A Kenyan story, an African moment

Thursday July 9 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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 movement (July 7 Movement) was formed. It was a broad-based movement that 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 president Daniel arap Moi at a December 1991 ruling KANU delegates conference to announce the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution, thereby returning Kenya a multi-party state after over 20 years.

The year 1990 was not a big one for Kenya only. Saba Saba arose in the year in which some of the most far-reaching political events of Africa happened. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was released from prison by the apartheid government after 27 years on February 11, 1990.

In February 1990, Julius Nyerere, who had stepped down from the presidency in 1985 but had remained the powerful chairman of the ruling CCM, suggested that Tanzania return to multiparty democracy. The poster boy of enlightened one-partyism in the world, not just Africa, it sent tremours. Later in the year in August, Nyerere relinquished his chairmanship of the party two years ahead of schedule.

Electorally, the most defining happened far away in Benin, in a country the average person in the Africa and the world today knows mostly for the great musician Angelique Kidjo, and its memorable voodoo festivals.

In 1972 a tough general, Mathieu Kerekou seized power in a military coup in Dahomey (as the country was then known. He renamed it Benin in 1975). Though 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. He was a tough man Kerekou, but the winds of reform sweeping Africa and rising internal Saba Saba-like dissent brought him under pressure to toy with democracy. He called a national dialogue in February 1990, and it 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 and Benin were important, because he was the first soldier ruler to be disarmed by a democracy movement in the continent at that period, and therefore offered a view into the possibility that the dominant mode of government in Africa in that period would come to an end.

Kerekou reinvented himself as a democrat, like many strongmen of that period, and won handily in 1996, but stole the vote in 2001, and stepped down in 2006.

While Benin was a case of a military dictatorship yielding to civil democratic pressure, in Zambia, there was a development of a different kind.

The ruling one-state party was the United National Independence Party (UNIP) led by the saintly, golf-playing, sobbing grandee Kenneth Kaunda.

Kaunda had led the country since independence in 1964, but by 1990 he had been backed into a corner by democratic winds. In July 1990, easily the continent’s hottest opposition at the time, 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, 1990 signed a constitutional amendment that returned Zambia to a multiparty order.

Competitive elections were held in November 1991, Kaunda and UNIP were trounced. Chiluba became president.

Kaunda’s and UNIP’s defeat brought an end to the rule of a prestigious independence party at democratic polls. It heralded the fate of many independence parties on the continent that would follow, including Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in 1994, and at the tail end, KANU in the Kenya election of December 2002. Not counting liberation parties that came to power through armed struggle, Tanzania’s CCM and Botswana’s Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), remain the two civilian independence parties still in power in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi, the historic election of President Lazarus Chakwera recently, now also represents the first comeback for an independence party in the region.

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