The BBC recently hosted a debate in Accra, Ghana, centering on the question, Is An African Spring Necessary? My opinion is that this question is obsolete for some of sub-Saharan Africa because those countries have already experienced the kind of revolution that has marked what is now known as “the Arab Spring.” We are beyond “spring.”
In Kenya, the African Spring happened more than 20 years ago. This is why we cheered on our brothers and sisters in North Africa as they fought for their freedoms, hoping that their revolutions would be more successful than ours was. Alas, that does not appear to be the case.
On July 7, 1990 Kenyans rose up against a brutal regime and defied orders, gathering at Kamukunji grounds to press for democracy. This day is now enshrined in history as Saba Saba Day and is commemorated every year. The government responded with a brutal crackdown in which several people were killed. Many more such protests followed and many lives were lost over the years, finally ushering in an era of multi-party rule at the end of 1992. The sought-after democracy was, however, attained in name only, as practically nothing changed in government until 2002 when Kenya exchanged one corrupt, would-be lifelong president (Daniel arap Moi) for yet another one, who is still the incumbent.
Nevertheless, some freedoms have been won along the way, with the executive powers being trimmed down over the two decades since that first Saba Saba Day. One of the freedoms Kenyans enjoy in this new era, that was completely lacking during Moi’s era, is the freedom of speech. It is still limited in some fundamental ways, but now anyone can criticize the president and the political system openly. In Moi’s time, such fear gripped the populace that few people dared mention his name in a negative context, except behind closed doors and, even then, only to one’s most trusted friends. People were known to have disappeared for the slightest criticism of Moi’s government.
While corruption is still rampant in Kenya, the playing field is leveling out more and more. It is now much easier to obtain a license to start a business, for example, than it was in the past. There is much easier access to basic services, like obtaining a passport or getting it renewed. This simple thing, that should be every citizen’s right, used to be like running an obstacle course. Officials in charge of issuing passports would frustrate those who didn’t know anyone of importance at the passport issuing office, “losing” their files, making them wait for endless weeks or months, until they lined a few officials’ pockets with some extra money to move things along. There were numerous interrogations about one’s reason for applying for a passport. Those days are mostly gone. Obtaining a passport is now a simple, straightforward matter. These kinds of changes are replicated in different aspects of life in Kenya.
So, yes, we had our spring and it brought about some changes, but we have not yet fully realized the changes we took to the streets for. After years of struggle, a new Kenyan constitution was signed into law in 2010; however, most of its significant proposed reforms are yet to be implemented. And so the Kenyan revolution that was sparked almost 22 years ago continues, albeit in a different form.
An African Spring in 2012 is not necessary. We will find a more effective way.