In July 1990, Kenya experienced a momentous political development that not only shaped the present political scene, but also laid a strong foundation for the 2010 Constitution.
Former Cabinet ministers Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, and then political activist Raila Odinga, were arrested and detained on July 4 of that year for demanding the re-introduction of multi-party democracy.
At that time, the repression by President Daniel arap Moi’s regime was at its peak.
The Cold War had collapsed and many Africa strongmen, including Moi, found themselves under pressure from donors and development partners in the West, as well as from home-grown movements, to allow multi-party democracy.
The arrest of Rubia, Matiba, and Raila were to pre-empt a rally that had been planned by opposition leaders at the Kamkunji grounds in Nairobi on July 7.
The rally had been baptised Saba Saba. The group was led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Timothy Njoya, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, and Martin Shikuku, among others, to press for greater democratic space and a stop to human rights abuses.
Despite the ban by the government, thousands of Kenyans marched in defiance of a previously unchallengeable regime to make their way to Nairobi’s Kamukunji grounds to press the case for democracy.
The name Saba Saba (Seven Seven) was borrowed from Tanzania, where it marked the date the defunct liberation party, Tanganyika African National Union (Tanu), was formed. That was on July 7, 1954.
In Kenya, Saba Saba was used as the beginning of open defiance against the Moi government to give room to democratic reforms.
The government ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations.
Hundreds of civilians were killed or injured, while thousands more faced charges in court, including all the leaders.
Historians and sociologists later attributed the defiance to an accumulation of political events preceding the Saba Saba riots.
These included the February murder of former Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko, the suspicious accident that caused the death of Eldoret Bishop Alexander Muge, then an outspoken critic of President Moi, and the continued ruthless suppression of political dissent.
The events pushed the public to bursting point, led by former political detainees, civil society, and the clergy.
Prof Kariuki Ngotho, one of the multi-party agitators who went to the Kamkunji rally despite the ban, argued that it was time to launch the ultimate open push to have Moi introduce democratic reforms since years of underground agitation had boiled over into the open.
Four days later, Prof Ngotho, George Anyona, Prof Edward Oyugi, and Njeru Kathangu, were arrested at Mitugi Bar in Dagoretti as they had a drink.
They were later jailed for seven years each amid a local and international outcry.
The so-called “Anyona Four” provided one of the most sensational political trials in Kenya in the early 1990s.
It attracted huge international attention and put more pressure on Moi to allow multi-party democracy.
Moi ultimately gave in to pressure. In December 1991, he allowed Parliament to repeal Section 2 (A) of the Constitution then.
The section had made Kenya a one-party state under Kanu. But Moi’s headache was not over with the section’s removal.
In August 1991, the multi-party agitators formed a unified political grouping and called it Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford).
The six founder members and patrons were Martin Shikuku, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Ahmed Bahmariz, Philip Gachoka, George Nthenge, and Masinde Muliro.
The new political party was a walking nightmare for Kanu as it attracted scores of dissatisfied politicans and academicians from all over the country, including some ministers who were hitherto scared to come out and espouse a different ideology from Kanu’s.
Supporters of democracy saw Ford as the outfit to remove Kanu from power and consign years of political dictatorship to the dustbin of history.
It was not to be because of two factors.
First, the Ford leaders were in a hurry to get power and forgot to initiate further constitutional and institutional reforms that could have allowed a level playing field.
Secondly, internal squabbles brought about by personal and ethnic scramble for power.
In August 1992, Ford split into two factions — Ford-Asili, led by Kenneth Matiba, and Ford-Kenya, led by Oginga Odinga.
Matters were made worse when Vice-President Mwai Kibaki formed the Democratic Party, further fragmenting the opposition vote.