(Saba is the Swahili word for Seven, so Saba Saba means Seven Seven)
What happened before…
In the heydays of president Daniel Arap Moi’s grip on Kenya, the first Saba Saba day was marked on 7th July 1990. Kenyans tired of the oppressive KANU regime went on that day to the streets to demand for democracy and justice.
7th July 1990 started off when the former Cabinet ministers Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called a public rally at the historic Kamukunji grounds, in Nairobi, to press for comprehensive constitutional and political reforms. As much as the rallies were declared illegal and subsequently forbidden, approximately 6000 people showed up in Nairobi alone. They were met by riot police and military, who suppressed the demonstrations with utmost brutality.
President Daniel Arap Moi ordered the arrest of several prominent opposition leaders, human rights lawyers and activists. The leaders of the movement, including amongst others, Charles Rubia, Kenneth Matiba, Jaramogi Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara, Mohammed Ibrahim, Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku and James Orengo were imprisoned or put under house arrest.
The riots lasted four days and left an estimated 21 people dead and many others injured. More than 1000 people were arrested and imprisoned.
As much as it was a ‘military victory’ for Moi, the protests were seen as the beginning of the end for Moi’s regime.
Meanwhile, also the global political situation had changed. The Soviet Union collapsed and took its global bloc equally down. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Sudan where more or less and at times backed up by the Soviet Union. Kenya was right in the middle of the pack. In the heydays of the Cold War, Kenya was the western island stronghold in an ‘East-African Communist Ocean’, allowing president Moi to do whatever he wanted to. Western money, guns and all kind of other supports flowed freely into Kenya. Human Rights and development flowed freely out of Kenya in return. Moi and the Kanu regime brought Kenya to it’s knees.
Once the Soviet Union was put into the trashcans of history, the Western countries reduced the cashflow to Moi’s regime, as Kenya was not needed anymore to throw it’s military power against the Soviet Union’s allies in Eastern Africa.
The Second Liberation
Despite the reduced Western support, it took the Kenyans still to up to 2002 to conduct what was labelled the ‘Second Liberation’. In the ‘Magical Christmas’ of 2001, the first free multiparty elections were held in Kenyan history. The ‘100 Years of Dictature’ (60 years British colony and 40 years KANU one party state) were finally over.
At least, till the first democratically elected president Mwai Kibaki decided to grab power and threw the country into a short but bloody civil war, labelled afterwards euphemistically the ‘Post Election Violence (PEV)’. The United Nations had to interfere to negotiate a cease fire and peace agreement between Kibaki and the alleged winner of the elections, Raila Odinga. Kibaki stayed president and Odinga became Prime Minister. Their seconds (including the later President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto) were arranged for genocide at the International Criminal Court and all seemed to have a happy ending, as peace was restored.
The next election was anxiously awaited and supported heavily by the international community. The whole (western) world would make sure that the next Kenyan elections would be fair and free and without irregularities.
Came election day, all systems collapsed. (Read my story about the 2013 elections here).
Up to today, nobody knows who really won the elections. Kenyans were told to move on, and so they did. As they also had not much other choice, other than most likely going again into a bloody civil war.
What lasted, were the symbols.
The ‘Eternal Loser’ Raila Odinga called a rally to remind all Kenyans that the struggle for democracy might not be over yet. He chose the 7th of July.
As much as the event was downplayed by the Kenyan government, the country came to a standstill. The usually traffic-jammed Nairobi streets were empty. Offices, shops, companies and government offices were closed. Kenyans locked themselves in their houses, afraid of the things to come.
Uhuru Park, the location of the rally, was for one day the Centre of the Universe. At least of the Kenyan Universe. At Uhuru Park, an interesting demographic constellation came to place.
The protesters consisted -to my estimation- of 90% young males, 90% slumdwellers and 90% Luo’s, the same tribe as Raila Odinga.
They were surrounded by a force consisting of police and military in at least equal numbers. Whereby this force was consisting -to my estimation- of 90% Kikuyu’s, president Uhuru Kenyatta’s tribe. 90% of them were also males, and knowing the salaries of the average low ranking Kenyan police or military officer, 90% might even live in slum-like conditions as well.
Uhuru Park was gapless surrounded by Kenyan government personnel. The frontline consisted of juvenile National Youth Service (NYS) recruits, which were given a wooden stick (if at all) to defend the Republic of Kenya. The second line consisted of riot police, behind them a third line of police and military, armed with machine guns. The NYS recruits served in this scenario as mere canon fodder and it seemed that a huge part of the recruits were aware of this too. Fear could be read in many of their eyes.
Others covered their faces when I photographed them, as they might fear for repercussions once they get back to their homes, which were obviously at the other side of the ethnic divide.
One could get the impression that the poor masses, clad in uniform or in civilian attire were standing in the frontlines on instigation of their leaders from the upper classes, while the middle class Nairobians were taking it easy and enjoying a day off.
The crowd in the park waited anxiously for their leaders. As it is custom with political rallies, Raila Odinga and his entourage made a big cheerful entry in the middle of the day, driven into Uhuru Park in big SUV’s. Speeches were done, the crowd cheered and the speakers left again.
Some of the crowd shouted that Raila should give the command for them to march to State House and get Uhuru Kenyatta out of there. To no avail though. Raila might have realized that if he would have done so, he would have created a bloodbath. Statehouse Road was that day reshaped into a rugged defense zone. One line after another of police and military armed with machine guns was ready to shoot and kill whoever dared to come up the road with rebellious intentions.
For the day, a tense peace remained.
The day after, Kenyans came out of their hidings and resumed their lives.
The Revolution will happen another day… (if at all).