April 27th 2017

Top Stories / 2017 Elections

Fearing another troubled election, civil society struggles to find new voice

Flurry of meetings and working groups as activists wrestle with means of forming coalitions that will give the sector a voice it last had in 2010.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comMonday, 23 May 2016 12:23 EAT

Police fired teargas at protesters during the anti- IEBC demos. (Photo: Allan Muturi/Kenya Free Press).

As Kenya prepares for another election whose result could once again end in dispute, civil society leaders are involved in a series of initiatives whose outcome they expect will give the sector a new voice as an independent arbiter ahead of the 2017 elections.

After many stumbles, civil society leaders believe they have got the framework of identifying the issues and platforms that will enable them champion popular non-partisan causes and reduce tensions between CORD and Jubilee camps. For the first time under the Jubilee administration, the government-led Kenya National Commission for Human, KNCHR, has rejoined forces with mainstream civil society leaders in strategy sessions on diverse issues, including the Gender Bill that failed in Parliament early this month.

According to interviews with multiple sources who spoke to the Kenya Free Press anonymously in order to protect confidential talks, KNCHR and the Independent Police Oversight Authority, IPOA, also a government agency, recognize that their absence from the dialogue on human rights in recent months was taking a toll on their credibility and empowering antidemocratic forces.

The broad civil society initiative was envisioned from at least last year, when key leaders arrived at the conclusion that Jubilee, whose officials made overtures to the groups and some international actors, were only seeking space to manoeuvre rather than addressing the issues at the core of civil society’s concern.

Brute police action on opposition supporters agitating for the removal of electoral commissioners from office and the killing of businessman Jacob Juma contributed to urgency within the human rights community to come together to create its own narrative and reputation.

Civil society actors, including KNCHR and IPOA, felt the same way after police violently broke protests at the University of Nairobi a month earlier. Several students were injured. IPOA and KNCHR are investigating claims that police officers broke in women’s halls of residence and raped students.

As part of efforts to rebuild itself, civil society has formed a Reference Group to spearhead efforts at coalition-building. The group held elections held in late March which saw Churchill Suba, a former student leader at Egerton University, elected chairman. He will be deputised by Regina Opondo, while other members of the board include Davis Malombe, Thomas Kirongo, Leah Chepkemoi Too, David Caleb Otieno, Patrick Ochieng, David Kiptoo Busienei, Rozah Buyu, Tom Oketch and Eliud Idoket Emeri.

The group is functioning in unison with a larger committee led by Cyprian Nyamwamu, formerly of NCEC, and which comprises of smaller outfits dealing with themes like constitutional implementation, gender matters, extrajudicial killings, and economic justice.

Beyond debates over strategy, the groups are grappling with how to regain momentum it had lost in recent years since Jubilee’s election. They have been absent from the opposition protests to force out the IEBC commissioners. Slower than churches, who supported but then withdrew.

A number of activists have participated fully in the protests in their own capacities. Lawyer Haron Ndubi has marched with CORD leaders and has taken up cases of those arrested at the protests. Days after last week’s protests, Ndubi spent considerable at Central Police Station following up on cases.

Other grassroots actors have led the accounting for injuries, a huge toll which the mainstream media has all but ignored. Kenya Social Movement, led by Gacheke and Cidi Otieno, which is working with the Nyamwamu committee, have a register of the identities of those injured.

The victims include Jackline Nawiri from Mathare, who was injured in the forelimbs; Japheth Muroko who was injured in the head and legs; Sida Adam from Makina, Kibera, who was comprehensively brutalised; Dominic Oulu from Huruma from Huruma and Rita from the University of Nairobi.

By far the most serious injury was of Simon Ayaya, from Mathare, who is currently admitted at Kenyatta National Hospital with bullets lodged in his head. The Kenya Social Movements marched to KNH to visit Simon, and addressed a press conference where they demanded Inspector General Joseph Boinettt’s resignation.

Establishment of a committee has made it easy for activists to link up with one another’s causes. Last week, activists in Nakuru won support for a demo to repossess land belonging to Naka Primary School, which had been fenced off by a private developer. The committee helped the marchers’ hashtag #OccupyNakaPrimary generate wider support.

The main problem that keeps coming up in the committee hearings is opposition from the Jubilee administration, which has delegitimised civil society in large sections of the population and much of the media. The mistrust preceded the election, going back to the groups’ support for ICCC cases against current leaders Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.

After the election, civil society, led by Africog, took up the Supreme Court case to overturn the results, alleging rigging. The Africog case got civil society ownership, with operatives such as Maina Kiai, Haron Ndubi, Don Deya and John Githongo playing key roles in it.

The chips began to fall as soon as Jubilee took power. The government blocked the commencement of the Public Benefits Organizations Act, a new legislation passed on the dying days of the grand coalition government that was to guide the sector. Instead, it brought amendments that would cripple the sector. The proposals, for example, limited foreign funding for NGOs. In a country with no domestic funding for NGOs, many organizations would close shop.

Mid 2015, the government accused a number of NGOs of aiding terrorism. Two NGOs based at the Coast were proscribed and their bank accounts frozen, despite furore from European governments that were their main funders. Then in October, the NGO Board threatened to deregister 957 organizations for failing to remit their financial reports to the board.

Despite this backlash, the sector succeeded in thwarting changes to the Act. The threat to deregister the 957 groups was withheld. The accounts were unfrozen. The groups are now drawing lessons on how these victories were won to feed its rebuilding efforts.

Nyamwamu said they are also reaching to history for lessons. The enmity between state and NGOs runs at least to 1990, when western donors, the Paris Club, resolved to withhold aid to the Moi government (which was blocking multiparty politics) and channel humanitarian assistance through NGOs.

The government responded through arrests and the passage of the NGO Coordination Act through which it would screen NGO leaders. Moi eventually caved in to pressure and allowed multiparty politics, but his government delegitimised NGOs as foreign agents. The sector, however, remained tenacious. Activists brought the religious community on board to push for constitutional reforms in the 90s.

Come the Kibaki period, the NGOs emerged as a powerful alternative force. The apogee came in the aftermath of the rigged 2007 general elections and subsequent post-election violence, when the civil society acted in direct opposition to the government. They documented evidence of crimes and worked closely with the ICC, earning them the ire of President Kibaki’s camp.

Under the grand coalition government, civil society became the preeminent force non-governmental force. The Kibaki camp saw the civil society as allies of the Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who counterintuitively kept a distance from the activists’ quixotic demands.

The grand coalition government recognised civil society’s contribution and collaborated with in on many projects, key of which was the passing of the new constitution in 2010. Civil society leaders took pole positions in commissions charged with implementing the constitution.

The grand coalition worked with the sector to enact the Public Benefits Organizations Act, thereby amending the control-inspired NGO Act of the Moi era. But Parliament was dissolved before the Act could be gazetted.

Away from regulation, the sector has troubles of its own. Substantial NGO work is based on seminars and press conferences. Under Jubilee’s repressive climate when these were curtailed, civil society has appeared to be completely muzzled. It is a few leaders like David Ndii, Wachira Maina, John Githongo, Main Kiai and George Kegoro who have remained engaged with the public through mass media writing.

Other groups like Afriog have continued the legal/political research to advance accountability, but most groups have waited for big news events to emerge and then address opportunistic press conferences. The Nyamwamu-led group is also seeking to enhance the influence of civil society by establishing a framework for getting views. To that end, Nyamwamu established a WhatsApp group that has become a clearing house for progressive analysis.

The reference group is seeking to strengthen civil society analysis of the legislation, corruption, ethnic imbalances etc. This would present to Kenyans the reality. As a matter of fact this is what the civil society should be doing in the first place.

Like the larger society, civil society is also beset by ethnicity. It is common to find organisations where the director is surrounded by his relatives or ethnic kinsmen. Many others have cartel-like management where those who sit on the board of one organisation and top management staff in another organisation.

NGOs have managed to shield such corruption from public view because they were not required to file statutory audits. But some stringent donors have unearthed corruption in the past. For example, the Ford Foundation once filed corruption cases against political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi for misappropriation of funds.

Ngunyi created another organisation, where he continued with his work as usual. While he denied wrongdoing, the case has come under new scrutiny following his involved in the multibillion scandal at the National Youth Service. That a leading civil society operation can be under criminal investigation for the theft of public funds speaks to the rot in the sector.

There is also the concern that Kenyans themselves don’t give civil society leaders the support they need to take on the politicians. There has never been a harder time to build a movement for change. The country is polarised, and a disproportionate segment of voters will go to the ballot either to stop Uhuru getting a second or stop Raila from never becoming president.

There is also the media, which is facing greater restrictions. Just this week, Ezekiel Mutua, the director of the Kenya Film Classification Board, proposed that the media should give a blackout to the CORD protests. After the statement sparked a big debate among journalists, Mutua clarified that he was expressing a personal opinion that didn’t reflect the government’s thinking. This, however, doubtful given the ethics that public officers have to exercise in engaging in political matters.

The civil society leaders recognise, from experience, that they can’t work optimally without the media’s support.

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