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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Saba Saba at 30 and signs some things have changed

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Nearly 24 million of us were not yet born when thousands took to the streets to demand for human rights, democracy and an end to the one-party-state on July 7, 1990. It is widely regarded as one of the most significant constitutional moments in our history. Celebrating the moment thirty years on, it is worth asking ourselves how much Kenya has changed since and what are the implications for amending the constitution on its’ tenth birthday?

The uprising lasted for more than three days. By the time it was over, street protests had taken place in six towns. A Presidential directive to use “all necessary force to restore order” unleashed the police and general service unit on the non-violent march organisers, the public and looters who sought to take advantage of chaos. GSU officers raped and assaulted innocent by-standers as they stampeded through neighbourhoods. Protestors poured into Kenyatta National Hospital with police bullet wounds.

At least twenty people died. 1,056 others were charged in courts bearing visible injuries yet unrepresented by lawyers. Bail applications were denied or set at Kshs 10,000, a huge amount for most arrested. Many protestors sat in remand or prison for between two and 24 months after Saba Saba. Despite this, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, the only mass media station at the time, gave the events a black out. There were no registered human rights organisations or policing oversight agencies. Consequently, no police officers were prosecuted for using excessive force during Saba Saba.

Like all great events of history, there was no single actor or pathway that can take full responsibility for the organising of the uprising. Sometimes, it is just a spirit for change. The role of Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and the “young turks” Raila Odinga, Isaiah Ngotho, Kariuki Gathitu, George Anyona and Njeru Kathangu is well told. Less well connected is the decade of resistance to the autocratic one-party regime that preceded this moment.

Without a single hashtag, countless strikes, boycotts, public gatherings and associations were organised over the eighties. In 1986 alone, 42,000 workers participated 65 strikes that called for workers to have a five-day week, work less than 12 hours a day and be paid on time and in full. Farmers challenged corruption, police brutality and arbitrary Government taxes and interference in their association’s affairs. Students boycotted classes to protest unsafe and unhygienic conditions, sub-standard teaching and teaching equipment.

Dissent was costly. Expressing a political opinion could lead you to being “disappeared”, detained without trial, denied legal, medical care and food and tortured with water, beating and electrocution. Unable to organise openly, legitimate and non-violent dissent inevitably went underground. In 1986, five underground organisations formed the United Movement for Democracy in Kenya (UMOJA) in London. All this energy built up to July 7 1990.

Hundreds of demonstrators were denied their constitutional rights to assembly and to call for the full implementation of the constitution, an end to police brutality and human rights last Tuesday. Protestors were chased, subjected to teargas but largely spared the gory violence we saw in 1990. Sixty-three protestors were arrested and detained across four police stations in Nairobi.

While it may seem similar, it would be self-deceiving to think nothing has changed. A “Nothing has changed” mindset is a form of auto-pilot thinking. Trapped in a past disappointment or a world view, it is impossible to learn, remain agile or create a new context for ourselves.

Unlike 1990, community organisers not lawyers and politicians were in the forefront. Women like Wanjiru Njira and other leaders from social justice centres led the protests. Protests were non-violent, digitally connected online and bail money was raised from the public. Lawyers from human rights organisations were visibly present at all the police stations. Unlike thirty years ago, everyone who was arrested was released the same day on the instructions of the National Police and the Interior Ministry leadership.

If the Saba Saba spirit is alive and well thirty years on, what else needs our focus? We may not need the Building Bridges report to know that many laws and practises need reform. We could start with those that relate to sedition and assembly. Do we really need officers to continue criminalising protestors by taking their fingerprints when they have spent the day holding up banners with their views? Do we need new police conduct guidelines on managing public demonstrations? Could our Members of Parliament rededicate themselves to reviewing all laws that are not a match for our constitution? That too, would be an expression of the Saba Saba spirit.

This article was also published in the Saturday Standard July 11 2020.


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