Saba Saba: Comparing the past and present in its celebrations

Twenty-eight years ago, the opponents of the tyrannical regime of Daniel Moi, having built some unity in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the diminished support the President was enjoying from the West, gathered together at Kamukunji, illegally of course, to denounce the oppression of his regime.

The promoters of the gathering, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, were arrested and severely beaten up, three days before the event (Saba Saba), giving Moi’s opponents an additional incentive to get together. Historian Hornsby remarks that the detentions and Saba Saba riots were critical moments in the fight for multi-party democracy, led among others by Oginga Odinga. Saba Saba became the most important day in the calendar of freedom, observed every year. Some steam went out of it after the end of tyrannical rule, but freedom fighters continued to celebrate the 7th of July.

This year’s Saba Saba, however, took a very different turn—symbolic of the critical change in our politics and social structure. Politicians and their parties, which used to play the critical role, were not to be seen. Did it mean that they thought that they had managed to solve all our problems of democracy, social justice, human rights, national unity, good governance, integrity and accountability? Next day there were indeed photos in all papers of several senior politicians, including Raila who has paid a heavy price in the struggle for justice and fairness, but they were celebrating the construction of a villa in Kitui by Makau Mutua, a distinguished scholar and freedom fighter. Superficially, given these leaders’ long dedication to justice, it might be read that Kenyans had indeed achieved the promise of the 2010 Constitution.

Perhaps, they might think, the handshake has solved our problems, so that there was no need for the people to remind themselves of the atrocities and inequities that had hitherto marked Kenya. But the point of my remarks is not to criticise politicians but the press, which almost completely ignored this year’s Saba Saba. To be fair, the Star and the Standard did carry articles about Saba Saba―but on its origins 28 years ago. While the Star did have an item on the event I shall comment on, but just in its online version. With the honourable exception of the Star, the media is obsessed by politicians and has little time for civil society.

In numerous parts of the country, for millions of Kenyans, the promise of the Constitution remains a fantasy. I was deeply touched when I read the statement of a 91 year old Kenyan, Nthenge, still working, who had so looked forward to Saba Saba. He said that he retired from politics in 1997 because Parliament had become a place for wealth accumulation. He believes Kenyans have become too docile and should wake up and start demanding answers on why the country is still mired in corruption, ethnicity and exclusion.

Nthenge’s general analysis is right but he is wrong to think that all Kenyans are too trusting of politicians. In the last few weeks I attended some meetings of the Samosa Festival (especially in areas where rich people do not live) where the major theme was not their trust of their leaders, but acute anger at their greed and violence. Speakers and participants emphasised the unity of the disadvantaged so they can use the Constitution to secure their role in politics and their constitutional entitlements, denied them by politicians and “public servants”. It is a long time since I have seen Kenyans so angry; the anger must transform into action.



The Saba Saba activity I attended, along with various distinguished Kenyans, was an important step towards that transformation. It was a unique Saba Saba, organised by young people most of them living in Nairobi slums.

The youth of Kenya, who suffer most of all the inhabitants of slums, have organised themselves in organisations to achieve social justice and the ability to protect the rights, especially of the young people, who are extremely vulnerable. Known as social justice centres, they are established in Dandora, Mathare, Kayole, Githurai, Kamukunji and Mukuru. It took these centres close to five months to organize the Saba Saba activities. Their efforts were heavily supported by the mothers, wives and families of victims from Mathare, and Korogocho and elsewhere.

The centres organised marches all the way from their areas to Kamakunji, waving banners and placards calling for an end to police killings, and respect for the constitution. The turnout was most impressive—nearly a thousand. Apart from hundreds of Kenyans who marched to Kamakunji on July 7 from different parts of Nairobi’s slums, people have a little idea of what could become a major social and political movement. Among the 20 or so mothers of victims who were present, a few spoke, moving all the people to sorrow and tears by accounts of the killing of their children. One particular police officer was mentioned by several of them. Will the Inspector-General, who must know this culprit and others, stop this violence which is completely against the Constitution — if not, they should be dealt with, and punished and sacked in accordance with President Kenyatta’s new policy.

The meeting lasted for many hours. The talent of Kenyan youth was on display in the programme, consisting of music and songs (sad and jovial), including passionate rappers, wonderful, exhilarating dances by very young students (who could only go to school with the support of the Mathare Centre). Towards the end the three main guests made a few remarks. The first was Esther Passaris, woman National Assembly representative for Nairobi County, who encouraged justice centres to continue their work and commitments and emphasised the importance of human rights. She promised to continue her support to them. The next speaker was Willy Mutunga (former Chief Justice and a long-time champion of social and political rights) who reflected on the 1990 Saba Saba (which struggle has led to the new Constitution). His enthusiasm for rights and justice remains unchanged, well demonstrated in his association and co-operation with civil society. The final speaker was Yash Ghai who reminded the audience that the aspirations of the first Saba Saba had been included in the new Constitution, but also cautioned his audience that it has not been fully implemented — indeed vigorous opposition to it has come from the government and parliament. He said that his generation had failed to protect the Constitution and it was now up to the younger generation as represented in the social justice centres to ensure its implications. He also deplored the police killings and urged the state authorities to protect the lives of all Kenyans, against the brutality of the police.



The enthusiasm and commitment of the young people who organised the Saba Saba and have already established social centres where they live and co-operation with centres elsewhere in the pursuit of the Constitution is most encouraging. Meetings under the Samosa Festival about the future were also very encouraging.

In all cases the analysis of what has brought such misery to so many Kenyans was so accurate, based more on class than ethnicity, corruption, favoritism, and violence, and their understanding of the Constitution is very heartening. The elders among us must help and work with this generation—and fight those who have stolen the state’s resources. If the President is sincere in his assertions that he is now committed to the Constitution , the contribution of the younger generation would be invaluable.

And to the media: can we have less of the old politicians and their dubious doings, and more of the struggles of the people of this country, and their valiant efforts to realise the promise of the Constitution?


Photo Courtesy: MediaMaxNetwork


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