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Saba Saba: A Historic Turning Point for Kenya


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In the annals of Kenya’s history, few dates hold as much significance as July 7th. Known as Saba Saba, this day serves as a reminder of the indomitable spirit of Kenyans who, in 1990, rose against President Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime to demand political reforms and multiparty democracy. Now, on July 7, 2023, opposition leader Raila Odinga is set to hold a major rally at Kamukunji grounds, rallying Kenyans to protest against the high cost of living. As the nation braces itself for this momentous event, memories of past struggles and hopes for a brighter future converge.

Two decades ago, on July 7, 1990, Kenyans defied a government ban and gathered at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi for a monumental rally that sought change. Led by pro-democracy activists and politicians like Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Raila Odinga, James Orengo, Martin Shikuku, and Gitobu Imanyara, the protesters demanded an end to Moi’s oppressive rule. However, the security forces responded with brutal force, unleashing tear gas, live bullets, and batons upon the demonstrators. The first Saba Saba protests may not have achieved their immediate goals, but they ignited a flame that would pave the way for future transformations.

Though Moi’s regime held strong in the face of the initial protests, the Saba Saba spirit persisted, driving the nation towards a momentous turning point. In 1991, under domestic and international pressure, Moi relented and repealed Section 2A of the Constitution, effectively ending Kenya’s one-party state status. Opposition parties emerged, and the country held its first multiparty elections in 1992. Yet, the journey towards democracy was fraught with challenges.

As Kenya transitioned to multiparty politics, it encountered various obstacles that threatened its stability and hindered progress. Moi employed tactics such as ethnic incitement, state violence, electoral fraud, and constitutional manipulation to undermine the opposition and maintain his grip on power. Ethnic clashes marred the 1992 and 1997 elections, leaving a devastating toll in their wake. Moreover, the opposition struggled to unite and offer a compelling alternative to Moi’s rule.

In 2002, the Saba Saba spirit reignited, leading to a historic victory for the opposition. A coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups, united under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), delivered a resounding defeat to Moi’s chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta. The victory ushered in Mwai Kibaki as Kenya’s third president, promising a new era of democracy, accountability, and development. However, the euphoria would not last.

Despite initial optimism, the NARC coalition faltered due to internal strife, and Kibaki failed to fulfill his promise of enacting a new constitution to rectify historical injustices. The 2005 constitutional referendum further divided the nation along ethnic lines, leading to renewed political violence. The most severe crisis came after the disputed 2007 presidential election, resulting in widespread violence, loss of life, and mass displacement.

The darkest hour often precedes the dawn, and so it was in Kenya’s history. In 2008, a power-sharing agreement brokered by Kofi Annan brought an end to the post-election violence. The grand coalition government formed between Kibaki and Raila Odinga paved the way for comprehensive reforms and a new constitution. Finally, on August 27, 2010, the new constitution was promulgated, introducing significant changes to Kenya’s political system and safeguarding civil liberties, human rights, and electoral integrity.

Since the implementation of the new constitution, Kenya has faced numerous challenges, from terrorism and corruption to droughts and pandemics. The 2013 and 2017 elections were marred by allegations of rigging, further polarizing the nation. However, a moment of unexpected reconciliation arrived in 2018 when Kenyatta and Odinga put aside their differences to launch the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). While the BBI faced opposition and criticism, it aimed to address underlying conflicts and promote inclusivity.

As Kenyans commemorate Saba Saba each year, they celebrate their accomplishments while demanding their rights be upheld. The historic protests serve as a beacon of inspiration for future generations of activists and citizens striving to build a better Kenya. Today, as Raila Odinga prepares to rally Kenyans against the high cost of living, the echoes of Saba Saba reverberate through the nation, reminding all of the power of unity and the enduring quest for a just and prosperous Kenya.

Saba Saba, a date etched in Kenya’s history, symbolizes the relentless pursuit of democracy and justice. The Saba Saba protests of 1990 were a turning point, setting the stage for Kenya’s transition to multiparty democracy. Challenges and setbacks followed, but the spirit of resilience endured. As Kenya looks to the future, the nation stands poised to confront the high cost of living and advocate for change once again. Raila Odinga’s rally serves as a rallying cry for Kenyans to unite and strive for a better future, carrying the spirit of Saba Saba into the next chapter of the nation’s history.

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