Raila turns back the clock 33 years as Saba Saba returns to Kamukunji

Raila Odinga.

Opposition leaders heading to Kamukunji Grounds July 7, 1990. (inset) Azimio leader Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“On July 7, the people will take back the authority that was given to them (the current government),” Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition leader Raila Odinga declared earlier this week, as he rallied his supporters to both the original Kamukunji grounds, as well as countrywide, to protest the high cost of living.

“I want you to understand that I am speaking on behalf of millions of people in this country,” he added, as he accused President William Ruto of taking Kenya “back to the dark days of the Nyayo era”.

In calling for the Saba Saba protests and describing them as the "Third Liberation", Odinga has just turned the clock back 33 years, while at the same time raising the ghosts of Jaramogi and the Young Turks, when the old doyen called for the "Second Liberation" (from the Kanu regime) in July 1990.

Detention of Matiba and Rubia

On July 4, 1990, opposition beacons Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia were arrested. They were subsequently detained under the Preservation of Public Security Legislation, the colonial regulation frequently used to remove opponents of the State who had not committed a specified crime.

Rubia had just left the Fourth of July celebrations at the American ambassador’s residence and had made his way to the Muthaiga Country Club, when he was arrested and unceremoniously dragged out of a club meeting by 10 policemen. 

Raila Odinga, then 44, and the son of former Kenya People’s Union leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was also detained.

As former Cabinet ministers with extensive business interests and contacts among Kenya’s ruling elite, Matiba and Rubia considered themselves immune from detention. Neither former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo nor ex-Vice-President Josephat Karanja had been detained when they had fallen from power in 1984 and 1989, respectively.

Both Matiba and Rubia knew that their carefully devised confrontation with the government was reaching a crisis. If the meeting at Kamukunji grounds took place on July 7, as planned, and attracted a vast crowd — as seemed almost certain — Kanu would lose face and the opposition’s claim that most Kenyans wanted to end Kanu’s autocracy and corruption would be strengthened. 

The government, however, had not reacted after their two press conferences at the iconic Chester House in the heart of Nairobi.

Although Kanu and the Nairobi Provincial Administration were embarrassed about the prospect of an opposition rally attracting multitudes of wananchi, going ahead with the Kamukunji meeting alone would probably not have merited detention.

President Moi and his inner circle of advisers were, in fact, much more alarmed by Matiba’s and Rubia’s private conversations with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his firebrand son, Raila.

The government panicked when Special Branch officers, who had tailed Matiba and Rubia, reported that the two ex-ministers had spent considerable time at a meeting in Agip House, Oginga Odinga’s Nairobi business headquarters that is now near Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua's official office.

Matiba and Rubia, advised by opposition lawyer Paul Muite and activist advocate Gibson Kamau Kuria, had begun to recruit a team of prominent politicians who had fallen from grace under the Moi regime, to demonstrate the national appeal of their campaign.

Among the seven individuals on their list were Abaluhya leaders Masinde Muliro from Rift Valley province and Martin Shikuku from Western province, and Jaramogi from Nyanza province. 

Jaramogi, however, was reluctant to re-enter the political fray because his propane gas company had recently secured a sizeable loan from the Industrial Development Bank, a government-controlled parastatal, and Jaramogi wished to secure the loan before risking antagonising the regime with new political adventures. He promised, however, that he would join the campaign in the not-too-distant future.

To gain Jaramogi's support, Matiba and Rubia even proposed that the veteran politician and former Vice-President should be the Opposition’s leader, in order to rebuild the Kikuyu-Luo alliance of the early 1960s that had brought uhuru to Kenya.

Azimio leaders

From left: DAP-K party leader Eugene Wamalwa, Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua, former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga, ODM leader Raila Odinga and Jubilee Party secretary general Jeremiah Kioni among other coalition leaders during a political rally at Kamukunji Grounds on June 27, 2023. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

When Odinga complained that the ‘first marriage’ had brought few rewards for his Luo community, and wondered what he would get for ‘a second marriage’, Matiba and Rubia had agreed that he should be the opposition’s future presidential candidate, a key concession that was to have enormous repercussions two years later.

The Kikuyu ex-ministers also explained that they were considering the establishment of the post of Prime Minister, a premier who would control the ordinary business of the government, leaving the position of president as a symbol of national unity, above the political battles of the day.

Moi and his Kanu advisers had long feared that the aging Luo leader might form a coalition with Kikuyu radicals and dissident intellectuals from the University of Nairobi. The danger of an alliance between Matiba and Jaramogi posed an even greater threat, frightening Kanu into taking precipitate action.

President Daniel Arap Moi correctly feared that they were plotting to revive the old Kikuyu-Luo alliance that had brought Kenya to independence. Such a coalition would have posed a serious challenge to Kanu, uniting two of the country’s three largest, most educated and economically developed ethnic groups against the ruling party.

In an attempt to head off this coalition, the government detained Matiba and Rubia, to keep them physically out of circulation so that they could not glue their envisaged terrifying coalition together. Raila, a courageous activist who had been detained twice before for lengthy periods, was arrested, as a warning to his father not to become involved in politics.

Despite the State’s ban, the detentions and the threats, supporters of the multi-party movement attempted, three days later, to gather on Saturday, July 7, 1990 — Saba Sabaday — at the Kamukunji grounds, where the illegal rally was to have taken place. Riot police dispersed the crowd with batons and tear gas, igniting three days of continuous rioting in the poorer quarters of Nairobi, especially around the Kamukunji area. Political meetings would thereafter be referred to as ‘kamukunjis’.

The trouble quickly extended to smaller towns throughout Central Province, leaving more than 20 dead and over 1,000 arrested, before the police could finally restore order in the restive areas.

Most of the violence occurred in places that were to become Ford-Asili or Democratic Party (DP) strongholds (Mwai Kibaki, who later led DP, was still in Kanu at this time), such as Kiambu, Nakuru and Nyeri town. 

Opposition leaders fled into hiding or, like George Anyona, were arrested as the State’s authority was quickly reasserted.

Gibson Kamau Kuria, the civil rights lawyer, sought refuge in the American embassy, and Muite also vanished from sight. Eventually Kuria was permitted to leave Kenya for the United States of America, while friends of Muite with access to President Moi negotiated the Nairobi lawyer’s return from hiding.

By compromising and releasing the dissident lawyers, the Kenyan government averted an immediate showdown with the US, permitting its domestic critics to continue functioning under close supervision. The Opposition had not been crushed and internal and external supporters of multi-party democracy now had powerful new symbols of the state’s intolerance around which to mobilise further protests in the future.

The Saitoti Commission

The detention of Matiba, Rubia and Raila had demonstrated that the government would not tolerate the possible emergence of a Kikuyu-Luo coalition and initially demoralised human rights activists.

From the perspective of President Moi and his advisers, however, the first signs were emerging of a deadly alliance that had the potential to break their monopoly on political power in the country. The Ouko murder five months earlier remained a thorn in their side, as would the death of Bishop Alexander Muge a month later; the professionals and the Church remained hostile, growing questions were being asked in the West, and the Saba Saba riots had revealed the government’s vulnerability to mass protest.

For President Moi, a master politician with both consummate timing and the devil’s luck on his side, it was time to compromise.

On July 21, 1990, a fortnight after the Saba Saba riots, President Moi announced that a commission would be appointed under the chairmanship of Vice-President George Saitoti to investigate (and by implication reform) the party’s electoral and disciplinary procedures, and thereby improve its image and standing among the now generally angry populace. 

The Empire was ready to retreat, reform, re-form, then strike back.