The Saba Saba day: A Kenyan story and an African moment

Wednesday July 08 2020

Protestors during Saba Saba demonstrations in Nairobi on July 7, 2020. The Saba Saba “revolution” is unfinished. PHOTO |JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Tuesday was Saba Saba day in Kenya and there were marches to mark this historically significant event — and the usual running battles with riot police, and tear gas-filled air in Nairobi.

Thirty years ago, on July 7, 1990, the Saba Saba (July 7) Movement was formed.

The broad-based outfit brought together a motley of the old, progressive nationalist elements and a newer generation of democracy activists to fight against one-party dictatorship.

Eventually, it forced then-President Daniel arap Moi, at a December 1991 delegates’ conference of the ruling party Kanu, to announce the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution, returning Kenya a multiparty state after more than 20 years.

Saba Saba arose during some of the most far-reaching political events of Africa.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released from prison by the apartheid regime after 27 years, on February 11, 1990.



In February, Julius Nyerere, who had stepped down from the presidency in 1985 but remained the powerful chairman of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), suggested that Tanzania return to multipartyism. Being the poster boy of enlightened one-partyism in the world, that sent tremors. That August, Nyerere relinquished his chairmanship of the party two years ahead of schedule.

Electorally, the most defining moment happened in faraway Benin, a country mostly known for the great musician Angelique Kidjo and voodoo festivals.

In 1972, General Mathieu Kerekou seized power in a military coup in the then-Dahomey (He renamed the country Benin in 1975). Although regimes calling themselves socialists were dime a dozen in Africa, Kerekou’s Benin was, perhaps, the only one that billed itself officially as Marxist-Leninist.

Kerekou was a tough man but the winds of reform sweeping Africa and rising internal Saba Saba-like dissent pressured him to toy with democracy. A national dialogue he called in February 1990 turned against him and edged him aside. He called it a “civilian coup” but didn’t throw the army at it. In 1991, multiparty elections were held and Kerekou lost his shirt.


Kerekou was the first soldier-ruler to be disarmed by a democracy movement in Africa then, which offered a view into the possibility that the dominant mode of government in the continent would come to an end. He reinvented himself as a democrat, like many strongmen of the time, and won handily in 1996 but stole the vote in 2001 and then stepped down in 2006.

But, in Zambia, the ruling one-state party was the United National Independence Party (UNIP) led by the saintly, golf-playing, sobbing grandee Kenneth Kaunda. Having led the country since independence in 1964, he had been backed into a corner by 1990 by democratic winds.

In July, easily the continent’s hottest opposition then, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), was formed, led by a pint-sized trade unionist leader called Frederick Chiluba.


Kaunda buckled under local and internal pressure and agreed to a referendum on the one-party state.

It didn’t help, and with an economy in crisis, he relented and, on December 4, signed a constitutional amendment that returned Zambia to a multiparty order.

In competitive elections that November 1991, Kaunda and UNIP were trounced. Chiluba became president.

That brought to an end the rule of a prestigious independence party at democratic polls. It heralded the fate of many such parties on the continent that would follow suit — including Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in 1994 and, at the tail end, Kanu in the December 2002 polls.

Not counting liberation parties that came to power through armed struggle, CCM and Botswana’s Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) remain the two civilian independence parties still in power in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi, the recent historic election of President Lazarus Chakwera became the region’s first comeback for an independence party.


All these developments, and the context in which Saba Saba arose, are usually put down to the outcome of the end of the Cold War.

But that is only part of the story, and it minimises the role of long years of local political struggles and campaigning by African democrats, internationalist solidarity action, but also the decay of the post-colonial governments.

The commodity crisis of the 1980s had left many of them broke, without the means to pay for social bribes, and they lost their grip on power.

However, Kenya, Malawi, and we might add South Africa, weren’t like the rest. They were sort of “capitalist” economies, with some adherence to free markets.

Next week, we shall examine why, because of that, the Saba Saba “revolution” is unfinished.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3