Prime Minister Raila Odinga would do it all over again. He was detained, tortured and forced into exile by President Moi’s single party regime, but he believes the sacrifices were worth it.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of that pivotal first Saba Saba Day of 1990 that swung the pendulum in favour of the then nascent multi-party campaign, Mr Odinga spoke to the Nation from his Nairobi home where he is recovering after surgical operation on the head.
Would gladly lead
Mr Odinga and the other pioneer multi-party campaigners who spoke are resolute that they would do it all over again.
The majority of politicians, clergymen, lawyers and civil society activists involved in that struggle for democracy launched 20 years ago, now hope that passage of a new constitution will be a major achievement in the struggle for a better Kenya.
“Saba Saba was a worthy undertaking and if there was need to do it again I would gladly lead such a move,” Mr Odinga says. “If we did not put pressure, the country would have gone to the dogs. It was clear the ruling party had run out of ideas; the economy was shrinking together with our freedoms,” he said in the morning interview.
Former Cabinet minister Charles Rubia, who kicked off the multi-party campaign with Mr Kenneth Matiba and also earned a stint in detention ahead of Saba Saba, followed by prolonged ill-health, agrees.
“I look at the Saba Saba events with a lot of nostalgia and feeling of success,” he says. “But I also feel a sense of betrayal because the multi-party philosophy was hijacked by its opponents. The cause which we fought for was lost.”
But he does not share Mr Odinga’s passion for the new constitution, suggesting that the referendum be delayed so that contentious issues can be resolved.
Politicians Kenneth Matiba, Mr Rubia, Mr Odinga and lawyers John Khaminwa, Mohammed Ibrahim and Gitobu Imanyara were arrested and detained in the run-up to the rally.
Others such as lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria and Mr Kiraitu Murungi, now Energy minister, fled the country while PCEA clergyman Timothy Njoya fought his way to Kamukunji grounds, the rally venue.
Mr Odinga says that the August 4 referendum would be a chance to put the icing on the cake baked on Saba Saba.
“We must pass the proposed constitution to bring a happy ending to the story of betrayal, pain and death that has been our struggle for a new Kenya,” he says.
The liberties Kenyans enjoy today; the freedom of association, speech, thought, the many political parties and reforms can be traced to that day.
“We have made great strides. These freedoms were worth living for. The battle is not lost,” says Mr Imanyara, the Central Imenti MP, who was arrested three days before the rally, confined in solitary cells and tortured by security agents.
“If I die today, I would be a happy man. Ours was an irreversible course.”
At the time of arrest, he was the editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly, a publication that was critical of the Moi regime.
He reckons that passage of a new constitution will be the most “momentous occasion” after the limitation of presidential terms that forced President Moi to retire.
“Had we not enacted a law to limit the presidential terms, Mr Moi would be President to-date.”
Like Mr Rubia, the Central Imenti MP says the reform agenda was hijacked by what he calls “joyriders” and the “homeguard” class.
“The tragedy with Kenya is that those who sow never harvest. For instance, I have no doubt that Jaramogi Oginga would have been President in 1992 even if for a short period had some Mt Kenya leaders not formed the Democratic Party.” President Kibaki was founder of the DP.
Mr Muite says Kenyans are more empowered to say no to dictatorship.
“We hope that the passage of the new constitution will usher in genuine reformers to finish the journey,” he says.
Dr Njoya is among the church leaders who have backed the proposed new Constitution that has been opposed by mainstream and evangelical church leaders.
“The Church is the spoiler. I want to make sure that the Church fails in this role and Kenyans get the new constitution that they so richly deserve.”
Mr Rubia recounts events leading to the rally. Together with Mr Matiba and Mr Muite, Mr Rubia was to meet Nairobi provincial commissioner Fred Waiganjo to seek a permit for the rally at the Kamukunji grounds.
“We had planned a rally to put pressure on the government to allow multi-party.”
But the government was extremely aggressive.
“We were condemned and called all manner of names.”
On July 3, they realised that there had been a delay in issuing the permit, so the following day, Mr Matiba put out a statement saying that the rally had been postponed. However wananchi from across the country insisted they would still gather at Kamukunji.
On the evening of July 4, Mr Rubia was attending a meeting at the Muthaiga Club.
“Then the most embarrassing thing happened. Thuggish policemen forced themselves into our meeting and when the chair inquired about their mission they shouted: “Tunataka huyu (we want this one)” as they pointed at me.”
He goes on: “One of them held my shirt, but I resisted asking him to allow me to wear my jacket but he refused.”
Mr Rubia was frog-marched out and pushed into a Land Rover. “It was very primitive behaviour by government authorities,” he told the Nation.
“I thought they would kill me the way Dr Robert Ouko had been killed.”
He was driven to Nairobi Area Police headquarters where he stayed until midnight when he was given detention orders and asked to sign.
Earlier the same evening, about 20 policemen had picked up Mr Matiba from his College House office at 6.10pm, bundled him into a waiting Peugeot 504 saloon car and driven away.
Witnesses said a policeman had Mr Matiba’s arm twisted behind his back while another held him by the waistband of his trousers.