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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart

14 min read.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart
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The Luyia community has produced more vice presidents than any other Kenyan community. Musalia Mudavadi was appointed vice president in 2002 for 90 days, Wamalwa Kijana in 2003 for seven months and Moody Awori was also Mwai Kibaki’s vice president between 2003 and 2007. But has this ever translated into any political clout or force? That has always been the big question of the day.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu. This history does not make any of the clans less Luyia. Indeed, the entire community is an amalgamation of Bantu and Nilotic genealogy, bound by a common linguistic and cultural orientation acquired through adoption or assimilation. There are more than 800 Luyia clans to date, existing as units with fluid boundaries, joined together by a thin mosaic band of cultural and linguistic similarities.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu.

The political union between these clans has eluded them since the formation of the word “Abaluyia” in 1943. In essence, Luyia ethnicity did not exist before then. British ethnographers called all tribes in western Kenya “Kavirondos”, a pejorative term resented by the Luyia, Luo, Kalenjin, Kisii, Kuria, and Teso. The fight by these communities to redeem their respective ethnic pride was somewhat achieved when the name Kavirondo was expunged from official use and replaced by “Nyanza”, which in some Luyia dialects means “a large water body”. What we refer to as Western Kenya was then called North Nyanza.

Most of these clans that shared closely related ethnic polity did not have a centralised system of traditional governance. Around the Second World War, traditional leaders in pre-colonial Kenya realised the world had changed, and with it political parameters. Only organised societies with definite ethnic identities could survive and possibly benefit politically by bandying together. The so-called Luyia communities were not spared the effects of this political idea.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word Luyia was first proposed by the local African Mutual Assistance Association in 1930 and adopted by the North Kavirondo Central Association in 1935, although some sub-communities’ elders rejected it. Their opposition gradually waned and the name started gaining currency.

In 1940, the Abaluyia Welfare Association was born, partly to popularise the name “Abaluyia” as a first step to creating a super ethnic identity. Shortly afterwards, a language committee was formed, and following its recommendations in 1943, the Luyia nation was born. It was formally adopted to describe a federation of lexically- related Bantu sub-tribes as a distinct tribal group living in the western part of Kenya.

According to Shadrack Bulimo, a Kenya-born ethnographer based in Edmonton Canada, “midwifing the super tribe was the easy bit; nurturing and developing socio-cultural institutions to anchor an impregnable system with national ethos, has evaded Abaluyia tribesmen for three generations. Over the years, talk of Luyia unity has waxed and waned depending on prevailing political temperatures, in a cyclical pattern that continues even today especially during electioneering.”

“Luyia unity is a favourite subject among politicians whenever elections are looming, but the same leaders are unwilling to jump into one political vehicle to harmonise the region’s socio-economic interests,” Bulimo argues.

Origins

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters. If a stranger joined them, they would ask, “Which Oluyia do you belong to?” to establish where the person was from in order to guard against threatening strangers or enemy infiltration.

Besides a family hearth, each clan had a common village gathering place where elders assembled to honour a village summon. This way, Oluyia also served as a village court where important matters were discussed, argued and adjudicated. It derived a different meaning but for a similar purpose. The village’s largest tree replaced the individual family’s hearth and became the focal point of Oluyia during the day. Gradually, when people said they were going for a meeting at Oluyia they meant the village common ground, rather than the literal fireplace. (Note the spelling of the word “Oluyia” without the “h”. The first Arabs encountered by Luyias are to blame for being unable to pronounce the word “Luyia” hence corrupting it by adding the letter “h” in their writing. Eventually, the new spelling came to be and was gradually adopted by scholars.)

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters.

The other meaning of Oluyia is both micro and macro. Those who share a fireplace as a lineage or clan belong to the same Oluyia (micro meaning). Thus when a group of clans come together they form Aba-luyia (sub-tribe) or Aba-luyia (macro-tribe). Nowadays the Abaluyia or Luhya generally means people who speak any of the closely- related 18 dialects found in Busia, Kakamega, Bungoma and Vihiga counties.

However, this group of 18 related nations have had distinct experiences under colonialism, and specifically under the various Christian missions. The missionary church played a huge role in the politics of the Luyia community and in the developments and cleavages of Luyia identity.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway reached Kisumu (then known as Port Florence) in 1901. Two years later, the Quakers (Friends Mission) started a mission hospital and primary school at Kaimosi in Tiriki. The Quakers would quickly become dominant in the area because, apart from evangelising, they introduced vocational training that imparted employable skills like carpentry, tailoring, masonry and machining to the natives.

A defining moment in the political history of Luyias had just been established. And somehow, the seed of discord among the community had also been sowed.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

Under this pact, the Church Missionary Society – later called Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) and today the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) – was assigned to evangelise among the Luo and the Marama. The Church of God was assigned Bunyore, Kisa and Butsotso. Friends African Mission (Quakers), with its headquarters in Kaimosi, was assigned Maragoli, Bukusu and Tiriki. Catholics were to concentrate on Wanga, Isukha and Idakho; the Mill Hill Fathers – also Catholic – anchored their mission at Mukumu in Isukha. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) from Ontario, Canada, through Otto Keller, later established the mission at Nyangori. (Nyang’ori is located about 15km from Kisumu at the confluence of Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Province.) Keller soon became very popular because he introduced drumming, which attracted locals to his church and annoyed Quakers who were already dominant in the area.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

The Church Missionary Society (Anglicans) started a mission at Maseno, led by James Jamieson Willis and Hugh Saville, to preach to the Luo people. Maseno School later developed into one of the best centres of academic excellence in Kenya. Having been established at a borderline, many neighbouring Luyia boys were enrolled into the mission alongside Luos. After all, inter-marriage between the Luo and Luyia had existed along the Maseno borderline.

The British appointed Nabongo Mumia as paramount chief of the region in 1913. Nabongo Mumia acquired the first bicycle in 1910, making him the first Luyia to do so, and since then, the item has remained a precious possession amongst the Luyias. Mumia was also the first Luyia to own a motor car. He retired in 1926 and died in 1949 aged 100 years, and was buried at Itokho in Mumias. The first sewing machine was introduced in 1916 by the Singer Company, which sold it to the Irish CMS Missionary at Butere. Modernity or “civilization” had arrived in Luyialand.

The Bukusu were the only Luyia community to openly resist the colonialists in 1895. They built Chetambe Fort in Webuye to reinforce their battle with the white man. The British fought back their warriors in 1895, ending the Bukusu resistance. To date, Bukusus perceive themselves as brave warriors.

The Quakers and their mission

Islam was also present in Luyialand, and was brought to Wanga by Arab traders en route to Buganda in 1902. Beyond Wanga, there was little success in spreading the religion to the rest of Luyialand. Since Swahilis raided Bukusus for slaves, they met stiff resistance and hence few Bukusu converted to Islam. In Nabongo Mumia’s court, the Swahili occupied an envious position in the colonial administration. They were employed as tax collectors, informers and circumcisers of Wanga Muslims convertees, despite being associated with cunningness and corrupt practices. Today many Luyias refer to Abawanga as Abaswahili (implying cunning and untrustworthy people).

But it was the American Quakers Mission, which was dominant in the area, that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism. Their arrival marked a radical approach that was different from that of earlier evangelists who only preached the gospel without investing in vocational and educational infrastructure.

Kaimosi was established in Tiriki where believers did not initially resist the American missionaries. (They especially enjoyed and appreciated the health facilities.) Yet things took a turn for the worse when the Quakers began to question the traditional Tiriki way of life. The backlash was so severe that by 1910, only eleven Tirikis remained as converts. With time, the missionary efforts were combined with other colonial instruments like schooling, waged labour, taxation, property laws and urbanisation. Christianity disrupted traditional social practices like marriage and circumcision.

But it was the American Quakers Mission…that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism.

The Tirikis found themselves in a deep quagmire when their land was forcefully acquired by the missionaries, and when their culture was maligned and disrupted. They coexisted as uneasy neighbours with the Quakers, who they now disliked for their stand on polygamy and traditional culture. It meant that other Luyia communities gradually found refuge at the Kaimosi mission. Girls who sought refuge after running away from forceful suitors arrived at Kaimosi. Another sticking point was the presence of many non-Tiriki, especially Maragoli, as workers to the missionaries. This fostered the feeling that the mission favoured “outsiders”.

Where the Tiriki lost, the Maragoli gained. With a huge population occupying a small area, they migrated in droves to live among the Tiriki in Kaimosi, becoming a sizeable minority. As early as 1904, the Maragoli made up the majority labour force at Kaimosi, a trend that has continued to date.

At this point, Kaimosi was the only intermediate school in Luyialand where the rest of the sub-clans had to go for education past Standard 3. On arrival, they came face to face with the perceived Maragoli dominance at the mission, which caused resentment. Led by the Bukusu, the other communities felt that they were “there to be seen and not to be heard”. Most of the leading schools in Luyialand were either established or affiliated to Quakers; these included the Musingu, Kaimosi and Lugulu schools. However, the first government school (Kakamega High School) was built in 1932.

In any case, the Maragoli were the first Luyia to take advantage of the new economic and social opportunities presented by colonialism. They were among the first to join schools, so the Quakers found it easier to work with them as opposed to the Tiriki. Consequently, the Quakers, led by Emory Rees and his wife Deborah, arrived at Vihiga from South Africa, and between 1903 and 1926 they learnt the Maragoli language and translated the Bible and school texts. This made conversion to Christianity among the Maragoli much easier. To date, most Christian hymnals among the Luyia are written and sung in their language.

The Maragoli started drifting from their traditional ways after 1910 with the arrival and influence of the Quakers. They for instance gradually started to drift from traditional circumcision ceremonies altogether, preferring western medical practices. Their purview of customary belief systems also changed dramatically. Conversion to Christianity or adoption of Western values had no negative social backlash among them. Maragolis, hence, became the first amongst equals in the eyes of the missionaries and other Luyias.

In Kaimosi, the Quakers mission would gain even more prominence in 1927 when it was the centre of a Pentecostal revivalist rebellion led by native Africans. The discontent simmered until the missionaries met with rebels and they had no choice but to expel some members who went ahead to establish the African Spiritual Church (Dini Ya Roho). In 1942, Daudi Zakayo Kivuli also founded his own church: The African Israel Nineveh Church. He installed his wife Rebecca as the High Priestess and when she died in 1983, her grandson John Mweresa Kivuli, took over as the current High Priest. Their followers are noted for wearing white turbans.

In 1946, Dini Ya Musambwa (Religion of Ancestral Spirits) was established by Elijah Masinde as a protest movement against Christian churches, which preached against ancestral sacrifices and polygamy. The Bukusu revere him as a prophet (omung’osi). In 1957 another splinter group led by Saulo Chabuga formed the African Divine Church in Maragoli. By 2008 they had around 25,000 churches spread out in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

After several misunderstandings and clamour for autonomy, the Kaimosi Quakers transferred the boys’ school from the Tiriki and Maragoli to the Bukusu, renaming it Friends School Kamusinga in the heart of Bukusuland in Kimilili. The seeds of future disunity were planted by that simple action. Bukusus started seeing themselves as equal to Maragolis, at least on the education (read civilisation) front.

Meanwhile, the Catholic missionaries tolerated local customs like polygamy, drinking alcohol and dancing at funerals. Locals in Isukha and Idakho who wanted to continue with this way of life found refuge amongst the Catholics, who did not condemn these practices too loudly. When they tried to replicate their success in Maragoli, they met stiff resistance – the Maragoli were already firmly embedded with the Quakers. The only Catholic mission arrived in the form of Maragoli Girls’ Secondary School at Mbale set up by Mill Hill Missionaries, and this was as late as 1971.

The Tiriki resistance to Christianity was finally broken when Chief Paul Amiani joined the Salvation Army in 1932, and by the sheer force of his personality built strong followers, offering the much-needed alternative to Quaker dominance. Through him, the Tiriki elders accepted their youth to undergo both Christian and traditional initiation ceremonies. They also embraced education as an engine for personal and economic development. But as they did this, the horse (read Maragoli) had already bolted with the diadem of “modernity”.

In fact, when the idea of forming an “Abaluyia” identity was mooted in 1943, resistance came from the Maragoli community, who made it known to all and sundry that the Maragoli were not part of the Luyia nation – they were simply Maragoli. Nevertheless, the Maragoli never formally or officially asked for the name to be expunged from the list of communities that form the Luyia nation, leaving them firmly included.

Pulling apart

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas: Cluster one – Logooli, Nyole, Tiriki; Cluster two – Isukha, Idakho, Kisa, Wanga, Batsotso and Marama; Cluster three – Bukusu, Tachoni, Kabras, Abanyala (Kakamega); and Cluster four – Samia, Marachi, Abakhayo, Abanyala (Busia). According to scholar Abraham Mirimo, “all Luyia dialects share a core lexical structure and only minor inflection in suffixation and prefixation divided them”.

Talk of Luyia unity and two groups strongly come to mind – the Bukusu and the Maragoli, who are always believed to be pulling apart. Is it a coincidence that they are also the most migratory and daring of all Luyia sub-nations? Sample this. The Bukusu are mainly found in Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. They are the most populous of the Luyia sub-nations, forming about 20 per cent of the estimated six million Luyia population. (The name Bungoma is derived from Bongamek, a Kalenjin tribe that originally occupied the territory.) In the 10th Parliament, they had seven MPs representing their domiciled interest in Kanduyi, Bumula, Webuye, Sirisia, Kimilili, Tongaren, Kwanza and Saboti. Their presence is spread out and overlaps into Trans-Nzoia, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu counties.

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas…

Maragolis are also found beyond the boundaries of Vihiga County. In 1927 they ventured into Uriri in Migori County. The international language encyclopedia Ethnologue, Issue no.16, even lists the Maragoli as a tribe in Tanzania, across the border from Migori. A contingent of Maragoli immigrants settled in Bunyoro, Uganda in 1958 following an agreement between the British colonial government and the Kingdom of Bunyoro. Now estimated at around 35,000, the Maragoli were even allocated land at Kigumba in Kiryandogo district but are now spread to Ntoma and Masindi. They have an unofficial pressure group led by one Eliakimu Adola pushing for their official recognition as a fully-fledged Ugandan tribe, having settled there for over half a century.

Masinde Muliro, a Bukusu, proved quite a principled and fair leader who earned respect across the community. Born at Matili near Kimilili in 1920, he was among the founders of the FORD party, which struggled against President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party tyranny. Muliro instantly became the quintessential Luyia leader and is immortalised by a university in Kakamega, the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). On August 27, 2011, the government declared him a national hero.

Muliro came from the Bakokho clan, and his political defining moment came in 1975, when he voted against a government report into the murder of JM Kariuki. He was the only cabinet minister to do so. Peter Kibisu, an Assistant Minister for Labour and MP for Vihiga, also voted against the report. An angry President Jomo Kenyatta sacked both Muliro and Kibisu, tossing them into the political wilderness. Once again the Bukusu and Maragoli had proved their political mettle within the Luyia nation.

After Muliro’s sacking, Moses Substone Budamba Mudavadi stepped into his large shoes. By virtue of his close association with President Moi, Mudavadi – a Maragoli – wielded immense power that was felt across Luyialand and beyond. Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi has followed as a titular Luyia leader, but his “gentle” mien attracted detractors who until today feel he lacks “fire in his belly”. Musalia, though, proved them all wrong in 2007, when under the ODM party he delivered 18 seats as the party’s torch bearer. So far he has cut his own apron strings by launching the Amani National Congress (ANC).

Another leader who earned respect across the Luyia community was the late Michael Christopher Kijana Wamalwa. Though raised a Bukusu, his roots can be traced to the Sabaot. Wamalwa’s father, Senator William Chemayek Ngeywo, was a Sabaot who changed his name to Wamalwa to get a missionary education as the Sabaot suffered discrimination in those days. (“Chemayek” in the Sabaot and indeed Kalenjin language is “alcohol” and its equivalent in naming is “Wamalwa” in Lu-bukusu.) Michael’s mother, Esther Nekesa, however, was a Bukusu from the Baengele clan. His Sabaot roots did not matter as he was raised Bukusu, underscoring that the Luyia nation is a confluence of Kalenjin, Maasai, Luo and Bantu ethnicities

Although political unity has been a slippery path for Luyias, their most astounding success has occurred outside politics. The Abaluyia United Football Club (AFC Leopards) was formed in 1964. All teams under the sub-tribal banners agreed to merge and form one team. You can be sure everything was smooth until the Maragolis opted to remain autonomous by keeping their Maragoli United Football Club. Still, the club remains the only veritable symbol of Luyia unity where leading personalities have always sought to be elected chairman or patron. Player unity on the pitch helped it to succeed in the East African region.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically. They actually came from different directions and met within the boundaries of the so-called Western Province. Since they do not trace their lineage to one ancestor, like the Gikuyu with Mumbi or the Luos with Ramogi as their patriarch, it was arguably a convergence for convenience.

The Bukusu and Maragolis are undoubtedly great achievers among the Luyia sub-nations. Compared to other Luyia sub-nations, they know how to position themselves politically. Whereas Bukusus consider themselves warriors, Maragolis carry themselves as the elites of Luyialand who were the first to “see the light” when others were still in darkness. The two communities are also perceived to be haughty and domineering, a trait that repels both Maragolis and Bukusus from other Luyias. They have nowadays morphed into two great, conjoined siblings and none is ready to let go.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically.

Indeed none is ready to be seen as subordinate to the other. They both have produced Vice Presidents in Kijana Wamalwa and Musalia Mudavadi, and in community leaders Masinde Muliro and Moses Mudavadi, and it appears as if they are always on a permanent ‘check-mate alert mode’. The recognition of Muliro in the naming of the biggest university in Luyialand located in Kakamega the headquarters of Luyias was perceived to be a scoop of sorts for the Bukusus. In addition, the biggest public park that convenes political rallies – Muliro Gardens – ‘the biggest Oluyia’ was also named after the great son of Bukusuland.

After all these years of push and pull based on historical and post-independent seeds of discord, it is clear that the elusive Luyia unity is still a long shot.

My friend James Wasike says, “as long as the Maragoli are always on standby to throw a spanner in the Bukusu works and vice-versa, Luyia unity will still remain a mirage”. Alternatively, as long as the Bukusu still harbour the Kaimosi grudge, where they were looked down upon by the Maragoli who are in any case their historical competitors, the Luyia nation will not be able to truly say: ‘I am my brother’s keeper’.

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Bethuel Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

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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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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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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