In July 1990, anxiety gripped Kenyans ahead of a highly consequential public rally planned by the pro-democracy movement in Nairobi to agitate for an end to the autocratic single-party rule.
The tension rose a notch higher when, days to the rally, State security agents arrested and detained politicians Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, the most prominent figures in the movement, for alleged sedition.
On July 7, a group of activists defied a security crackdown -- which saw a number of human-rights lawyers also arrested or detained -- to march to the Kamukunji Grounds in the city’s Eastlands area.
A police cordon at the venue physically kept out the kind of huge gathering that the organisers had wished for.
But the events of Saba Saba, as the day is famously known, significantly ramped up the pressure on then authoritarian president Daniel arap Moi to order the repeal of the Constitution to allow the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in 1991.
It also gained an iconic status in Kenya for citizen defiance against State repression.
Civil society groups have sought to keep the spirit of Saba Saba alive by celebrating the day as part of their human rights, social justice and good governance campaign calendar.
Over the years, these events have been low-key, thanks to a significantly expanded democratic space in the country and weakened civil society.
But this year’s Saba Saba could be different, coming against the backdrop of renewed agitation by the opposition for electoral justice and rising disgruntlement in the population with President William Ruto’s government over the high cost of living and punitive taxes on fuel and workers’ salaries.
Odinga, who was one of the high-profile Saba Saba detainees and is now the main opposition leader, has called his supporters to a meeting at the Kamukunji Grounds next Friday, when he is expected to declare the beginning of a new round of civil disobedience in the country.
Civil society activists, mobilising under Kenya Bora Tuitakayo (The Kenya We Want) movement, are also planning protests to demand, among others, a review of the taxes imposed through the recently enacted Finance Act 2023, a reduction of basic commodity prices and an audit of the public debt blamed for a biting cash crunch in government.
It is not clear if the civil society groups, which are advocating non-violent protest, will join forces with the political opposition after Odinga sought to woo them while addressing a public meeting in Nairobi earlier this week.
The 78-year-old opposition leader lost the last election to Ruto by a narrow margin and has seen his Azimio One Kenya Alliance coalition lose the battle in Parliament after a number of its MPs shifted their loyalty to the President.
But Odinga, who continues to question the President’s legitimacy on allegations of vote rigging, has sought to re-energise his support base and grow his influence by positioning himself as a hero for poor and middle-class Kenyans feeling the pinch of new administration’s unpopular policies and perceptions of corruption and ethnic exclusion in government.
Ahead of Saba Saba, politicians affiliated to the ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition have accused him of economic sabotage for calling on Kenyans to boycott paying taxes and called on the police to stop the planned protests.