The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: 1990 - Matiba Detained By Moi

The most dramatic and decisive Saba Saba rallies, the 1990 and 1997 editions, were spearheaded by politicians from the Mt Kenya region.

Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba headlined the first Saba Saba, July 7, 1990, although he was lying on the bare floor of a detention-without-trial cell, having been dramatically and roughly arrested the previously day.

Mwai Kibaki was the focus of the next really big Saba Saba, in 1997, where he got his first taste of teargas (see separate analysis).

Both men were among the wealthiest Kenyans then, but Matiba has since lost much of his fortune, mostly to auctioneers.

Twenty-four years ago when the first Saba Saba rally was called, Kenya was a one-party state by law and there were no legitimate political organizations outside the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), which had ruled since Independence in 1963. It was a banned rally and it took place by flying in the face of the Daniel arap Moi system in its 12th year.

On July 1, 1990, Kenya's population was not quite 20 million. That was 22 million Kenyans ago, as the populace now stands at around 42 million. Kenya, like the rest of the world, was on the cusp of far-reaching change. The Berlin Wall had come tumbling down in November 1989.

The Wall fell in the evening of November 9, 1989. One bright morning barely four months later, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years. Two days later in Kenya, Dr Robert John Ouko, then the minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was murdered in Kenya in the first high-profile political assassination in this country since 1975.

The pressure for the convening of the first Saba Saba rally was building up led by Matiba when the Moi regime suffered massive loss of legitimacy in the aftermath of the Ouko killing.

The rally was called to force Kanu to yield to the will of Kenyans on the issue of a return to political pluralism in a fast-evolving global context. The bipolar world of the Cold War had passed with the iconic breaching and felling of the Berlin Wall.

The first Saba Saba took place on a Saturday. The previous day and earlier that week, virtually all of the ruling Kanu elite had relocated to Mombasa, to attend the society wedding of the year. The most powerful man in the land outside the Presidency, Kipyator Nicholas Kiprono arap Biwott, and one of the richest African Kenyans ever, had invited the Kanu political class and elite to the seaside city for the wedding of his daughter to the son of an expatriate family.

The government of the day was therefore technically not in Nairobi during the first Saba Saba, which degenerated into an almost four-day riot in which at least 24 died, many more were injured and there was massive destruction of property.

On Friday July 6, Moi's securocrats struck, picking up Matiba outside his College House corporate headquarters offices, next to DT Dobie, and cornering Rubia at the Muthaiga Club.

Matiba was manhandled in front of media cameras, held so tightly by the seat of his pants that his feet barely touched the ground, like the merest CBD street thug, and bundled into a car by armed plainclothesmen.

Rubia was cornered in a boardroom at the prestigious Muthaiga Club, which then as now neighbours the British Hih Commissioner's residence. Rubia would many years later tell a rapt audience at a public event at the KICC that when they came for him and found him mid-meeting, he looked up from a document and thought he was gazing at a group of Nigerian gentlemen as the arrest team of half-a-dozen were all dressed in smart agbadas. He was also was also whisked away, convinced they were a hit squad and fearing for his life.

Raila Odinga and Mohamed Ibrahim (now a Supreme Court judge) were also picked up and taken directly to the detention-without-trial dungeons.

Kenya was in a state of shock - but the strategists of the first Saba Saba announced that the rally would go on.

When Moi jetted back to Nairobi and stepped out of his aircraft in a secluded area of the airport, photojournalist Sam Ouma took a remarkable series of photographs as the President appeared to consult frantic officials and then suffer a breakdown on the tarmac. Moi gave every indication of going into a crying jag. He had to be supported and guided into his limousine.

No one had ever photographed Moi in a moment of such vulnerability. But Sam's photos were not only never published, they soon disappeared from a major mainstream newspaper's photographic library, including the negatives.

Speaking to this correspondent on the phone last week, Sam had his suspicions as to what really happened to his photos and regretted their mysterious disappearance.

Among the luminaries of the Second Liberation who planned the first Saba Saba with Matiba and Rubia were the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila, Martin Shikuku, George Nthenge, Philip Gachoka and Ahmed Bamahriz.

They were joined by a group of Young Turks comprising, among others, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, and Michael Kijana Wamalwa.

The first Saba Saba ratcheted up political tensions so much before and in its deadly aftermath that the Moi state finally saw the need for change and reform as an existential proposition.

The removal of the then Constitution's nefarious Section 2(a), enshrining a one-party state and outlawing all political activity outside its confines, in November 1991, and the release from detention of Matiba, Rubia and Raila, setting the stage for the first multiparty General Election in Kenya since December 1969, the December 2002 polls, were direct results of the first Saba Saba.

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