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Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness

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No Roses from My Mouth, Stella Nyanzi’s collection of poetry that was written in prison, and which has won awards, is a deliberately provocative – and apt – response to a dictatorial regime that fails to see the folly of imprisoning writers.

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Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness
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The drama of picking up the book would have been wholly farcical were the circumstances not surreal enough already.

The ridiculousness of furtive telephone calls in which names were neither asked nor given, the long, curving drive that skirted the city, suspicion as to why the boda knocked the car, and then arriving at the drop-off point only to be told the delivery man would not make it, underlined just how psychologically precarious it is to be in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda.

It was bound to be that way the day Stella Nyanzi was sent to prison in 2018. The activist and scholar had opened what amounted to a second front in the fight against the Museveni dictatorship. The means the way such a war is fought is rarely visible, so that while the placid surface of a society going about its quotidian slog remains even, nerves are getting chewed thin underneath. Along with Bobi Wine, one a poet, the other a singer, both of them versifiers, Nyanzi has deployed weapons and tactics dictators are wholly unprepared for:

The reaction of the state apparatus when it moves in on creatives is to always get it wrong. It may have looked like victory to the goonery when Stella Nyanzi was jailed nearly two years ago. But the result has been an Oxfam and PEN International award, and counting. This has been quickly followed by a poetry collection that will now underpin Nyanzi’s repute and bring to all the sheer courage of this woman. As with censorship of books, the argument that not imprisoning writers is the best way to silence them never gets through the collective thick skull of tyranny.

And yet the forceful Nyanzi had made it impossible for Mr. Museveni to not act. Her provocation – for it was, and Nyanzi proudly owns it – was delivered in such terms that Mr. Museveni was doomed to respond, even though he may have been aware of the folly of doing so. How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand. But the history of Big Man-badly- mauled-by-activist woman is a long one. The late Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, might have heeded wise counsel and kept clear of Wangari Maathai. But as with Nyanzi, Maathai too had set her challenge in terms that cornered the late Moi into attacking her. The day he laid hands on her was the day she won.

The diatribe Nyanzi aimed at Mr. Museveni more than found its mark; it paralysed the warmonger who is so used to operating from the outer limits of decency (and being feted for it, by no less than the World Bank), that the bounds of propriety are lost on him, a man who set fire to four, perhaps five, countries, killing millions of Africans and comprehensively corrupting Uganda. He stepped on everyone.

How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand.

He stepped on Stella Nyanzi. Like the feisty girls highschool boys live in fear of, Nyanzi has shrieked out in pain. Here, she describes graphically where she has been touched in language so stark that her attacker remains disoriented. Mr. Museveni has since stumbled from one vaguary to another, like a man searching for firm ground. He led an absurd anti-corruption walk of shameless self-mockery. He went on an aimless self-promoting trek retracing his bush war days, returning to the mythical ground of his self-declared “liberation” war, in what can only be a para-Freudian return to a time when he did believe in something. It was the subconscious speaking louder than the man could ever admit – that he has led a life of hypocrisy. Since Nyanzi spoke, we who pay attention have noticed declining changes in Museveni. There is no going back for him.

And so the irony that a man who in the 1990s used the feminist cause to build an impregnable bulwark of political support has been taken down by a feminist. We can only imagine what went on in Mr. Museveni’s mind when Nyanzi used the Luganda words “lutako” and “butako” to describe him. International media picked and amplified the translation: The Ugandan president had been called a pair of buttocks

“If you put your hands in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble,” Mr. Museveni said in the heat of election campaigns in 2015. He had dangled a bawdy, self-assured illusion of himself. He was the first to use an obscenity against himself, a “crime” for which he still walks freely. But he had left the scatological door wide open and Nyanzi did not need a second invitation.

And so here we are. A plummet from the heights of the Marxist speechifying of the 1980s, when he had been a frequent guest of Kim iI-Sung in Pyongyang, to the whiplash, road-to-Damascus conversion and pre-eminent neoliberal economic mandarin of the 1990s, a shift done without missing a beat (so we doubt how much he had understood of either) as though Karl Marx’s middle name had all along been Hayek. The Museveni regime had at last hit a literal bottom:

“Means of production”, “macro-economics”, “leveraging comparative advantage”, “stabilising the economic base” – words (for they had really been mere words) that had one time been stock-in-trade of clever revolutionaries, had been replaced by “anuses and “thick thighs”, “vaginas” and “buttocks”, the classic declining narrative of cinema that opens with high-end screenings but find that pornography sells more tickets.

This then was where things Ugandan had ground

State reaction to Nyanzi has been a stumble from botched inelegance to overcooked crudity. Two charges – cyber-harassment and disturbing the peace of the president – were brought against her. The double charge was the judicial fishing expedition to guarantee a conviction. There had been an earlier attempt at stifling Nyanzi via the coarse chicanery of a mental illness test, which we can only assume would have been rigged and would have seen her locked up to rot in a mental asylum.

The Directorate of Public Prosecution, whose head at the time has since been elevated to a judicial bench, further besmirched the reputation of an office not wanting for infamy by going ahead with that framing, and then not stopping there.

That test never went ahead. They attempted another ruse. They offered bail, that special form of clemency within the gift of state power. Nyanzi saw through this. Acceptance of the offer of bail would mute the campaign, show that the state had been just all the while.

Makerere University, a tragic shambles under its current vice chancellor, was pressured to dismiss her from her job (we writers have all gone through employers who are forced to let us go). Vice Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe, a man put there to make the university look stupid, terribly botched the dismissal – not that anything other than botched can be possible with Mrs. Museveni as Minister of Education.

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

The tragic disconnect is how tyrannical state goonery never understands how writers see the world. Judges and prosecutors (judicial guinea fowl with eyes firmly stitched to their legalistic navels) see prison as the ultimate tool of ostracism, for is it not proof of guilt that you are locked up?

And so with alacrity they paid for Nyanzi’s 18-month writing retreat by sending her to prison. As a bonus, they handed this creative research scholar thousands of captive respondents via which to study Uganda. Might the advisory council to Mr. Museveni, creaking under its own dead weight, have pointed out to him the folly of putting writers in prison and how that has always turned out?

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

Prison has at last given us and Nyanzi what had always been missing – a substantial enough work from which to see her outside of the high voltage media filter. Had there ever been doubt about her intentions, that has now vanished, and Nyanzi joins a stellar orbit of writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ken Sarowiwa, Jack Mapanje, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose voices were amplified.

Over the course of the past year, Stella Nyanzi smuggled dozens of poems out of prison. As she says in the book, dozens others were confiscated by prison officials, and presumably destroyed. Reading this collection comes with the urgent knowledge that there are bound to be consequences for Nyanzi and her colleagues.

No Roses from my Mouth has that rough and ready samizdat feel. The urgency to get it out was such that the conventions of publishing, the page-setting, the mulling over cover design, was not possible. Here and there, text overruns page, the guillotine chops words midway. There is no table of contents, and the wine-coloured cover feels more like a stain.

All of which do not matter.

Of those that contrived to sentence her to a mental asylum, Nyanzi says, via the poem, They Must be Schizophrenic: 

They want me to upbraid the
Dictator with sweet Apples,
To rebuke him with sweetened
Milk and honey,
To reproach him with a thick
Slice of red velvet cake.

No! In the eponymous poem, No Roses From my Mouth, the last stanza sets the terms of this front:

There will be no orgasm
Coming from my mouth
Who cares about pleasure during war?
Instead there is venom and acid

The fighting tone defines the work, as it defines the woman, through 159 poems, the urgency ranging across insights, observations, a haiku, a call to arms. We have not had a book like this in this region. It is hard to think of another writer doing what Nyanzi is doing. Her language is direct. It is more than direct. It long broke the boundaries of conventional politesse and set as its starting point the far reaches of the acceptable, and then it goes beyond that.

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers. It is not uncommon. We don’t hear too much of it because the people at whom it is often aimed, being aged men in power, rarely dare push their way to the point that this is called for.

When an elderly woman strips naked or uses obscenities, we do not ask if she is mad. We turn to the old man and say, “See what you have done? Mr. Museveni, have you no shame that now women have to strip naked?”

Nyanzi’s poetry is that. It is textual stripping, textual ritual shaming for an old man whose heedless actions threaten to destroy society. This is how we must read this book.

Thus the heavy sexual allusions, the references to castration in Missing Jewels, the provocative threat to “bitch-slap” the “tyrant” in He Cries at Mere Poetry. These are verse equivalents of clothes coming off before the masses, reading in public as a mother declares that the man in power has taken everything society has, so what is left to cover up? What does decency mean when the fount of honour is dishonourable?

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers.

But naughtiness too. Who Pinched My Buttocks? is arguably the funniest poem here. Nyanzi’s narrative skill is plain to see. A poem that opens as a plaintive call for understanding, Who Pinched my Buttocks? sets off rhetorically, asking for understanding, to each her own, saying Let me do my bit to the best of my ability/Do your bit, too, as well as you can. Hence, those who speak diplomatically should not stop those who sing ragga. The religious must not drive out the demons of nude protestors. So it goes on, with calls to writers of legislation not to stymie the writers of tweets and Facebook. Fair enough. Except, that opening line was suspended and reconnects to the final lines thus…But let me grow my finger nail that pinch/When my time comes I want to be effective/The dictator will say, “Who pinched my buttocks?”

It is the tone with which the collection opens, the clarion call to action of A Plea for Decongestion. (Sure enough, four verses in, the F-word appears). Nyanzi proceeds to describe how prisoners sleep packed like sardines as…

My thighs pressed hard onto someone’s arse
My arse pressed hard onto another’s thighs
This sequence of adult thighs pressing adult arse
Is repeated in two rows of 30 women each

Nyanzi may be in prison, but her sense of humour is sharp at the ending of this poem:

If fighters of sodomy in Uganda cared at all
They would start by decongesting the prison

We will be led down this path only for sombreness to end in jest, again and again. And we have to be thankful for it.

The collection is a totality of prison life. News arrives to Nyanzi that Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina has died. She says in Is Binya Really Dead?:

Binya broke hard ground at a difficult time!
Binya took the bull by the horns
And inspired me with boldness.
Binya inseminated my mind. 

The closing sections of the collection are more personal and introspective. They are about Nyanzi’s family life. The lowest moments do come as she wonders in No Padlock on Your Loin whether her marriage will survive prison. Thoughts about her children come close to breaking her. She pulls up and says in How to Visit Prison that visitors to prison must not come with their tears because prisoners have trouble enough. Break down and cry after the visit is done.

It is painful to read Nyanzi retell how she lost her unborn child due to negligence by prison staff.

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula. These could be a separate collection by themselves. Though they are windows into the locked-away world of incarceration, they are really insights into the world outside. We count here what values society considers acceptable by examining the obverse. Solitary souls in prison, plucked clean off the margins of society from whence they had fought to survive, the mangos hawked by the roadside to feed the 8-month-old baby who must now survive six months motherless because the mother has been locked away, the young woman who needed just that stick of weed, just the stick from inside prison. The androgynous prisoner in Intersex in Prison, personalities viewed via versfication, poetry that captures snatches and glimpses of their being. It is their souls we feel, and what we feel lies heavy upon us.

And then the realisation dawns: But is this not what it is all about? Nyanzi’s struggle, lest we forget, began with the backtracking of the promise by Mr. Museveni during the election campaign of 2015/2016 to provide sanitary pads to all school girls if elected president. Once duly declared the winner, he sent his wife, who had been elevated to Minister of Education, to say that there was no money for the promised pads. Hence the fiery Facebook post for which Nyanzi is in prison. We must ask how many women might not be in prison had their education not been interrupted by menstrual cycles?

That is the asking price here. It is the stiff penalty. If Nyanzi’s language ensures that we don’t casually look away from class, ethnic and gender violence, how do we then address a female Minister of Education who says there will be no pads for young girls under her watch? Which is the obscenity – the language of Nyanzi or Mrs. Museveni’s sentencing into poverty and abuse millions of school girls?

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula.

The furore surrounding Nyanzi’s work has nearly succeeded in obscuring her poetry, how it is conceived, how it works. The judge that sentenced her declared that it was not poetry. And although Nyanzi responds emphatically to this in Your Aesthetic Standards (a title surely missing an expletive) with Pooh to your bourgeois snobbery!/Your aesthetic what-what again? We have now come close enough to Nyanzi’s mind as a writer to know that she need not to have mentioned “standards”. Arguing over literariness is a cat-and-mouse game we can play in this collection, but we would be missing something more important.

That her writing is a radical, political position is underscored by the poem, Your Aesthetic Standards, where she writes, of her writing:

Bitch, I penned my pieces on the prison floors.
My sounding boards were suspected vagabonds

…..

Druggies and junkies offered some rhymes

….

Convicts of common nuisance passed the meter
Sex workers and fraudsters approved lines.
Impersonators and thieves approved lines.
Suspects of murder and assault gave symbols
Suspects of manslaughter advised on ideas
Political prisoners cried at some stanzas
And just for size, Nyanzi adds
Prison wardresses confiscated some poems.

Far from gratuitous iconoclasm, Nyanzi’s ethos is a time-honoured tradition of radical criticism, which is also at the very heart of Marxist thought, of historical materialism. Here, the human body, as the material, is posited as the central platform upon which history is generated. Stripped to its essential, the human body is the active reagent of politics and economics, from black legs, arms, torsos and heads (needed together and functioning) being sold into slavery to generate the capital in Western capitalism, it is the parts of the human body called upon to operate tools, fingers that pick cotton, the human body that is targeted as the primary digestive tool and fat storage for the fast food empire, the feet that are covered by Clarke’s shoes, legs, buttocks and arms and shoulders that Vuitton and Hugo Boss target.

The colour of the skin you wear will, in America and England, determine whether the police pull that trigger or not.

The human body is the generator and archive of culture, what we do with the hair on top of it, which bits of flesh are trimmed, shaved and cut off depending on gender and religious persuasion. The body of Christ, for Christians, is the ecumenicalism that binds the religion together.

The human body is power. Entire civilisations convulse at the showing of an ankle, shoulders, breasts. Priests and judges police the human body more than they police anything else. When a tyrant wants to show who is boss, it is the eyes and nostrils at which tear gas is aimed, the head is for the baton, wrists and ankles for manacles, the heart for the bullet of the firing squad.

The body carries everywhere it goes, from temple to a football game, a litany of “unmentionables”. Breaking the command of priests and judges (the perennial handmaidens of dictators) by baring some parts while covering others at once dissolves their source of power.

In Nyanzi’s collection, the body plays the vital role of offering insight into society. There is the transexual with both male and female genitals whose elusive category erases gendered response: Does he/she have power or not? The state must break the body to acquire power, hence, the prisoners must sit on the floor, stooped, kneeling before the upright standing guards.

Nyanzi returns us to the basics, disavowing metaphysics (the acceptable politics of “beyond the body”) that can and often comes riddled with falsehoods. A return to the body is, in political terms, a handing of power back to the masses – the working, labouring “body” of society, away from the ruling “head”.

A return to the body is a threat to the ruling ethos, for once covered up and policed, those that decide what we wear, which parts we cover up, or which words we can use, can misreport to us what the body says – which is what culture and law and “civilisation” more or less add up to. A return to the body is insisting on seeing the exhibits for ourselves, to judge if what we are being told about human society is accurate or not.


No Roses from My Mouth is published by Ubuntu Reading Group, with an introduction by the writers and activists, Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. It can also be purchased on Kindle.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

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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Were the Kariobangi North Evictions Legal or Illegal?
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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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