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The Miraa Route: How a Road Changed Marsabit’s Fortunes

11 min read.

To trace the history of the transport of a single commodity like miraa into Marsabit is to watch a slow and organic change in the market, in social and economic dynamics, and in the culture of the people. 

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The Miraa Route: How a Road Changed Marsabit’s Fortunes
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For the people of Northern Kenya, the center-periphery dichotomy and its attendant consequences is not a mere framework but rather a lived reality that is burned into their collective consciousness. Their othering and un-belonging continue to animate and mediate their negotiation with the rest of Kenya. It is not uncommon for someone from Northern Kenya to say he is traveling to Kenya when visiting other parts of Kenya, or inquiring when someone visits from other parts of Kenya, “How is Kenya?”

Their sense of un-belonging is magnified by the hierarchy of citizenship imposed on them, by both policy and entrenched official attitude; where they are citizens, but terms and conditions apply. As “Contingency Citizens”, the terms and conditions are always mediated by the disproportionate power asymmetry in relation to the state, which inevitably induces precarity. The state is not, however, the only institution that sees them as contingent citizens; even other Kenyans see them in a similar way.

This state of affairs has a rich historical antecedent beginning from the colonial era but has been deepened by the post-independence administrations. The colonial government saw little economic utility of investing in the region, a trend post-independence governments followed. But that is changing and with it the social-economic reality of communities.

Development and its discontents

One of the central milestones to that change is the completion of the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road, which until now had been a sore reference point for the intergenerational sense of marginalisation the community harbours. The road has made it easier for people and goods from Marsabit to reach the rest of Kenya, and for other Kenyans to also easily get to Marsabit. But with it comes inevitable friction.

The decades-long failure to tarmac the Moyale-Marsabit-Isiolo road was seen as the irreducible sum total of the country’s imagination of Marsabit and the policies that flowed from it. Conversely, the now tarmacked road is seen as a symbol of development. At the immediate level, the road has made travel to and from southern Kenya practically much easier and faster. But at a deeper level, it has also induced a sense of belonging – a sense of Kenyan-ness, of “We are all Kenyans and deserving of the development opportunities that accrue from being Kenyan.”

At face value, development is concrete and an unambiguously positive thing. In fact, when the people of Northern Kenya complain about marginalisation, they say the state has ignored their development needs. However, development is not a straightforward process; it is complicated and at times a source of contention.

The decades-long failure to tarmac the Moyale-Marsabit-Isiolo road was seen as the irreducible sum total of the country’s imagination of Marsabit and the policies that flowed from it.

One such moment came in 2014 when a group of greengrocers and market traders, most of them women, protested in Marsabit over what they termed the “unfair invasion” of Marsabit market by vegetable farmers from the neighbouring areas of Meru and Timau. According to the market traders, most of them women “mama mboga” farmers who supplied them with vegetables at wholesale prices in Meru were now selling the same supplies to Marsabit customers from the backs of their lorries at retail prices. The local branch of the Chamber of Commerce also raised alarm over what they termed an unfair competition from hawkers.

The women wanted the Marsabit County Government to regulate the “outsiders” doing business in Marsabit County. Unbeknownst to them, they were reproducing the same Us vs Them pathologies they had decried in the past. Ideally, development represented by the tarmacking of the road was meant to allow free movement of goods and eventually bring people together.

Paradoxically, in this case, these market women felt that development was disrupting the status quo. Before this incident, the people of Marsabit had enjoyed a symbiotic trading relationship with the people from Meru. Meru has supplied Marsabit with vegetables for decades, and Marsabit has bought the mild-stimulant miraa leaf from Meru for decades.

The mama mboga incident is not an isolated situation but part of an emerging paradox of development versus social harmony in Marsabit following the tarmacking of the Marsabit-Isiolo road.The movement of people and goods is at the centre of this paradox.

A second incidence was witnessed in 2019 when the newly established transport Sacco “MEISO” (Meru and Isiolo transporters) engaged in a physical altercation with Nanyuki Cabs, which was a more experienced transport Sacco with more employees and 14-seater Nissan vans. The local grievance was that Nanyuki Cabs had a wider reach and had denied MEISO space in Nanyuki. The fear that such players had a competitive advantage over local, inexperienced transport service providers has led to control over who does what and how. The same is witnessed in how Crown Bus, which has a countrywide reach, was limited by the local bus companies to operate only two of its buses on the Nairobi-Moyale route.

Lorries, cows and miraa

The distance between Marsabit and Isiolo is 258 kilometers (160 miles). The dry, hot and endlessly picturesque landscape is dominated by acacia trees, acres and acres of land and livestock grazing in the savannah.

Until the Marsabit-Isiolo road was tarmacked, the only means of travel from Marsabit to Nairobi was to, on occasion, catch a lift with Government of Kenya (GK) 110 Land Rovers or lorries transporting livestock to Nairobi and bringing back consumer goods to Marsabit. The Land Rovers’ departure times from Marsabit were kept top secret; drivers kept the dates and times like state secrets as there were few of them and many customers. Unless you worked for the government or knew someone who did, chances are you would not find out.

There were no designated public transport vehicles. The few companies that tried their luck at operating public transport buses eventually gave up because of the inordinate running costs involved due in part to the unforgiving terrain.

Lorries were the other option. They had no designated departure time and embarkation point – they departed from anywhere if they had enough livestock, their primary “passengers”. This left travelers at the mercy of the lorry drivers, turning them and their turnboys into arguably some of the most powerful people in the area. They determined the return to school days, which day people could travel to attend interviews, graduations etc. They wielded this power with elaborate abandon.  It was not uncommon for the lorries to leave passengers by the wayside when they would disembark for bathroom breaks or to buy something to eat. They went about their business with a degree of gleeful terror, simply because they could.

Until the Marsabit-Isiolo road was tarmacked, the only means of travel from Marsabit to Nairobi was to, on occasion, catch a lift with Government of Kenya (GK) 110 Land Rovers or lorries transporting livestock to Nairobi and bringing back consumer goods to Marsabit.

It is not as if traveling on top of a lorry was some luxurious treat; it was, in fact, an extreme sport. Perched on top, one was exposed to the elements – heat, cold or rain – and had to be aware of acacia thorns pricking their faces, or falling off as the lorries were jolted by the potholes, or in certain cases losing a hat due to the strong winds. That lorry ride demanded one to be tough because of what we used to call korogeshen, a corruption of corrugation, or in some cases, or fall onto the livestock.

On the return trip, lorries would bring miraa, the mild stimulant plant grown in the Nyambene Hills by the Tigania and Igembe sub-groups of the Meru, and chewed mostly by men from Northern and coastal Kenya.

Unlike cows, miraa (also known as khat) is perishable, and therefore it has to be transported when the temperature is low, which means mostly at night. This remains the case to date. To be able to stay up late and drive, lorry drivers and the turnboys would something to keep them up at night. This made the drivers and the miraa traders, mostly women, strike a mutual alliance, and a powerful one at that. There was a period in Marsabit and Moyale when the miraa traders and lorry drivers were considered the trendiest people. Miraa traders got the best seats in the lorry. (Back then, riding with a shotgun was considered classy.) The drivers and the turnboys got the best miraa cut, of course for free. If you ever wanted to invite the wrath of the driver, you’d mess around with the miraa.

Nothing exemplifies people of means even in the middle of nowhere than the two small towns between Marsabit and Isiolo – Merile and Laisamis. Because of the time the lorries would leave Marsabit, one had to get lunch or supper either in Laisamis or Merille. The food here primarily involved chapo-karanga (chapati and fried meat). The best bit of chapo-karaga was mainly reserved for the drivers and mama miraa. Before mobile phones came, hotel owners would rely on instinct to keep food for the drivers and mama miraa. (Now they call ahead to place their orders.)

Before social media and mobile phones, miraa journeys from Meru were tracked with an obsessive keenness in Marsabit. Although the lorries did not keep to specific schedules, people in Marsabit waiting for them would get the signal passed by word of mouth when a lorry left Isiolo and when it was about to arrive in Marsabit. When miraa would arrive in Marsabit, most often in the evening, certain parts of the town came to a standstill. But the tarmacking of the road has made the lorry drivers jobless and with this, small towns like Merille and Laisamis are collapsing due to lack of trade.

Miraa and Marsabit

To trace the history of the transport of a single commodity like miraa into Marsabit is to watch a slow and organic change in the market, in social and economic dynamics, and in the culture of the people.

In the 1960s, when colonial policy still regarded the region as a closed district, miraa used to arrive in Marsabit by plane. Local lore mentions Alex, a Caucasian pilot, who used to land twice or thrice a week with the town’s miraa supply before proceeding to neighboring towns, such as Moyale.

At the time, one required a permit from the colonial administration to chew miraa, but even with a permit, men went out of town in their different age groups to chew together. Later, women had to give convincing reasons why they should be allowed to sell miraa. This restriction lasted into the early years of the post-independence era, but was lifted in what a historian sees as a politically convenient move by the Jomo Kenyatta government: miraa was a diversionary tool to “relax” “shifta” fighters and the pro-secessionist agitators.

By the 1970s, miraa had enough consumers to allow a few businessmen to invest in its transport via “short chassis” Land Cruisers and lorries doing regular trips to the town. However, such transport was still quite slow for a perishable commodity.

Inadvertently, new players were emerging. Women were becoming key players, and with their involvement new needs were emerging. The transport of miraa, which was primarily through lorries and Land Cruisers, remained the preserve of local businessmen who owned lorries and Land Cruisers. The lorry owners, lorry drivers’ popularity and their dominance in the transport scene persisted through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. If transport and sourcing was men’s preserve, women emerged as principal players in the miraa supply and distribution scene.

While miraa in Marsabit was predominantly from Meru, a new dynamic emerged in 2000. Local Marsabit farmers started growing miraa in the place of maize and beans due to shifts in rainfall patterns. But this local supply hardly satisfied the demands that had expanded from the town centre to the lowlands of North Horr and the Rendile lands.

Some of the large-scale infrastructure projects launched courtesy of President Mwai Kibaki’s Vision 2030 programme, including Isiolo International Airport, were designed with the aim of transforming the meat and miraa market. The 3-billion-shilling airport at Isiolo is principally aimed to transport miraa from neighbouring Meru County to the Horn of Africa and meat exports from the Northern lands.

But it’s not the airport but rather the Marsabit-Isiolo road that is upending the miraa ecosystem. The tarmacking of Isiolo-Moyale Road in the 2010s heralded a new market supply dynamics: regular buses supplanted lorries, which significantly reduced the time spent on the road. The ripple effect from this came with dire impacts on many established businesses.

While miraa in Marsabit was predominantly from Meru, a new dynamic emerged in 2000. Local Marsabit farmers started growing miraa in the place of maize and beans due to shifts in rainfall patterns.

When the new road was completed, an earlier surprise was the infamous miraa transporting Toyota Hilux from Meru loaded to the hilt with miraa en route through Nairobi to Wajir and Mandera that changed its route and passed through Marsabit to Wajir. Even though this heralded a new era for miraa distribution for other regions, it was the first sign that there were changes coming to the miraa market in Marsabit.

The region’s miraa market dynamic was intractably altered; bigger political changes in the Horn of Africa countries started manifesting around this commodity. Whereas the type of miraa that used to arrive in Marsabit in the 60s on the plane piloted by Alex was Alelee, or Kangeta (expensive and slow withering) lucrative markets were opening up, with Alelee being entirely a reserve of a new wealthy market in Nairobi and in Somalia and Kenyan exports to the neighboring state constituting numerous daily flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi.

The type of miraa that used to arrive in Marsabit in those earlier years now found a new market elsewhere and is currently sold in Nairobi for upwards of 3,000 shillings.

The road which links Kenya to Ethiopia has also meant that produce and products from Ethiopia easily find their way to the market in Marsabit. Miraa (Gafurr) from Ethiopia also supplements the local produce to meet the demands within the town, especially during the dry season.

With each change discernible in a decade, another equal change was becoming manifest in the region. A more sedentary population came into existence, and pastoral nomadism was ditched as schools, churches, hospitals, government services were concentrated around the newly emerging towns.

Jirma, women and cultural shifts 

By its very nature, of course, a great deal of it is a function of making a virtue out of necessity. Pastoralism as a lifestyle tends to be austere. Chewing miraa is almost a luxury undertaking, although even within it, there are degrees. The shift in the political economy of the region has seen the pastoralist community’s shift from pastoralism to sedentary lifestyles.

This has been accompanied by women breaking barriers, with some becoming miraa vendors. The miraa- chewing culture has evolved quite dramatically, from the consumption of miraa at the vendor’s house in the 1960s through to the 1990s, to women selling miraa from an upturned carton at various spots in the town in the late 1990s to early 2000s, to the emergence of popular farms that provide fresh miraa to new chewing shops and bases where mostly single women sell tea, coffee, peanuts, Big Gs and miraa and provide the right atmosphere that fuels “handass” – the miraa high.

The road which links Kenya to Ethiopia has also meant that produce and products from Ethiopia easily find their way to the market in Marsabit. Miraa (Gafurr) from Ethiopia also supplements the local produce to meet the demands within the town, especially during the dry season.

In 2019, miraa supply and even retail had shifted from women to become a man’s industry. Cartons of a cheap miraa, Mogoka, now started arriving in the town by 11am. Portioned in small combinations of 100 shillings, Mogoka has found a younger, poorer and restless consumer base among the unemployed youth. About 200kgs of Mogoka arrives in the town every day in perforated cartons.

No one captures their trials and tribulations better than Abdullahi Jirma, the “Elvis Presley” of Borana Music. Mirga bitaa lalaann/Wann benni khess jiru/tahn irra namm gaha yathi namm huqissu/ fin akan akan ta ilme tenna thinnu. “If one looks to the east and to the west/ and regards people’s existence/ from this comes thoughts that waste one away/this kind of existence should not be for our children.

Jirma’s effortless lyricism shines through all his works and he has also become a cultural touchstone, especially in miraa “bases”, with his songs becoming the soundtrack during chewing sessions. While some marvel at the depth of his storytelling, unbeknownst to them they are the target of his incisive commentary. Despite being far removed in age from this generation, Jirma’s songs still capture the present cultural zeitgeist; the promise and peril of the rural-urban cultural shift, especially of youngsters who move to major cities to be club-wielding night guards, locally known as Kenya Rungu.

Jirma also speaks about the perishing of livestock, the allure of city freedom, new expenses in the form of school fees for children and spousal neglect that has come with this as women took to the towns to venture into small trade.

The grooves of the old lifestyle were completely worn out in those six decades between the 1960s and 2019, which for most Northern Kenya towns is the average lifespan. Cultural demands, changing sources of livelihoods and the tone of the muezzin’s adhan tossed women between them and they adapted accordingly because these demands were slower and discernible and in the longer arc of history a knowable thing.

Wherever transport and supply change direction so do the players. The new social trajectories are also forged as the new replaces the old.

In Kenya, the framing of transition in the development arena has changed from the ubiquitous “maendeleo” to acquire more sophistry, a transition from an “analogue” state to a “digital” status. In Marsabit, the consuming of Mogoka from Embu is the new digital, with a certain type of Mogoka even branded as Mogoka Digital. With this change, development isn’t the desirable concept of Moi’s famous rhetoric, “na hiyo ni maendeleo”, but a more sophisticated system.

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Dalle Abraham (@Dalle22) is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya. Abdullahi Boru Halakhe (@Qulshtm) is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.

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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