The secret of life is to have no fear – Kwame Nkurumah.
I dedicate this article to all the workers, innocent citizens and comrades who were brutalized and some even killed by the police during the #SabasabaMarchForOurlives on July 7, 2023.
The Saba Saba protests in 2023 came two months short of the Kenya Kwanza administration marking one year in office. In his campaigns, the then Deputy President, now President, had campaigned extensively around the country on how his regime would change livelihoods for the better for the poor majority through what was referred to as bottom up economic model. He made lofty promises and ideas of awarding tenders to Kenya’s “hustlers,” – a group largely comprising small scale traders and peasants. William Ruto, the presidential candidate for the Kenya Kwanza coalition, made frequent references to mama mbogas (grocery vendors) and boda boda riders – considered to be “hustlers” – in his campaign and promised to avail employment opportunities for the youth. The last sentence on the preamble of the Kenya Kwanza manifesto reads “It is integral to our philosophy as Hustler Nation that all Kenyans should have access to the eating opportunities the dynastic regimes have always enjoyed with their families and friends.”
After the Kenya Kwanza regime was sworn in, it immediately embarked on consolidating its control on power and curtailing the democratic gains that Kenyans had made in more than 30 years of people’s struggles. Political cronies and supporters of the regime with active court cases over graft issues had their cases dropped or withdrawn while some were compensated and rewarded with plum jobs, including positions in the Cabinet. Civil servants who had served under the previous administration perceived to have been working against the incumbent regime’s leaders during the election campaigns, have resigned or were forced to vacate office. There has been an intensification of economic liberalisation with the scrapping of subsidies which hitherto cushioned citizens from the shocks of the ever-burgeoning inflation and economic hardship. In addition, the regime seems to be pushing for the privatization of government services and institutions. Kenyans have been left bare as the predatory hands of the IMF and World Bank put the country in a chokehold with more odious debts effectively burdening the working class. Many protests against these retrogressive measures have been waged in the streets and in the courts, but the regime has clamped down on the demonstrations and defied orders from the judiciary.
In the build up to Saba Saba march for our lives for 2023, the Social Justice Movement hosted several meetings and dialogues with community members in informal settlements and rural areas with regard to the ever-increasing cost of living and the retrograde Finance Act of 2023. The Finance Bill was bulldozed through parliament by the executive amid allegations of bribery and intimidation. The people had refused the path the administration was taking and they responded positively to calls for protests. People were willing to risk it all by taking to the streets to exercise their constitutional freedoms to protest and to hold the government accountable.
When Saba Saba came, the protests began as early as 8am. By thenI was able to access the Central Business District of Nairobi at about 11.00am, police had arrested several human rights defenders and community organizers. There was one case of serious injury. My comrade Paul Mark alias Generali was directly shot at close range with a teargas canister by a police officer. His crime was carrying a placard demanding for the lowering of food prices.
Figure 1: Generali in hospital after he was hit by a teargas canister
Plainclothes police officers dotted the city, teargassing crowds, grabbing protesters, torturing them through beatings, pulling dreads of comrades and tightening hand-cuffs to numb the hands. I lost my relative in the commotion, Priscilla Auma who was at an advanced age of over 60 years. Auma was on the way to her home way with her husband after attending the graduation ceremony of their child at Strathmore University. When they got to the Central Business District, a teargas canister was lobbed at them. Auma was overwhelmed by the smoke and hurriedly rushed to Mbagathi hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Many deaths and illegal arrests were reported countrywide. Over seventy peaceful demonstrators were arrested and illegally detained at Nairobi’s Central Police Station. Our remaining tool for defense against the threat by the state was online campaigns under the hashtags #ReleaseofSabaSabaComradesNOW, #ReleaseSabasabaDetainees, SabasabaMarchForOurlives. This was critical as the mainstream media for the most part had given our protests a blackout. Our rallying call for solidarity jolted civil society organizations whose members trooped to Central Police Station and were also served with the same hostility then locked outside with us.
Soon enough, senior counsel John Khaminwa came to offer his solidarity. He entered Central Police Station and engaged the police. He was later joined by some lawyers who had been mobilized by civil society organizations. Shortly after, Khaminwa came outside and informed us that the Officer Commanding Station (OCS) had received “orders from above” not to release our comrades or give them bail. So, we continued to camp outside the station.
It was 11:30pm. Our comrades who were illegally detained were cold, hungry and in need of urgent medical attention. The legal team was ready to bail them out. Our comrades needed to be in their homes with their beloved families who were constantly calling us to inquire about their status.
Figure 2: Senior Counsel John Khaminwa in company of other lawyers at Central Police Station
Dr. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice, also arrived and proceeded to Central Police Station. He was accompanied by activist Boniface Mwangi. They had brought our comrades some food and sanitary items. Willy tried to intervene, but the OCS would not budge. We were running out of time. By 12:30 am, Saturday 8th, July 2023, it was clear that our comrades would spend the cold night behind bars. It was late, so we left. I was in the company of comrade sister Wanjira Wanjiru and Kimani Waweru from Ukombozi Library. I was distraught and worried, more so as a comrade Karanja alias Kara from our centre, Kayole Community Justice Center, was nowhere in sight, yet we had been together the whole evening. I was not able to reach him on phone and I knew that he did not have the means to get home at that time.
It was late in the night. Getting to my home at that time was too risky and so I slept at the home of a comrade known as Maghanga. Early the next morning, we went back to Central Police Station. I was totally elated at what I saw. More comrades, many of them women in the struggle had come to offer solidarity. I particularly recall Caren Kiarie who after participating in the Saba saba protests in Kisumu City had travelled overnight for more than 360 kilometres to offer solidarity. Such great sacrifice. Many of us thronged the waiting bay outside the police station awaiting the release of our comrades. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief justice, had also come again that morning. Notable names from the human rights fraternity were also present as well as some journalists, a good number of them. It was a real morale booster for us. Negotiations and demands for the release of our comrades continued. Minutes turned to hours. Hopes turned into frustration. We noticed that were being surrounded by plain clothed policemen who were straining to listen in to what our comrades were saying in the small groups that were spread out at the waiting bay of the police station. We could hear comrades inside the cells singing and ululating at the top of their voices. The frustration of the lawyers and the illusory deadlock by the police was grating on our nerves. We started to sing loudly in solidarity with our comrades. The OCS came to us accompanied by his fellow policemen. They were carrying teargas and batons. He ordered us to vacate the police station. We tried to reason with him but he could hear none of our arguments. He turned his back and his men descended on us. They teargassed us and brutally whipped us. No one was spared, not even women and journalists.
We were flogged and chased out of the police station. Our comrades continued to sing revolutionary songs inside the cells. We could hear them from outside the police station as we regrouped. Teargas and harassment from the police would continue into the evening. It got very late and everyone. We left again for the second day running without our comrades. On our way home, in the company of comrades Mutemi Kiama, Njoki Gachanja, Wanjira Wanjiru and Kimani Waweru, I was accosted by three uniformed officers who were armed with guns. They singled me out in the busy junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Moi Avenue. Their service numbers were not displayed on their uniforms. They profiled my dreadlocks and were keen to arrest me. They tried to isolate me from the crowd that was slowly building up but I stood my ground and questioned their behaviour. They did not identify themselves even when I questioned them. They blatantly tried to harass and to coerce me to go with them but I resisted. When the eldest of the cops saw the crowd moving closer and some people pulling out their phones to record the incident, he swiftly pulled his colleagues aside and they left. That is how I was able to slip through the police dragnet that night. My comrades now fully aware that I was being surveilled and followed ensured that I was safely into the bus to my home before they left.
Come Sunday morning, July 10th, 2023 I was busy drafting press statements. I had not slept a wink. Comrade Gacheke Gachihi called and informed me that he was making his way to town and that there were new developments on the status of our comrades. I quickly polished the statements with the assistance of a comrade, sent them out and left for town immediately. On arrival, I found all comrades had been released. I was with my daughter Kiira when we joined the comrades who were released. They were watching a play being performed by one of our comrades at Ukumbi Mdogo, Kenya National Theatre. After the play, we gathered to have a meal and to strategize on the next course of action.
Figure 3: Comrades hanging out together after the theatre performance at Kenya National Theatre
The following were part of the deliberations at the meeting:
- Coordinators of the Social Justice Centres to facilitate the comrades who were released to attend Milimani Law Courts on the appointed date at 8am.
- Social Justice Movement (SJM) in collaboration with civil society organisations to sue the state for violation of the constitution and for illegal arrests and detention of peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders.
- To petition the Inspector General of police and the Independent Police Oversight Authority to investigate the conduct of the police at Central Police Station and act on the officers who used excessive force against peaceful demonstrators.
- Invoke constitutional petition as a class action for compensations by highlighting the violence of the state against peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders.
- Hold Saba Saba reflections that would chart the way forward in line with experiences of the march, lessons learnt and in organizing further demos.
- To envision Saba Saba protests beyond legal and political campaigns. It is anticipated that that the opposition will be holding protests on 7/7 for the next 5 yrs. To avoid arbitrary arrests, torture and bloodshed of human rights defenders, it is important to avoid holding demonstrations that coincide with those of the opposition and which might distort our mission, values and goals. This would be instance having Saba Saba celebrations inform of reflections, cultural gala and collaborative initiatives to consolidate our gains in people’s struggles.
- CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) to be approached to support debriefing sessions and psychosocial support for comrades who were arrested and injured in the Saba Saba protests.
These were some of the issues that were discussed in the meeting after the release of our comrades. They are not final. Further discussions are ongoing.
Our comrades who were illegally arrested and later released were required to appear at Milimani Law Courts on Monday, the next day. They appeared, but their case and other protestors collapsed and they were all released unconditionally. That day at High court also coincided with the review of a petition filed against the Finance Act 2023, by Busia Senator, Okiya Omtatah Okoiti. We camped outside the High Court until the case was determined. The good news was that the court ruled that the implementation of the Finance Act remained suspended. We were elated with that verdict and left happily. Several court cases against the implementation of the Finance Act are ongoing.
Figure 4: Community Organizers picket in front of Milimani Law Court against Finance Act 2023
In hindsight, our experiences during the Saba Saba protests in 2023 is a testimony of how this regime has chosen to misuse its power against patriots and comrades in the struggle. The regime is evolving into a police state that has resorted to use of torture and intimidation in the face of dissent in total disregard of the rule of law and of the civil liberties that Kenyans have fought for decades in the trenches, through the courts and in the new constitution. The executive no longer serves the interests of the people. Kenyans are left groaning in pain under the crushing boots of this totalitarian regime. It seems the country is back to the dictatorial days where crimes against humanity were practiced with wanton impunity.
Our people need to be rescued from the dictatorship of the ruling class. Submissiveness and conservatism in the face of oppression only leads to poverty and the graveyard, history has carefully recorded that. It behooves community organizers, organic intellectuals, human rights defenders and champions of social justice to fight alongside the working class, the peasantry and the rural proletariat to break away from the yoke of neoliberalism, subjugation and dictatorship. It’s time to make the people understand that it’s the system that must be changed, not the prices.
*Okakah Onyango is a community organizer and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist League in Kenya.