Last week, the more radically-spirited Kenyans marked Saba Saba day, commemorating the moment 30 years ago, on July 7, 1990, when the Saba Saba movement was formed.
Protests, riot police batons, tear gas, and arrests were served.
The State response was a reminder that Power continues to push back against the meaning of Saba Saba and, as noted in last week’s column, the wider democracy that swept Africa from 1990 into the beginning of the 21st century ended inconclusively in Kenya, with the Old Order still entrenched in politics, and particularly in the economy.
The fact that the Old Order is entrenched in Kenya and a few other African countries, is not all bad. Barring the calamitous 2007/2008 post-election violence, it has partly prevented a total breakdown into ruinous civil war, like happened in Uganda and Sierra Leone, for example, because the stakes weren’t so high.
COULDN’T HAVE ACHIEVED MORE
And the fact that Saba Saba and other democracy movements did achieve only measured reforms from Power, and not a New Order, is not a failure. In Kenya, they couldn’t have achieved more — and in fact even that little is a lot.
This half-a-loaf outcome for years of brave democratic and radical activism is a result of four things.
From the view of an outsider looking in from a journalist’s platform, the first is just how talented Kenya’s Old Order and Old Money is at reinventing itself and adapting, and its remarkable ability to co-opt radical youth, especially from the student movement.
If you look at many of its leading lights, few were freshly minted.
People like Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Raila Odinga and Martin Shikuku were either Kanu dissidents who had bailed out with the party’s nationalist tradition, Old Money, or off-shoots from more traditional opposition parties and politics.
People like Philip Gachoka and Rumba Kinuthia, and the array of second-generation younger firebrands like James Orengo, Gitobu Imanyara, Mukhisa Kituyi, Kiraitu Murungi and Anyang’ Nyong’o, to name a handful of that wonderful cast, never dominated, and in many ways set out into mainstream politics, sometimes remaining on the progressive fringe of their new political homes.
This, in turn, has to do with two of the four elements that define Kenyans. By the end of the 1980s, excluding then apartheid South Africa, it was mainly Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland (eSwatini) and Morocco that were both not under military rule and had a semblance of a “capitalist” economy.
The money structures that underpinned them have still not been disrupted, leaving them deeply entrenched, but also enabling them to provide an unbroken supply of continuity.
Keenly alive to protecting their interests, they are very good at engineering concessions for radical and reform movements, and offering their patronage, thus preserving themselves.
That goes to the third element, which is the primary parentage and/or inspiration of the Kenyan reform movements. There are many strands, but the key ones are the Mau Mau liberation, and the workers movement.
Both came with inbuilt limitations. Heroic as it was, Mau Mau was a land restoration uprising, seeking to win back the soil that had been expropriated by the colonial state and settlers.
It was not a land rights movement, seeking redistribution to all. This do-the-right-thing but don’t overhaul feature has become well-settled in the DNA of Kenyan activism.
The defining Kenyan, and for that matter Ugandan, worker’s movement moment was the 1947 strike at the port of Mombasa. It’s a tradition that was to later spawn many foot soldiers of independence in East Africa, including Uganda’s founding prime minister Milton Obote.
However, because it wasn’t in the industrial heartland, it remained in the second row of the political game.
The fourth element is that Kenya’s democracy movement has something good about it, but it also means it would only always settle. It has been big on ideas, and is very human-rightist.
Outside the debates at the University of Nairobi and pamphlets, it has been well-domiciled in magazines. Hilary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review, in the late 1970s and ’80s, was really a voice for enlightened nationalism and middle-class political decency.
Imanyara’s Nairobi Law Monthly was more outspoken and combative, but legalistic and rights fundamentalist.
They were necessary and made a difference, and at their apex during Daniel arap Moi and Kanu’s hard rule, like great acts of subversion. But as a well-ageing Kenyan leftist told me once, “in the end they were telling us to wear our Sunday best to Mass, not calling on us to burn down or overthrow the Church”.
Something here tells us about the future of Kenyan politics. But given unfettered freedom on social media and blogs to express themselves, many Kenyans call for “revolution” but it’s unlikely to happen. They will, however, get the next best thing — a passable bourgeois democracy.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3