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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?

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Cases of extrajudicial killings by police and other state security agents are commonplace in Kenya, where such murders often do not lead to prosecution or justice for the victims. ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the case of two prominent human rights defenders who were killed in 2009 in broad daylight on a Nairobi street.

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Dying for Justice: Who Killed Oscar Kingara and George Paul Oulu?
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Whenever one drives along Ring Road in Kilimani, and glances across the hedge of the Kileleshwa Police Station, where several vehicles are parked inside the compound, one is likely to spot an abandoned white Mercedes Benz E200, registration number KAJ 179Z, with a missing rear windshield, The last time the Mercedes Benz moved before it was towed to the police station was when it was forcefully shoved by enraged University of Nairobi students into the entrance of Hall 2, one of their hostels located adjacent to State House Road. Pushing the Mercedes Benz onto the sloped university terrain wasn’t difficult. It had stood stationary on State House Road, its occupants shot dead.

It was Thursday 5 March 2009 at about 6 p.m when Oscar Kamau Kingara, the Executive Director of the Oscar Foundation Free Legal Aid Clinic Kenya (OFFLACK), and George Paul Oulu, also known as GPO, his Communications and Advocacy Officer, were caught in evening Nairobi traffic on State House Road. One would expect to run into a little traffic at that hour and place. However, what the duo were unaware of, as narrated by a number of university students who witnessed what next transpired at close range, was that the gridlock was stage-managed.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

A Mitsubishi Pajero drove out of a University of Nairobi gate, the one located right next to Hall 11 in front of one of the university’s clinics, pretending to be joining State House Road. It then stopped midway on the road once it had cut off the flow of traffic, its occupants staying put, as if unperturbed by the intentional inconvenience they were inflicting on the now slowly building up stream of vehicles coming down from the State House Girls School side. The Pajero rudely cutting off traffic was the first red flag for the students.

‘‘A group of us were coming from lectures that evening,’’ Mathew (not his real name) told me. ‘‘Others were walking from the hostels towards town and the main library. The killers acted as if we were nonexistent. We saw everything.’’

‘‘We saw the Pajero interrupting traffic, but didn’t think much of it,’’ said Andrew (not his real name) who was part of Mathew’s group from the lecture halls. ‘‘We imagined it was one of those big-car uncivil Nairobi drivers.’’

One of the vehicles the Pajero forced to stop was the Mercedes Benz. Kingara was its driver, Oulu the passenger. In under a generous estimate of three minutes of the students encountering the Pajero, the students heard a series of loud gunshots. By this time, they had walked into the Lower State House residential unit, which holds Halls 10, 11, 1 and 2. Knowing the frosty relationship between University of Nairobi students and the police, the gunshots instantly triggered anxiety among the students already settled inside their hostel rooms. They all started screaming from their windows, expecting the worst. Had the police shot one of their own?

Cutting the University of Nairobi’s main campus halls of residence right into two – Lower State House and Upper State House clusters of hostels – students from both sides of State House Road were now scrambling in their hundreds out of windows, confused and wanting to catch a piece of the action. Looking at the under 100 metre distance between the huge tree behind Hall 11 where the shooting took place and the little gate from where the Pajero had stalled, the students who had the best vantage point to witness everything were those looking out from the upper floors of Halls 11 and 9, the two male student hostels sandwiching the scene.

‘‘The gunshots were so loud, which made us suspect the shooting was happening within the university’s vicinity,’’ James (not his real name), a third year Bachelor of Arts Hall 9 resident told me. ‘‘It wasn’t difficult to locate the Mercedes Benz from my window on the second floor. It was the only vehicle with men hovering around it.’’

After the first gunshots, students with a quicker reflex directed their attention to the scene and caught sight of the two men dressed in similar suits finishing the job. Occupants of nearby vehicles didn’t dare step out, possibly paralysed by the display of impunity by the shooters who had the audacity to summarily execute the driver and his passenger in broad daylight right in the environs of the University of Nairobi, which is known for its protests.

‘‘After shooting the vehicle’s occupants,’’ James from Hall 9 went on, ‘‘the shooters in identical suits shot in the air before slowly strolling towards a minivan that was about three vehicles behind the Mercedes Benz. They got into it, and as it was turning around before driving away, my friends and I noticed its driver was wearing what resembled a police uniform. Our observation would later be corroborated by other students.’’

For a long time, whether having beers at Senses or standing in groups outside the library, the tens of student witnesses I have interviewed spoke about that Thursday evening in surgical detail, piecing together minute bits of information crowd sourced from whoever saw anything, eventually managing to reconstruct the scene.

‘‘We all saw different bits of whatever happened that evening,’’ a now thirty-something Mathew told me. ‘‘But when we pieced everything everyone saw together, which became the widely accepted narrative, our conclusion was that once the Pajero created a temporary traffic jam, the men in identical suits disembarked from the minivan with their guns. They then looked inside each of the vehicles ahead of the minivan, until they got to the Mercedes Benz. On identifying the two men as their targets, they summarily executed them.’’

‘‘I’ve been told by a Hall 9 student that the driver of the minivan was wearing a military fatigue jacket, the ones worn by the police. Did any witness you interacted with share the same view?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I’ve heard the same thing before from third parties,’’ Mathew replied, ‘‘but I can’t confirm its veracity.’’

However, what the students didn’t need to reconstruct was what happened after Oulu and Kingara were shot.

‘‘Not too long after those in Halls 9 and Hall 11 watched the men in suits in action,’’ Mathew recollected, ‘‘those of us from the lecture halls ran to State House Road and surrounded the scene. We wanted to see who had been shot. That is when we heard another gunshot. As we dispersed temporarily, two men walked from the direction of the Pajero, wanting to access the Mercedes Benz, each holding a pistol. We watched them ransack the pockets of the two shot men before taking documents and a laptop from the back seat.’’

‘‘Can you identify the men if you saw them or their photos?’’ I asked Mathew.

‘‘I don’t want to answer that,’’ Mathew said. ‘‘I don’t like the idea of killers thinking I can recognise them.’’

According to Mathew, the men from the Pajero were in no hurry. Going by that evening’s series of events, the students arrived at an inescapable conclusion: the killers were policemen. No other logical conclusion could explain such a display of meticulous organisation and absolute impunity – the Pajero cutting off traffic, the men in suits shooting the Mercedes Benz occupants, and finally the men from the Pajero taking their time at the scene as if crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.

It was when the two men were milling around the scene of the killing that the group of students tried to engage them in small talk.

‘‘Mbona humuwabebi?’’ a student asked as the men left the scene. Why aren’t you taking away the bodies?

‘‘Wengine watakujia,’’ one of the men casually replied, unruffled. Others will come to clear the scene up.

After the men in the Pajero left, the students realised that Oulu was still breathing. Unlike Kingara, whose death best illustrates the term summary execution (he was shot at least three times in the head, possibly in quick succession, and his body remained in an almost upright position in the driver’s seat) Oulu had used his left hand to block a bullet, which went through his wrist and through his head. Seeing that the university sanatorium was less than 100 metres from the scene, daring students removed Oulu’s body from the vehicle, but before they could move beyond 20 metres, they noticed he had stopped breathing.

Just before nightfall, a few senior students managed to positively identify Oulu. He had been a celebrated Vice Chairman of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU). On leading a protest in 2004 against tuition fee increment, he had received a 1,000-day or three academic year suspension. He came back to the university in 2007 to complete his degree course in Mathematics and Economics. He hadn’t graduated by the time he was shot in March 2009.

The students’ original police-and-robbers theory was disproved. One of the victims was, in fact one, of their own, as was initially feared when they first heard gunshots. Knowing the University of Nairobi students’ modus operandi, State House Road was immediately shut at the first sign of protest. News had to get to the president, who lived barely 500 metres away.

It was under these circumstances that the students shoved the Mercedes Benz into Hall 2. Thereafter, Kingara’s bled-out body was hidden under a staircase. Wanting to forcefully retrieve the body, anti-riot police engaged in an overnight battle with students. In the process, a first-year student, Edwin Gesairo, was shot dead.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

But, some still ask, were the students even half right in their prima facie police-and-hardcore-wanted-criminals hypothesis? Who were Kingara and Oulu, and what had they been doing that might have led to their violent and bloody death?

***

The answer came in agenda item three during the May 2009 11th session of the United Nations Human Rights council in Geneva. In an addendum to his presentation, Prof. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, confirmed that Oulu and Kingara were among members of civil society with whom he had met during his February 2009 visit to Kenya to investigate rampant extrajudicial killings by death squads within the security system and the police. In affirming the student’s suspicion that the killing of Oulu and Kingara was premeditated assassination, Alston stated:

‘‘Moreover, we urge your Excellency’s Government to expeditiously carry out an independent investigation into the killing of Oscar Kamau Kingara and George Paul Oulu. While we do not in any way prejudge the question of the responsibility for this assassination, it is inevitable under the circumstances that suspicion should fall upon the Kenya Police.’’

However, if one were to argue that the police per se weren’t involved in the assassination or shouldn’t be the primary target of investigations, as alluded to by the Special Rapporteur’s statement, then the outlined mandate within which Prof. Alston was basing his request carried a more comprehensive scope of what was meant by his suspicion of the state’s complicity. He was asking for an investigation into:

‘‘Deaths due to the attacks or killings by security forces of the State, or by paramilitary groups, death squads, or other private forces cooperating with or tolerated by the State; death threats and fear of imminent extrajudicial executions by State officials.’’

There was no doubt that Kingara and Oulu had made enemies in high places. But did they, eighty-four days before their slaying, sign their own death warrants?

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki – the predominantly Kikuyu cultural and sometimes spiritual grouping, which from time to time ventured into the political sphere, and which was in other instances accused of criminality. Mungiki was accused of enforcing a parallel taxation regime in the public transport sector in Nairobi and Central Kenya, and of running a shakedown racket in informal settlements in Nairobi, where it demanded payment in exchange for protection of businesses.

‘‘I am the one who hid Kingara’s body,’’ a former student told me. ‘‘We were going for an all-out war.’’

Fashioned as Mau Mau reincarnate, Mungiki swept through Central Kenya in an unprecedented manner, a form of peasant uprising against the moneyed and ruling Kikuyu elite, which at the time controlled the levers of state power. The group was condemned as being some sort of loose-cannon ragtag militia prone to extortionist tendencies, a ready gun for hire for politicians, sometimes including suspected state actors. It was therefore a messy, complicated affair, where it now appeared its leadership and membership – who knew too much and became unruly according to the powers that be – had become a liability to the political and security establishments. The extrajudicial killings of Mungiki members came after its members were suspected to have been deeply involved in revenge attacks during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, hence resulting in extrajudicial and enforced disappearances of some within its ranks. It was therefore anyone’s guess as to who had authorised the mopping up of Mungiki.

On New Year’s Day 2009, the Oscar Foundation wrote a letter to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, calling for investigations into suspected state-sponsored extrajudicial killings targeting alleged members of Mungiki…

The Oscar Foundation’s audacious request to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC was for warrants to be immediately issued against the President of the Republic of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti and his outspoken predecessor John Michuki, and the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, alongside his subordinates who were allegedly directly linked to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya.

The timing of the letter couldn’t have been worse. In January 2009, the Kenyan political establishment was jittery. There were rumours of probable indictments of prominent Kenyans by the ICC, with elements within Mungiki being perceived as likely corroborators in sections of the prosecution’s evidence, which could be used against leading political players implicated in the violence following the 2007/2008 post-election violence – violence where over 1,200 lives were lost and over half a million citizens got displaced in under two weeks. The Oscar Foundation request to ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, asking him to direct his investigative torch towards Kenya, seemed like an affront to the political establishment.

This letter was followed by Kingara’s and Oulu’s presentation of evidence on extrajudicial killings in February 2009 to the UN’s Prof. Philip Alston in a public event at the United Nations Office in Gigiri, Nairobi. Feathers were surely ruffled.

***

The Oscar Foundation wasn’t a huge organisation. Run from a small but tastefully furnished rented office in China Centre on Nairobi’s Ngong Road, the organisation’s operations were pretty specific – to document cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and to offer free legal aid to families of victims of the same. The partitioned office had two sections, the first one filled with thousands of files neatly arranged in a series of wall-to-wall cabinets surrounding an open plan office for paralegals. The second partition was where Oulu and Kingara operated. It was a lean, mean team causing the state considerable discomfort.

However, the dark cloud hanging over the Oscar Foundation was that it was a cover for Mungiki. On the morning of 5 March 2009, the day Oulu and Kingara were killed, the Government of Kenya’s spokesman, Dr. Alfred Mutua, issued a scathing attack on the organisation, repeating allegations that it was a conduit through which Mungiki received foreign aid and laundered money. In a move which would later come back to haunt the state, Dr. Mutua issued a not-so-veiled threat against the organisation, promising that the state would act firmly on Mungiki and its sympathisers. Less than 12 hours later, Oulu and Kingara were dead.

***

Within civil society, there were murmurs that a plausible trigger for the assassination of Oulu and Kingara was the abrasive nature of their approach to activism. For instance, on the day of their shooting, the duo had paralysed public transport on major routes in Nairobi. They worked with matatu touts and drivers who went on a go-slow in solidarity with the families of those within their ranks who had been killed on suspicion of being members of Mungiki. It wasn’t the first time the Oscar Foundation had coordinated such a protest.

‘‘Kingara owned this huge roadshow truck on which he displayed life-size images of the president and a number of cabinet ministers, all of whom the accompanying texts were effectively calling murderers,’’ a civil society executive who wished to remain unnamed told me in Nairobi. ‘‘That was extremely audacious.’’

Was the Oscar Foundation a cover for Mungiki, or was it that since the majority of its clients (families and friends of those suspected of having been summarily executed by the state) were members of Mungiki, therefore the organisation and those it served were conflated into one? This will remain a matter of conjecture, since the Kenyan state has never released evidence to prove the claim. That the state declined a formal offer by the United States Ambassador to Kenya to have the FBI join in on the investigations into the assassination of Oulu and Kingara – among other pointers towards possible complicity – continues to fuel the theory that very highly placed elements within government had something to do with the killing of the two human rights activists.

To date, the assassination of Oulu and Kingara remains unresolved.

***

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

‘‘The most profound case I have ever encountered in the defence of human rights defenders has to be the assassination of Kingara and Oulu,’’ Sam Mohochi, a lawyer and human rights defender who at the time of the killings was the Executive Director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), told me. ‘‘I made a deliberate attempt to escalate the matter legally, but one of the families kindly requested that we shouldn’t.’’

IMLU had been one of the few lone voices in the wilderness speaking against extrajudicial killings, which were backed by its numerous autopsy reports. In what may appear to be as a stroke of genius, IMLU combined medicine and the law, somehow playing the role of Kenya’s non-existent coroner at a time when doing such wasn’t mainstreamed.

The killing of Oulu and Kingara shook the Kenyan human rights fraternity to the core. It was no longer a question of human rights defenders receiving empty threats; death by execution was officially on the cards.

As Executive Director, Mohochi found himself having to stick his head out several times. He recalls that in December 2008, on the sidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, he met Prof. Philip Alston and his assistant Sarah – now a professor in New York – who told him that finally, the Kenyan government had agreed for the Special Rapporteur to pay Kenya an official visit. Prof. Alston was therefore asking for support. When Mohochi got back to Kenya, he started readying things.

‘‘I told them they can do their preparations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘and that on our end, we would provide them with suggestions on which organisations they should consult, and plan for which victim groups they would meet. The fact that Alston was having meetings at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights or using church facilities whenever he went outside Nairobi, were all very deliberate choices from our end, much as we weren’t part of his mission. The only thing I did was to invite Alston’s interlocutors, including Kingara.’’

According to Mohochi, he hadn’t agreed with Kingara, especially on the claim by the Oscar Foundation that over 8,000 individuals were victims of either enforced disappearances or extrajudicial killings by the police, since the only evidence backing up that claim were names and photos, and there was no way of ascertaining whether those were over 8,000 unique names and images. In a word, the data wasn’t solidly verifiable.

‘‘I didn’t agree with Kingara’s modus operandi for arriving at those very high figures,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘That notwithstanding, I invited him to speak to Prof. Alston because in this struggle, all contributions are valid.’’

During Prof. Alston’s first closed-door meeting with the Kenyan civil society at Hotel Intercontinental, Oulu and Kingara arrived early to erect three Oscar Foundation drop-top banners. No one else had brought any publicity or similar material. When Prof. Alston walked into the room, he asked Mohochi what the banners were.

‘‘I called Oulu and asked him to kindly put the banners away,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘At that moment, we noticed the presence of two suspicious characters in the room. When asked who they were by Muthoni Wanyeki of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, they couldn’t explain themselves properly. I told them I was the one who had sent out the invitations, meaning I hadn’t sent them any, and asked them to kindly leave.’’

In subsequent days, Oulu and Kingara had the opportunity to present their evidence on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to Prof Alston. The next time Mohochi saw them was at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on the day Prof. Alston released his damning report, which labelled Attorney General Amos Wako as the embodiment of impunity and which demanded the resignation of Commissioner of Police Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali. In Prof. Alston’s eyes, it appeared, extrajudicial killings in Kenya needed urgent mitigation.

Even to Mohochi, who had played a leading role during Prof. Alston’s visit, the final report was shocking.

‘‘I hadn’t had a look at the report,’’ Mohochi said. ‘‘I was part of the crowd just like everyone else. If you consider Alston’s career as a rapporteur, he had never gone that far. That report was quite undiplomatic, partly because there had been attempts of state interference on his investigations in places like Bungoma.’’

A fortnight after the report came out, Oulu and Kingara were assassinated.

Did Alston’s report contribute to their deaths, or were there more complicated reasons behind their killing?

***

During the subsequent sitting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2009 in Geneva, barely two months after the assassination of Oulu and Kingara, the Government of Kenya sent two high-powered delegations to Switzerland. One was led by the Minister of Interior, Prof. George Saitoti, while the second was led by the Minister of Lands, Senior Counsel James Orengo. There were certainly jitters in Nairobi.

Attending a discussion at which Prof. Alston, Mohochi and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR)’s chairperson, Florence Simbiri-Jaoko, were panelists, Mutea Iringo, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Interior, asked to be provided with specifics on the threats faced by human rights defenders so that the government could intervene. It was farcical, given that not too long before, Oulu and Kingara had been killed in death squad style. Mohochi decided to play along, giving two death threats against him as an example.

‘‘I couldn’t risk giving details about anyone else’s death threats,’’ Mohochi said, ‘‘and so I volunteered my own two death threats, going as far as giving the Occurrence Book (OB) Number under which I reported them at Parklands Police Station. To date, neither Mr. Iringo nor Parklands Police have ever contacted me about the same.’’

***

It was under these tension-filled circumstances that organisations such as Mohochi’s IMLU, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group, among others, upped the ante in the protection of human rights defenders. They had already operationalised the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD) back in 2007 – a clear sign that threats to activists didn’t start with the killing of Oulu and Kingara – which was hosted at different times by either IMLU, KHRC or RPP. It wasn’t until 2012 that NCHRD established a fully functional secretariat from where it solidified its programmes and countrywide protection networks, with Mohochi as founding chairman of its board of trustees.

‘‘We were already protecting human rights defenders starting from as early as 2001,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘not just as IMLU but as a broader coalition of actors. We were meeting at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, and had a budget for this. It’s not that we woke up in 2007. That’s only when we formalised the NCHRD to proactively put in place further mitigation measures for human rights defenders to do their work without fear of recrimination. Defenders were always alive to the sorts of risks their work attracted.’’

‘‘It was in the early 90s when we started having conversations about who defends the defenders,’’ Salome Nduta, a protection officer at NCHRD, told me at their near-clandestine Nairobi nerve center. ‘‘Before a functioning protection network was in place, activists had to be each other’s keepers, in the literal sense.’’

To date, the NCHRD has taken up hundreds of protection cases from across Kenya while doing what every responsive organisation in its shoes would ordinarily do – to continue disrupting itself and adopting fresh strategies as new threats emerge. From the word go, the difficult question has been – and not only for the NCHRD: How does one ascertain what comprehensive protection entails? With time, the scope of what it means to offer protection has kept expanding, as new, more complicated cases have landed at the NCHRD.

The broad strokes with which protection has been painted include offering legal, medical and psychosocial support, and in extreme cases, relocation. The practicalities of these range from bailing out activists during protests, to offering them advocates for those charged in courts of law, paying their medical bills and offering counselling, all meant to cushion human rights defenders, especially those in the frontlines at the grassroots.

‘‘Since our inception, protection has evolved,’’ Salome told me. ‘‘Now we have situations where an activist gets killed, and the idea of protection means you may now have to intervene and support their families for a time in whatever way possible, since a lot of times the deceased happens to be the sole breadwinner.’’

These sorts of interventions can be difficult, since organisations such as the NCHRD almost always have budgetary constraints. The idea that anyone can knock on their doors anytime and seek assistance has similarly created the impression that the organisation is swimming in wads of cash, something Salome tells me is far from the truth. Interestingly, the largest chunk of their budget goes into offering legal support.

‘‘I cannot quantify the amount of money we’ve spent on paying for bail and bond so far,’’ Salome says. ‘‘A lot of times our legal kitty runs dry sooner than expected. The arrest and harassment of activists doesn’t stop, while the ongoing cases take forever. This means ours is a continuous, long game of legal support.’’

According to Mohochi, the evolution of the concept of protection cannot happen without local context.

‘‘I have always maintained that we can’t blindly copy Westernised ideas of protection without factoring in our circumstances,’’ he says. ‘‘Something like temporary relocation. You can imagine how many people one might need to relocate, but then after they come back what next? I therefore believe in a proactive approach to protection, where we built a nationwide grassroots network of defenders who continuously assess their risk levels and act to mitigate threats before things escalate. We encourage them not to take suicidal risks.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

***

On 27 June 2016, Kenya woke up to a strongly trending social media hashtag #FindLawyerWilly. Willy Kimani, an advocate working for International Justice Mission (IJM), had gone missing four days earlier. Missing alongside Willie were his client, Josephat Mwenda – a bodaboda rider and victim of a supposed accidental shot in the arm by Senior Sergeant Fredrick Leliman – and Joseph Muiruri, their taxi driver. They had last been seen thirty odd kilometers from Nairobi, at the Mavoko Law Courts where Mwenda had sued Senior Sergeant Leliman.

‘‘There was a sense that IJM didn’t want to make a lot of noise publicly about the matter,’’ a lawyer who was involved in the early stages of the investigation, but who sought anonymity, told me. ‘‘They believed the police would speed up investigations, possibly because they had received assurances from senior state officials, or out of high-level interventions by the U.S. embassy, seeing that IJM is an American charity.’’

Yet no matter how fool-proof protection programmes got, and despite the numerous cautionary measures human rights defenders employed at a personal level, there were no guarantees that more soldiers of justice wouldn’t lose their lives in the line of duty.

Soon, the Law Society of Kenya, of which Willy was a member, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, representing Willy’s employer, hundreds of taxi drivers and bodaboda riders standing in for Mwenda and Muiruri, were all up in arms, unrelenting in their demand for justice. The state quickly complied and moved to investigate.

Four days later, Willy’s, Mwenda’s and Muiruri’s dead bodies were discovered in Ol-Donyo Sabuk River. All were stuffed in the kind of gunny sacks usually used to package agricultural produce. The autopsy revealed that the trio had been clobbered on their heads by a blunt object before being strangled. The killers had hit Willy the hardest; his skull had the severest fracture. Mwenda appeared to have been physically tortured the most, as if someone sought a confession from him. Muiruri, the taxi driver, seemed to have been collateral damage, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The game-changer in the Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri case arose from a most unlikely quarter. Peter Ngugi Kamau, a police informant whom preliminary investigations had placed inside the murder syndicate, unleashed a 21-page confession, detailing how the three men were abducted after leaving Mavoko Law Courts before being driven away in the vehicle of Senior Sergeant Leliman, the man accused of shooting Mwenda. Leliman was in charge of the Syokimau AP Camp, which is where he held the abductees in a cell. According to the confession, Willy, Mwenda and Muiruri were later driven to an open field where they were killed one after the other before their bodies were disposed. Other suspects in the murders were Sergeant Leonard Maina Mwangi, Corporal Stephen Chebulet and Constable Silvia Wanjiku Wanjohi. Their dramatic trial is still ongoing.

Questions have been asked as to why the police moved swiftly in the matter. Was it the Americans, or was it because the decision to kill was made by junior officers, or both? Does the level at which a decision to kill is made affect the nature and speed of investigations? For now, hope abounds that justice will be served.

‘‘My sense was that the police officers who committed the murders considered Willy a disposable small fish,’’ the lawyer told me, ‘‘thinking that they could kill him and his colleagues and that no one would raise a finger. They were mistaken. Lawyers and other human rights defenders saw the deaths as a wake-up call.’’

The next big hashtag campaign a couple of years later resulted in serious contestation. On 10 February 2019, #FindCarolineMwatha was the big fuss online. A founding member of the Dandora Social Justice Centre, Caroline Mwatha had disappeared four days earlier. Described by Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre as one of the kindest and most likable individuals she had ever met, Mwatha and her colleagues had received a series of death threats for their work documenting extrajudicial killings in Dandora, considered one of Nairobi’s hotspots.

‘‘They shared with me the threats they had received,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘after which I wrote emails to a number of organisations seeking support. Seeing that it was December 2018 and organisations were preparing to break for the holidays, there is a real possibility that some of those pleas went unheeded, or those concerned planned to act in the New Year. We evacuated a few individuals, with the majority retreating to their home villages.’’

A hardcore grassroots organiser, Mwatha was part of a ground-up human rights movement, where instead of waiting to write and release reports in air-conditioned offices, they operated at the very front lines, shielding disadvantaged communities from rampant police brutality. In her Dandora locale, Mwatha and her colleagues were investigating a number of extrajudicial killings, especially of young men killed in cold blood on the pretext of fighting crime. It was because of this work that trigger-happy policemen were slowing down.

‘‘It isn’t uncommon for well-known killer cops to issue public death threats to those working at social justice centres,’’ Wangui told me. ‘‘In Mathare, some of our colleagues can’t go to places such as Mlango Kubwa because the reigning killer cops in those areas have given them direct warnings. It isn’t child’s play.’’

After the hashtag trended for a few days, on February 11, activists met and decided to hold a protest the following day to put pressure on the state to either produce Mwatha, or give a progress report on their investigations, if any. The protest never materialised. That morning, news broke that Mwatha’s body was found at the City Mortuary. According to subsequent investigations, the police alleged that Mwatha had been brought to the facility after dying from bleeding at a clinic in Dandora, where she was procuring an abortion.

Through a series of media leaks, the police alleged that from their analysis of her phone records, Mwatha was having an extramarital affair which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, hence the abortion. In what was alleged to be Mwatha’s last communication with the man believed to be her secret lover – once again leaked to the press – the messages revealed a woman in distress.

Was someone concocting a predetermined narrative with the calculated media leaks?

‘‘We have never believed the abortion theory,’’ one of Mwatha’s colleagues who has since withdrawn from human rights work told me. ‘‘She was a powerhouse in Dandora and silencing her has had a chilling effect on everyone here. We have been asking ourselves, if they could kill Caroline, then who can’t they kill?’’

The autopsy, which was witnessed by leading members of civil society, revealed that Mwatha bled to death courtesy of a raptured uterus. However, the looming question the pathologist left for investigators was: Did Mwatha procure the botched abortion voluntarily, or was it done to her against her will – for her to bleed to death and for the abortion narrative to be used as a cover-up for murder? In the world of activism, it is common for perpetrators to employ such seemingly picture-perfect techniques in eliminating a target. It has been hard to convince Mwatha’s colleagues of the abortion theory. To them, it remains an assassination.

For now, human rights defenders keep watching their backs, hoping they won’t become a hashtag. A few others whose names couldn’t trend fell through the fissures of social media, slipping away quietly.

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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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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