Liberators before us showed the way in fighting negative ethnicity

Thursday July 30 2020

Kenya’s second liberators during a protest. They fought exclusion of some ethnic groups from decision-making processes and inequitable distribution of resources as deliberate enhancing of ethnic differences had become the norm. FILE PHOTO | NMG


The events of July 1990, including the famous day known as Saba Saba, have been so impactful that one wonders why July is not celebrated in Kenya as the second liberation month.

The first liberation was the independence war against colonial rule. The second liberation was the struggle for human rights and a new constitution.

Looking through the liberators names, one doesn’t need much of a discerning eye to see they were drawn from different ethnic communities. In a country often grappling with ethnic divisions, this in itself is a lesson that needs learning.

Not much is available in school textbooks on the role played by the valiant women and men of the second liberation who suffered arrests, detention without trial, and even death to give us the freedom we now enjoy.

The term second liberation became familiar between 1982 and 1992 — a period birthing several occurrences such as Kenya becoming a one-party state by law in June 1982. This was followed by the August 1982 attempted coup that saw government criminalising dissent and violating press freedom.

The state and the president became an everyday presence in a period when any document could be declared seditious. Television and radio news bulletins always began with the statement, “Today, President ….”


Injustices piled. There was massive open rigging in the 1988 elections. The second liberation drew hope from world events such as the November 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, a powerful symbol of the Cold War.

Kenya’s second liberators pronounced 1990 as the year to restore multi-party democracy. On February 13, 1990, the minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Robert Ouko was found dead, clearly assassinated, prompting the eruption of countrywide riots. State oppression and lack of political space had risen to unprecedented high levels.

On July 3, 1990, two former Cabinet ministers, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, called for a public rally at Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi on July 7 (this day is commonly referred to as Saba Saba) demanding comprehensive constitutional and political reforms.

A day before the rally, Matiba and Rubia (their lawyer John Khaminwa), including Gitobu Imanyara, Mohammed Ibrahim and Raila Odinga were arrested and detained without trial. This was Odinga’s third detention. Amnesty International adopted them as prisoners of conscience.

The arrests did not stop the rally, which was attended by thousands of people. Police attempts to break up the meeting led to the deaths of more than 20 people.

Human rights lawyers Kamau Kuria, Paul Muite and Kiraitu Murungi went into exile. Other liberators included Maina wa Kinyatti, Katama Mkangi, James Orengo, Martha Karua and Wangarī Maathai.

The government’s crackdown on the second liberation went on unabated. In December 1991 former president Daniel Moi finally announced the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution which had enshrined a one-party state and outlawed all political activities outside the Kenya National African Union (Kanu).

The work of second liberators did not end, as in 1992 ethnic and land conflicts — classified by the Justice Akilano Akiwumi Commission of Inquiry as politically instigated ethnic cleansing — began.

The first generation of liberators lived through a period when colonialists forcefully created segregated native reserves along ethnic lines restricting any integration.

The colonial regime created an ethnic-based labour society relying mainly on stereotypes such as who were better house servants, askaris or cooks – thus laying the basis for stereotypical terms of an ethnically divided society.

Despite all these efforts to divide them ethnically, the first liberators rose together to fight for Kenya’s independence.

The second liberators fought exclusion of some ethnic groups from decision-making processes and inequitable distribution of resources as deliberate enhancing of ethnic differences had become the norm.

Teaching this history while celebrating July as the second liberation month could in turn birth a third liberation working against clan and ethnic political divisions which persist despite inter-ethnic friendships, relationships and marriages.

How can a third liberation with a philosophical core stressing an ideology of respect for difference, while using the unifying strategies of the first and second-generation liberators be created?

Third liberators will need to re-orient the voting population to move away from ethnic to issue based voting blocks, deal with exclusions and shun political parties formed along ethnic lines.

They will have to devise strategies to deal with ethnic competition for resources such as jobs, land and access to opportunities, ensuring a system in which resources benefit everyone.

We need third liberators who can deal with structural ethnicism and its interlinked social political and economic components. They could do this with the benefit of the lessons of the first and second liberators.