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Area of Darkness? Media Frames of Northern Kenya

11 min read.

The Kenyan media has continuously pilloried the North through freeze-framing it as a region where nothing good can or does happen. In this first part of a three-part series, DALLE ABRAHAM examines the role the media continues to play in reinforcing lies and stereotypes about a much-maligned and misunderstood territory and its people.

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“The North is by far the largest of the seven kingdoms, and can fit the other six inside it – not that the others care. Cold and damp, that’s how the southerners see the North. But without the cold, a man cannot appreciate the fire in his hearth. Without the rain, a man cannot appreciate the roof over his head. Let the South have its sun, flowers and affectations, we Northerners have home.”John Snow, Game of Thrones.

Media coverage of Northern Kenya is an invisible and very destructive war. A quick analysis of this coverages reveals how the war is being fought. The focus of the story is similar: sometimes the story is of an enchanting landscape but an unruly people; other times it is of prevailing peace shattered by an underlying atavistic impulse; in other cases, it is how it “almost” attained modern ambition but was in flux because of tribal conflict. Stories of narrow escapes, unexplained and barbaric murders and massacres. Its only variant is the story of a hidden gem in an unruly world.

The narrative comes with its own conventions. Television feature stories are almost always apocalyptic and mysterious: a collage of skulls, crows, clouds, gunshots, parched earth, blood, carcasses, freshly dug graves, a mound of an old grave, a woman crying or a child dying. Their tone, the unsteady camera shots, a reporter seated in the front of a 4X4 land cruiser on a rough road, turning back to the camera in the back seat, feigning surprise, or sympathy, or a reporter emerging from behind a traditional hut or the 4X4 land cruiser. The reporter as commando, camera stand on shoulders, propped like an AK47 in sync with the theme of violence. The soundtrack of suspense and text in blood sets the tone of these feature TV documentaries.

Think about these titles: Desert of Death, Death in the Desert, Oasis of Death, Road of Death and Terror, Manyattas of Death, Death Merchants, Turkana: Living by the Gun, Sun and Guns, Marsabit: Where Guns Rule, Turkana Killings, Uwanja wa Maafa Turkana na Pokot Mashariki, Wajir Mourns, Bleeds and Burns, Mkongoto wa Bunduki, Inside the Killing Fields of Marsabit, The Kapedo Slaughter Field, The Killing Fields of Kapedo, Wajir, Marakwet, Valley of Death.

You can create new versions of this. Any takers? Desert of Terror? Terror and Death in the Desert? Njia ya Mauti? These have appeared on NTV, Citizen, BBC, the Guardian, KTN, Capital FM, Daily Nation, Standard, K24 and many other media houses. These are the titles of media feature stories over the last ten years covering state oppression, diseases, terrorism, ethnic conflict and resource competition in Northern Kenya. NGOs, government policies, comedic clichés and media frames have produced and reinforced a flattened image of Northern Kenya as a place of misery, rebels, guns, deaths, and deserts.

In Desert of Death, a KTN feature story on cancer, Dennis Onsarigo, one of Kenya’s leading investigative reporters, describes the landscape as “an amazing piece of art” with great touristic potential. Onsarigo reminds us that the people are constantly moving in search of water and pasture and rarely have the time to sample the beauty and splendour since something else is hunting them down. His first story in 2013 is titled THE INSIDE STORY: Desert of Death – The Mysterious Silent Killer in Mandera County, even though the coverage is of a village in Marsabit County.

***

In 2015, Miles Warde of the BBC did a podcast titled The Road of Terror and Death. Warde or the BBC borrowed this title with a slight iteration from a Kenyan reporter who in the podcast introduces us to the Isiolo-Moyale road.

“My name is Judy Kaberia, a reporter working with Capital FM. In 2012, I had a traumatic experience on this road. We call it the road of terror or the road of death, that’s how it felt, from every corner, you could smell death. There was a lot of noise and gunshots and at that time I started realising there was trouble, these are the bandits, we call them shiftas, and I said Oh My God…the shiftas are coming…very young energetic men …for me. I thought we were going to die…we will never get out of that place…there was no communication…you can’t call anybody…you can’t text anybody…..that place is very dry…very hot…very dusty…and very rocky…we were really moving very slowly and it was really scary, just praying that we don’t get a puncture because a puncture meant death! We came across a lorry and the driver of the lorry was dead and hanging to the ground…”

We first meet Judy Kaberia in her 2012 feature aired on Capital FM under the title Marsabit Road of Death and Terror. In the feature story, Judy says “Capital FM news is just lucky to have escaped the attack that lasted about 15 minutes”. She informs us that the 120 kilometers of untarmacked road between Merille and Marsabit was very rough and in a pathetic condition and that “a person walking was faster than the one driving”.

She speaks of meeting an Administration Police officer who told her that “in a single day, not less than two people are killed on that road”, which another local had informed her was a “death trap”. The officer and the nameless informant sounded so much like the Swahili-speaking passenger we meet in The Guardian who had told Paul Thoreau, “No, they don’t want your life – they want your shoes.”

In Desert of Death, a KTN feature story on cancer, Dennis Onsarigo, one of Kenya’s leading investigative reporters, describes the landscape as “an amazing piece of art” with great touristic potential. Onsarigo reminds us that the people are constantly moving in search of water and pasture and rarely have the time to sample the beauty and splendour since something else is hunting them down.

In the 2015 BBC podcast, they enact a somewhat familiar setting, a narration interspersed by Somali, Borana and Samburu women singing in the background. It is in this Northern scene that we meet Michael Kaloki, who had helped set up the trip for Miles Warde. We gather that Kaloki is an eccentric man with hobbies like ice carving. He speaks in the polished English often deployed by educated Kenyan city sophisticates. He references the changing vibes as one nears Isiolo and the waning perceptions of belonging. He likens Isiolo to outer space – “a town whereby you’ve reached the edge of…some have called it, maybe I am stretching it, but an edge of civilization in some way and you are moving on to an unknown world…”

When the two men, Kaloki and the white man Miles Warde, arrive in Isiolo, they get surrounded by “an interesting collection of people”. A man in the crowd asks: “What is the value of this information that you are taking from us as a marginalised community who have been under mistreatment for such a long time? What is the value of this to us?”

Kaloki, the ice carver, answers: “We want to show people what life is like in Isiolo. People always talk about Nairobi, people never come out to Isiolo, so we decided, let’s come out and hear the people of Isiolo”. (Kaloki’s good intentions are lost in the unoriginal title of the podcast.)

Something more lies in the cavalier tone that expresses the exaggerated lies of walking being faster than driving in this area, or of two people dying every day, or a car puncture leading to death. All of these stories have a familiar arc. A departure from this kind of misery-filled narrative does pop up occasionally, but even then these stories reiterate the same old clichés: an enchanting landscape of godly splendour, cue Lake Paradise, the salt gem of Chalbi, Mt. Ololokwe or the praises of a cruising road trip.

Or it is the promise of immense potential: LAPSSET and Northern Kenya as the future of Kenya; Northern Kenya as the land of culture. The narratives oscillate between extremes of negativity and of positivity. Old narratives packaged in a new case labelled “Use with Caution”. The positive vibe is cautionary: Beware that this wasn’t possible a few years ago, beware that this joy is temporary, is new, is possible only because of LAPSSET, or because the fighters have gone for a short break.

When the two men, Kaloki and the white man Miles Warde, arrive in Isiolo, they get surrounded by “an interesting collection of people”. A man in the crowd asks: “What is the value of this information that you are taking from us as a marginalised community who have been under mistreatment for such a long time? What is the value of this to us?”

Culture and the Environment and the story of triumph over FGM. Escape from early marriage is an appealing departure but its sentimentalism, its repeated tropes, its throwback feel, its revisionism, is still a confirmation of preconceived notions. There is nothing markedly different in any of these coverages; when the timelines are removed, it is hard to say when the featured events had happened.

The media portrays the North as a featureless place with a cartographic sameness. In her novel, Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kenya’s best contemporary writer, describes it as “…massive canvas of glowing, rocky, heated earth upon which anything could and did happen.” In this context, particularities seem unnecessary and often the media invents non-existent communities to populate the place as The Star did in July, 2019 by claiming that Marsabit is inhabited by amongst others, the “Gendile” and the “Rajuni” besides Gabra, Burji, Rendile, and Borana. Another non-existent community called “Bingi” is often copy-pasted from one site to another (here, and here). This invention is part of the “anything can happen” storyline. With this imagination, Mandera’s plight is projected as Wajir’s and Garissa’s fears are projected as Marsabit’s.

The cost of this violence

At the Pastoralist Leadership Summit held in Garissa in March 2019, Ali Korane, the Governor of Garissa County, stood up and spoke about how while Northern Kenya shared the threats of violent extremism with the rest of the country, for Northern Kenya there was also:

“A more serious concern of not only the real threats but also of perception. While the rest of Kenya only suffers when there is an attack, we (Northern Kenya) are always under pressure to fight perceptions of threat even where there is no insecurity. Anyone who hears about the North of this country will feel an element of fear that those areas are not safe and secure for investment, for travel, for tourism, for trade. We have these perceptions which haunt us day and night.”

Ali Roba, the Governor for Mandera County, was blunt with his disappointments.

“There are more people dying in Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret from other criminal activities than there are people dying in Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale, Mandera from terror- related activities but the same approach as applied to Northern Kenya is not being used. Proclamations of closing the border, removing all the teachers, asking all the doctors to leave never happens wherever terror attacks happens anywhere but it will only in Northern Kenya because of poor policies of government directed towards pastoral communities.”

This perceptual threat has been at work for a long time. In 2015, specialist doctors turned down job offers in Marsabit, citing insecurity, even when the county government told them, “We are ready to pay a salary of up to Sh500,000 and provide decent housing.” The then-Governor, Ukur Yatani, spoke about how “wrong perceptions about insecurity in Northern Kenya are to blame for the lack of interest”.

But these threats go further. The media simplification of stories on ethnic conflicts and their ignorance about who the players are and what the issues in contest are, has meant that reporters use simplified explanations that often favour their informants’ political needs.

Bilinda Straight, in her paper “Making sense of violence in the “Badlands” of Kenya” points out the effects of media effacements and media marginalisation that “contributes to what is effectively a war (however unintended), not on poverty, but on the poor and marginalized”. In this paper she discusses the media in relation to violence in Northern Kenya where “media representations tend to focus on cultural stereotypes that tacitly legitimate ongoing violence by explaining it away as timeless and cultural.” Bilinda points out features that wave away violence in Northern Kenya as routine, acceptable, dismissible, and forgettable.

***

In The Forgotten People, a 1999 Kenya Human Rights Commission report, various media misdemeanors were pointed out. Many examples were curated on how media houses and journalists intentionally twist the truth, how acronyms are muddled, how place names are misplaced, how names of people are frequently misspelled. An example from the Daily Nation’s “Watchman” column of 26 July 1999 illustrates this.

“And still on matters media, Sam Akhwale points out the following variations on the name of our Foreign Minister, all of which have appeared at some time or another: Boyana Godana, Boyana Gonada, Bonaya Gonada, Bonada Goyana, Bonana Godaya, Boyada Gonana, Bodaye Gonaria, Bodana Gonaya, Bodana Goyana, Bonada Gonaya, Bonaiia Goyada. Remember colleagues everywhere, it’s Bonaya Godana.”

The report concludes that these inexcusable errors “indicate not only unfamiliarity with the areas but also disinterest, if not downright contempt”.

This perceptual threat has been at work for a long time. In 2015, specialist doctors turned down job offers in Marsabit, citing insecurity, even when the county government told them, “We are ready to pay a salary of up to Sh500,000 and provide decent housing.”

If in the 1990s poor transport and communication networks were accepted as passable excuses, now, with fairly developed infrastructure, one can call people on the ground and even google to confirm details about places, names and concrete details. The persistence of the same mistakes indicates disinterest and deliberate simplification. All along there has been something more at play; disinterest and contempt are definitely in the mix, but the region has been flattened out and its complexity reduced.

***

The foundation of this narrative lies in the British colonial era in Kenya. The British had fenced off the Northern Frontier District (NFD) and sat on it with no concrete vision of what they wanted. Gunther Schlee, in his book Identities on the Move, writes that the British wanted nothing “…but they did not want to leave this nothing to anybody else”.

NFD, which comprised six districts, was conceived as a buffer zone against Emperor Menelik’s expansionism and later to fascist Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. NFD kept hostile imperial powers “at a distance of a few hundred miles of semi-desert away from the White Highlands, the Brooke Bond tea plantations and the Uganda railway”.

In post-colonial Kenya, NFD has grown beyond terra incognita into a mysterious place which Parselelo Kantai, in a book review for Chimurenga Chronic, says is “… an outer darkness that generates the ultimate fear: absolute alienation.”

The North has never escaped nor transcended this otherness. A permanent narrative has emerged over the years to keep it where it was. In school texts, the Arabic names beloved by the Muslim Northerners became synonymous with various misdemeanors that Kenyan children were taught to avoid. “These people, we were taught from the earliest days of primary school, were backward, primitive,” writes Kantai.

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the country who had dismissed the residents as “herders by day and shifta by night” had authorised the military to unleash terror to tame the unruly people. Military operations defined Northern Kenya’s relationship with the state’s core. The post-colonial state gave carte blanche powers to rogue officers who supervised mass murders through state-ordained military operations. They gunned down camels, raped women and forced “villagilisation” during the anti-shifta operations. Pastoral nomadism, the engine of the region’s economy, was curtailed. The vestiges of this plunder continues to haunt places like Isiolo where slums – Bulas – around the urban centre house stories of destitution.

*** 

The Kenyan media, it seems from these stories, do not have any moral regrets. Such media practices as fidelity to authenticity, corroborations, timing, and context are disregarded with no professional consequences. The only fidelity they uphold is to the government and to the narrative. The combined assault on the already battered image of the North continues unabated.

Even where communication has improved and roads have “opened up” hitherto unreachable areas like Moyale and Marsabit, the narrative persists, emerging again and again from the remission it occasional sinks into. Conflicts are seasons of rehashing clichés, of harvesting stereotypes, a season that gives one an opportunity to engrave the narrative, adding a personal voice to a script that is passed from one hand to another.

These stories are repeatable props necessary to illustrate and embellish officialdom. These are the justifications to continue with draconian ways to continue vetting Northerners, to continue making it impossibly hard for Northern Kenya to progress in the country Kenya. Fodder that reduces people to second-hand subjects and often objects of state pity. The region is a canvas devoid of complexity, events are inflated out of proportion in keeping with the narrative sustaining the tradition.

In post-colonial Kenya, NFD has grown beyond terra incognita into a mysterious place which Parselelo Kantai, in a book review for Chimurenga Chronic, says is “… an outer darkness that generates the ultimate fear: absolute alienation.”

The new post-colonial elite have also inherited the colonialists’ fear about the place. A conflicting complexity has led to the adoption of a meta-narrative that, according to Emery Roe “…is, in short, the candidate for a new policy narrative that underwrites and stabilizes the assumptions for decision making on an issue whose current policy narratives are so conflicting as to paralyze decision making.”

Sessional Paper No. 10 was thus adopted as a safe gamble that allowed for Northern Kenya to be branded the land of the shifta where adverse government policy and propaganda were marshalled to justify the state’s oppressive marginalisation of the people. These ideas were sold on radios and in National Assembly chambers. These ideas have become the default and attendant discourse on Northern Kenya.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan media has continuously pilloried the North through freeze-framing it as a region where nothing good can or does happen.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Politics

Were the Kariobangi North Evictions Legal or Illegal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The self-help group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Orders from above”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power

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

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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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