country, to travel as far as Mombasa and that 12 influential Kikuyu elders would travel to Luo country. The conclusion of the two delegations would be inevitable; that we are Africans, one and the same. United, we would be formidable. I have lived with these people (whites) in Great Britain, I know they fear unity.”

Scholar David Odemba from Kaksingri in Mbita believes the silent but often times open rivalry between Tom Mboya and Jaramogicould have been a blessing in disguise. “The divergent ideological approaches helped advance academic achievement among the Lake people. Both the protagonists were competing to send as many students as possible to Europe and America,” pointed out Odemba. “The airlifts to the East and West were the foundation upon which the latter Luo youth found role models whom to date they emulate. Mboya and Jaramogi emphasized the need to acquire higher education as a form of social security. They saw the gift of formal education as the future community’s insurance in its sustainability. They are both credited with the deliberate glorification of academia in Luoland.”

Newspaper vendor Okungu Kerry of Kisumu, remembers Jaramogi fondly: “Jaramogi saved the Nyanza sugarbelt area from being grabbed by outsiders. The areas around Koru, Songhor, Muhoroni, Chemelil and Miwani were once occupied by Indian sugar cane farmers or white settlers. Through legislation on resettlement of landless Africans, Jaramogi ensured victims of floods from Kano plains were given first priority after Kenya’s first El-Nino rains of 1961.My grandfather was settled in Kibigori after their home was destroyed by the same floods.”

Many of his Jaramogi’s followers believe his political persecution led to the ‘Luo’ cash crops being targeted and profiled for destruction. “Either by design or default, cash crops grown in Luo land became political crops. Because of this the Luo farmer suffered greatly. This was a deliberate, quiet and systematic dispossession of their only source of livelihood. Cotton which was the agricultural mainstay of the Luo was the first to be wiped off. All the ginneries closed down and farmers were rendered paupers. Sugar remained the crop the people could rely on. Sisal had earlier succumbed to global technological changes that brought in synthetic fibre,”

Many Luo people believe that according to their ethnic epistemology, only one person can inherit a father’s strong genes and possibly mystical powers. There is a stark difference between the two surviving Jaramogi sons, Oburu Oginga and Raila Odinga. The first born Oburu is a colourless and uninspiring politician. “Oburu has never persuaded anyone that he is his own man,” said an observer of the Jaramogi dynasty.“One wonders whether he could ever survive politically without his younger brother Raila.”Plucked from a civil service job as a provincial planning officer and living in a humble Mosque estate in house in Kisumu, Oburu has remained in Raila’s shadow since 1994, when he replaced Jaramogi as MP for Bondo.

Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.

Like his father Jaramogi, Raila has developed own his international networks making him known beyond Kenya. Twenty five years down the road, many of Jaramogi’s believers said his political fervour and determinism has been kept alight by his son Raila Odinga.

Jaramogi and Raila are political enigmas that very often defy easy classification and political analysis. Each personality comes with his own nickname. Jaramogi was initially named Obadiah Adonijah. In Not Yet Uhuru he says “I never liked the names. I never used them though in those days it was important to be known if you were Christian by your baptismal name”. He instead adopted Ajuma Oginga Odinga but the first name ‘Ajuma’ also fizzled out with time leaving the double ‘O’ intact. Raila is variously known by his nicknames like Agwambo, Tinga and RAO.

Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.

Whether the spirit of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi has influenced the current working relationship between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila, their respective sons is a story for another day.

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Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Were the Kariobangi North Evictions Legal or Illegal?

The forced and brutal eviction of thousands of people from a low-income settlement in Nairobi at the height of a curfew has raised questions about what owning land means in a city where the procedures to acquiring property are notoriously dicey and confusing, and often dependent on a patronage system.

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I went to Kariobangi North Sewerage settlement on 4 June, exactly a month after the dawn demolitions took place, and long after the tell-tale signs of the raid had been erased. On 4 May, at the height of a dusk-to-dawn curfew across the country, 8,000 people had been evicted from this settlement. The eviction was widely condemned but the authorities seemed unmoved by the plight of the evictees.

The chaos and commotion had ebbed away and life in Korogocho slum, one of the more than 200 informal settlements in Nairobi, had resumed its rhythmic motion. It was bustling with humanity – coronavirus or no coronavirus. Few people wore face masks; many more did not even bother to social distance. The Korogocho Market, the heartbeat of Korogocho ghetto, was a beehive of activity, with buyers and sellers haggling over prices of every imaginable merchandise.

“Without Korogocho Market there is no Koch [short for Korogocho]”, said Mwaura, my 24-year-old interlocutor, a Kenyatta University Bachelor of Education student who grew up in Grogan, one of the nine villages that make up Korogocho, but who now resides at Korogocho B. “Grogan, where my parents live, is now my gichagi [my rural home],” he explained.

People like Mwaura, whose parents came to the city in a wave of rural-urban migration (pushed by the colonial forces of the tumultuous 1950s) have always remained squatters after having been uprooted from their ancestral homes.

“The market breathes life into Korogocho area. “You can practically find anything you want at the market. It attracts customers from far and wide,” said Mwaura. The market has been embedded into the Korogocho peoples’ lives: Korogocho slum was the market and the market was Korogocho. “The market defines the Korogocho people – the best and the worst of the Korogocho people are found here – the market is a melting crucible of Korogocho’s hopes and aspirations.”

On the morning of 4 May, at about 5.30 a.m., David Maina Ngugi, an early riser, was having his cup of morning tea when his mobile phone rang. It was from his friend, who told him to quickly get out of the house because the bulldozers had moved in. When he came out, after hastily waking up his wife, the rumbling excavators had started their work in their conventional style of flattening everything on site.

Accompanying the bulldozers were an assortment of armed-to-the teeth regular police, Administration Police and the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary outfit infamous for its brutal incursions. “I think in total they were about 350 policemen,” said the 72-year-old Ngugi. “They’d come to ensure the four bulldozers executed their work with minimal interruption.”

The people waking up from their slumber watched the morning raid in utter disbelief. Uncharacteristically, they did not put up a fight, perhaps because they were too shocked by the surprise morning attack. Instead, they watched as their houses were being crushed to the ground. “Very few people salvaged their properties The dawn raid caught many people half-asleep and by the time they were waking up to the day’s realities, local hoodlums had also moved in to help themselves to anything that they could lay their hands on,” said Ngugi.

Mzee Ngugi, who owned four iron-sheet shacks, said he barely saved much from the rubble: “My iron sheets, steel doors and metal windows were stolen by thugs. I couldn’t restrain them; I was all alone and they were like a pack of wolves, so I just stood aside and watched.”

Accompanying the bulldozers were an assortment of armed-to-the teeth regular police, Administration Police and the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary outfit infamous for its brutal incursions. “I think in total they were about 350 policemen,” said the 72-year-old Ngugi. “They’d come to ensure the four bulldozers executed their work with minimal interruption.”

Despite his age, Ngugi’s body is still strong. “I’m used to walking a lot. I’d walk from here to Allsopps,” he said. Allsopps area is at the junction between Outer Ring Road and Thika super highway. The distance between Kariobangi North and Allsopps is about seven kilometres. The latter is called Allsopps because East African Breweries Limited (EABL) used to have a plant at the corner of where these two roads meet, separate from the main beer plant in the Ruaraka area that manufactured Allsopps beer. The name stuck even after the EABL closed the plant many years ago.

“In the morning I’d do push-ups and physical fitness, but these demolitions have crushed my spirit,” said Ngugi. “At 72 years, I’ve been made to start all over again, but where do I even start from now?” The old man said he had sunk his meagre savings and pension into buying four plots in the area through the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-help Group. “I’d hoped my sunset years would be spent here because I did not have any other place I called home.”

When I met Ngugi, he had just acquired a 10 by 10 rental room in Korogocho B, next to the wall of Daniel Comboni Primary School. He told me that after the eviction, he sent his wife to a family friend’s home in Grogan village. “The demolition separated families. I’ve not seen my wife for three weeks, even though we speak on phone. I couldn’t immediately get someone who would house the two of us together.”

The self-help group

The Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-Help Group was formed in the mid-1990s and given the name farmers because the first people who started frequenting the sewerage plant were women who would farm bananas, sugar cane, yams and other root tubers right next to the sewerage.

“The City Council of Nairobi, which owned the plant, allowed us women to farm on a section of the sewerage area in the evenings, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m,” said Mary Wambui Kamau. “The women were the first people to be allocated plots at the sewerage by the City Council officials who worked at the site because they had already developed a rapport with the officials.” Wambui said she first started farming in the area in 1996.

The 75-year-old lady said that to be old and poor in Nairobi was like being cursed and forgotten. A former employee of the defunct City Council of Nairobi, she had acquired two plots at the sewerage site and built her semi-permanent houses with her pension. “I bought my two plots for Sh600 each, quite an amount for people like me then, because I used to earn Sh320 per month and paid Sh90 as house rent. With her seven children (three later died) and a husband who did not have a permanent job and was landless, she believed that buying the sewerage plot was the wisest decision she had ever made.

Wambui grew up in Ndondori in what is today Nakuru County. “I was a little girl during the state of emergency period of the 1950s. [The British colonial government instituted the emergency between 1952 and1959] and my father was a squatter. Forced to flee from Ndondori, he found himself in Lari [today in Kiambu County]. In short, my father struggled throughout his life and never owned land.”

Wambui married early, at the age of 20. With her husband, she moved to Nairobi to eke out a living and start a family. “Rift Valley had been always a volatile region and so my hubby said we try our luck in the city where we didn’t always have to look behind our back.” Her husband died in 2004.

When the women corps who farmed the sewerage land grew and became big, the sewerage officials asked them to form a group, explained Wambui. This way it would be easier to engage in, mobilise for and push their agenda. To give weight to their agenda, they decided to buy plots of land within the sewerage area. They approached Adolf Muchiri, then the MP for Kasarani. Until 2012, the Kariobangi sewerage area was in Kasarani constituency; today, it is in Embakasi North, but government and social services are still run from the Kasarani DC’s offices.

“Muchiri backed our idea and we would have our meetings at the sewerage site. Later we moved those meetings elsewhere,” said Wambui. “Even as Muchiru backed our idea and said he would lend us political support, we continued to engage the sewerage officials, since, anyway, they were our gateway to owing a piece of the earth of the city council land.”

By the time the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NAWASCO) came to run the sewerage site in 2004, Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-help Group was already in existence and allocated land adjacent to the Kariobangi light industries.

“The self-help group already had 370 members by the time the Nairobi County provided a surveyor to demarcate the land about two years ago,” said Ngugi. The 370-member group was settled on 11 acres of the 25-acre sewerage land. Of these 370 members, “Kikuyus formed the largest chunk of the group. They possibly constituted about 70 per cent of the members, followed by Somalis, then Kambas, then a small group of Luos,” said Ngugi. The mzee said the plots were divided into 24 by 50 sizes and claimed that all this work was done by the Nairobi County government.

“When I got my two plots, I gave them to my sons,” said Wambui. In 2010, one of her sons, who worked at the nearby Kariobangi light industries, started living at the sewerage area with his family of four. Wambui then moved to Kariobangi A village, where I found her and some of her grandchildren. She told me that her son and grandchildren had moved in with her after being evicted. “Since coming here, we’ve been attacked two times by robbers who saw him bring along some of his items that he had salvaged,” she said.

Wambui claims that the self-help group had been issued with a group title by the Nairobi County and the county was even in the process of issuing individual titles. But there were some hitches: The self-help group has been in a tug of war with the Jua Kali Light Industries group over the allotment of plots at the sewerage site, a case that is in court. “It is true we’ve been having a long- running court case with the Jua Kali group,” said Wambui, “but we have the documents and they don’t have them and that is the difference.”

Wambui claims that the self-help group had been issued with a group title by the Nairobi County and the county was even in the process of issuing individual titles.

The sudden turn of events has broken her resolve to have a better life in her sunset years. “At 75, what else do I expect in life? I thought I’d live out the remaining years of my life in peace, but now I’ve been thrown into turmoil. I voted for Uhuru Kenyatta twice, in a very difficult area, where we are surrounded by hostile opposition. Yet at my age I woke up at 2 a.m. to queue for him and this is what I get in return? Is it that Uhuru is not aware of our plight, or now that we’re done with voting, he’s through with us?”

Missing papers

But 70-year-old Nyina wa John (John’s mother), a veteran of the sewerage plots’ acquisition and chairlady of the self-help group, has a slightly different story to tell. “What some of the afflicted families have narrated to you is correct. But as far as I’m concerned, the only incorrect information they did not tell you is that all that documentation and paperwork they are talking about had never been legalised. If it had, I would have been the first one to know and even be in possession of the rightful said documents of the land. As it is, I’m not aware of any [bona fide and legal] title deed issued to Kariobangi Self-Help Farmers Group. I’m aware that the group was even paying land rates to City Hall. That’s okay. You can pay rates. Paying rates doesn’t translate to owning the land.”

The chairlady’s assertions were corroborated by Daniel Kirugo. Kirugo is the senior chief of Muthua village in Uthiru location. I first met him in 2006 at the Kariobangi sewerage area. He was the second chief to have been posted to the area. “I know the history of the sewerage [land] very well. It is unfortunate what happened to the people, but the crux of the matter is, the self-help group’s papers are not legal. I’d know because I’ve kept in touch with some of the people who live there, the self-group’s wrangles with Jua Kali Light Industries group notwithstanding.”

The dispute between the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-Help and the Jua Kali Light Industries group led by Rashid Kaberere and one Kinyua introduced the dreaded Mungiki in the acquisition of the sewerage land. They both hired the young men to defend and fight off each other. For their work, the proscribed Mungiki group was rewarded with several plots at the sewerage site, which were dished out to them by both parties.

“Many of these Mungiki youth later sold their plots to Somalis,” said Kirugo. “Somali buyers were also involved because they had the money to finance the case in court. Another reason why the Somalis came to own the sewerage land is because they would pay double or even thrice the going market price of the plots.” That is how Isaak Aden became the chairman of the self-help group.

Hence, the majority of the Kikuyus at the site had ceased being landlords; they became tenants. How and why? “Because they sold their pieces of land to Somalis who paid a premium [for the plots],” said mzee Ngugi. “Money is good and anybody who gives you the kind of money you’ve been wishing to have becomes first priority and that’s how Somalis came to be landlords here.”

The Somalis put up semi-permanent houses, which they rented to some of the very Kikuyus who had sold them the plots of land. “The upcoming stone houses were built by Somalis because they were the presumed landowners and because they could afford to put up better structures,” added Ngugi.

“I had three plots at the sewerage,” said a man who asked me not to reveal his identity, “and it is my considered opinion the self-help group didn’t have proper documentation. All the papers they claim to have and refer to were issued by the City Council of Nairobi pre-1998, during the reign of Zipporah Wandera, the then town clerk. The subsequent mayors were never involved in the sewerage matters. For such a matter to acquire the seal of authenticity, it should involve the top echelons of the city authorities. As it is, it seems the matter was only discussed by sewerage officials and some partisan people at the City Hall.

“Orders from above”

Whether the self-help group’s papers had been legalised or not notwithstanding, Ngugi told me the self-help group’s leadership had even engaged Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NAWASCO) officials. “They were mum, claiming the demolition orders came from above. Next we visited the District Officer’s office in Kasarani, where the stock-in-trade answer was the same: ‘Orders from above’”.

Pleading for strict anonymity, because he is not authorised to speak to journalists, a top NAWASCO official said that the people had to be booted out ostensibly because the government had been given a Sh3 billion grant by the World Bank to expand and refurbish the sewer and water system of Nairobi county. All the Nairobi wastage used to drain at the Kariobangi sewerage site until Ruai sewerage was built to complement the Kariobangi one. The Kariobangi sewerage has six gargantuan septic tanks, but with the growing city population occasioned by all the real estate developments that have taken place in the last 40 years, the septic tanks became overwhelmed.

The Somalis put up semi-permanent houses, which they rented to some of the very Kikuyus who had sold them the plots of land. “The upcoming stone houses were built by Somalis because they were the presumed landowners and because they could afford to put up better structures,” added Ngugi.

I wound up my visit to Korogocho by visiting Mary Njoroge, a vendor at Korogocho Market. Her stall overlooks the eastern flank of the Kariobangi sewerage. No sooner had the dwellers been ferreted out than a stone wall was erected all around the sewerage land. On that eastern flank, the wall was as high as 12 feet, raised by the heavier nine by nine stone. “My house used to be inside the wall. It’s amazing how life can take a turn for the worse, so suddenly,” she said

Njoroge, who is in her early 50s, had lived in the sewerage area for 10 years. Her last child was born there.

Taking time to talk to me, away from her customers, Njoroge said life that life was cruel and full of contradictions: “Can you believe I was one of Uhuru’s major campaigners in this area? Kariobangi sewerage was a Jubilee zone and we fought tooth and nail to protect his votes. Look now where some of us are languishing – in the cold, with zero prospects.”

Protecting Jubilee votes meant walking the length and breadth of Korogocho and exhorting all the Kikuyus to not sleep on the day of voting, first on August 8, and then on October 26, 2017. “We’d have expected that the government would defend us and not expose us to the vagaries of the weather and coronavirus.”

During the week that their structures were demolished, heavy rain pounded Nairobi County. Many former Kariobangi North Sewerage dwellers, including small children, slept out in the cold.

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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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