Kenya; One year after the Saba Saba uprising

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

By Ndungi Wa Mungai

Kenya is experiencing "disturbances" in universities and schools, which have led to several deaths, a year after the Saba Saba — pro-democracy demonstrations — that rocked Nairobi and outlying towns in July 1990.

President Daniel arap Moi's government ruthlessly crushed the 1990 demonstrations. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands appeared in court. Two human rights lawyers and other activists fled into exile.

Two former cabinet ministers, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, and Raila Odinga (son of former vice-president Oginga Odinga) were hauled into detention without trial and released only three months ago.

The crackdown contained the protests, which Moi called the work of "drug addicts". But church leaders insisted it was a "rebellion against the government brought about by poverty and lack of public participation in national affairs".

However, Moi was forced to grant some concessions. KANU, the ruling party, established a Review Committee to listen to complaints and make recommendations to the government. But this only gave people a false sense of the government's intent to institute real reforms.

Most of the fundamental demands, including the resignation of the government, introduction of a multiparty political system and a limited presidential tenure, were dismissed outright. The grudging concessions of the government included ending the queuing system for general elections, ending expulsion of party members as a disciplinary measure and restoration of security tenure to sections of the judiciary and civil service.

Although these concessions won praise from both the USA and Britain, critics at home were far from happy. Criticism of the government in the journal Nairobi Law Monthly led to reprisals and the banning of the journal.

In August 1990, an outspoken opponent of the Moi regime, the bishop of Eldoret, Alexander Muge, was murdered in what was believed to be a road accident staged by the government. This was the second assassination of the year. The minister for foreign affairs, Robert Ouko, who was thought to harbour ambitions to depose Moi, was killed in February 1990.

The opposition was further weakened by the Gulf War: In return for Kenyan support in the war, the US softened its criticisms of

the Moi government and released some funds that had been withheld.

The aim of the government is to transform the country into a "South Korea of Africa", with South Africa claiming to be the Japan of the region. Moi and de Klerk have pledged to work toward this goal.

Toward this end the Kenyan government has embarked on a massive privatisation of business. Kenya is more likely to become like the Philippines under Marcos with its chaotic infrastructure, massive debts and teeming slums. With the introduction of free export processing zones soon, with their characteristic super-exploitation, this resemblance will be amplified.

The present student unrest is a continuation of the Saba Saba protest against unbearable burdens in the name of IMF-imposed "cost sharing". The struggle for a multiparty system may seem naive. However, for Kenya, the feeling is that it is one integral element of democracy — though not an end in itself. The struggle is wider and includes our aim for respect for human rights, and for a just and non-sexist society.

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