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Kenya @50- the need for a new social contract : Part I


The end of the Cold War saw Kenya’s leverage as the bulwark against the spread of communism in the East African region wane. Kenya until then was held up as the poster child of stability that comes with being in the Western camp as opposed to being in the Eastern bloc. Kenya was often referred to as the “island of peace” in a region bedeviled with internecine conflict. But in order for Kenya to retain its “preferred nation” status, it had to democratize or the western aid underwriting most of its development projects will stop.

When the state refused to accept the multiparty- although it did begrudgingly after protracted domestic and international pressure, the donors started funneling their money through the civil society. This inaugurated a “New Deal” between the civil society and the donors- a move away from a state oriented compact to a more non-state centric focus. The endgame of this accord was to unseat the incumbent and replace it with the opposition party/parties. The media and the civil society became a critical accessory to this goal.

However, through use of many nefarious tricks, including violence, the “deep state” defeated any attempted regime change, especially since the introduction of multiparty politics. In the first two elections, 1992 and 1997, opposition disunity combined with state orchestrated electoral violence handed the incumbent victory. But in the subsequent elections in 2002, a united opposition triumphed. This was a major victory for the group; counter-intuitively, it also inaugurated the end of their unity.

After the 2002, the civil society ended their adversarial relations with the state, with some of them joining government; the media went slow on the government, and the donors, albeit for a short period, welcomed the state as a “partner”.  The unity amongst these was done a severe blow in 2007, when some of them took side’s .But any residual vestige of unity of purpose evaporated in 2013, when the donor supported civil society became a dirty word- evil society, and the donor’s the imperialists.

But the process of evisceration of these institutions singly and collectively, as well as their unity of happened over a course a decade, and 2013 was just a logical end. Remarkably, the fulcrum around which these groups’ unity was built; the constitution, was passed in 2010, instead of strengthening their fellowship, it passage also coincided with the end of their unity.

 The Civil Society :  Could the Kenyatta’s presidency an opportunity for the civil society to rediscover their mojo?

President Kibaki’s decade of “benign” presidency as opposed to the turbo charged paranoia driven Moi’s regime lulled the civil society into losing their sharp edge and focus. The less confrontational atmosphere between the civil society and the government was fostered in part because the civil society fought in the opposition’s side during the struggle for multiparty politics, and Kibaki was a key opposition leader

Additionally, during Moi’s era, the Manichean dichotomy of the “good” and the “bad” was clearly demarcated,-Moi’s state was bad and the opposition was good. Post-Moi, that line has been blurred, and many institutions have struggled to for identity.”

Undoubtedly, civil society’s golden age came during their antagonistic relations with the state. The Kenyatta’s presidency, because of the ICC cases- Civil society’s bread and butter, put the civil society in the inevitable collusion with Kenyatta. In fact, team Kenyatta made bashing the civil society their campaign fodder, even post-election nothing has abated. In the lead up to the 2013 elections,  Kenyatta’s campaign team successfully made civil society a dirty word; located in the anti-ICC/Imperialist discourse, the civil society were portrayed as Western lackeys, a throwback to Moi’s days, when the opposition was termed Vibaraka , foreign agents. And if anti-state opposition was a badge of honor under Kenyatta, the civil society seems to be unsure about its place.

The crafting of Public Benefit Organization Act by the government is another clear sign yet the government is keen in regulating the non-government organization under which the civil society falls. The plank of the law is to keep a close tab on both local and international organization, and as permissibly possible prevent them from participating/influencing politics.

The passage of the new constitution, one the signature achievement of the civil society groups, provided them with another opportunity to reboot. Not only because it has generous provisions, but because some of the people surrounding Kenyatta have suspect reform credentials.  Some powerful people in his government are in fact uninterested in implementation of devolution, the center piece of the new constitution. The new constitution provides broad checks and balances, and the civil society can use them to keep the government accountable

Additionally, the Deputy President, William Ruto, has a history of vigorously opposing the constitution. In the lead up to the referendum on the new constitution, Ruto cleverly disguised himself as a “morality warrior” and waged a strong campaign against the constitution. Additionally, his past record of involvement with Moi coupled with several court cases makes him an ideal fodder around which the civil society can build their activism.

Activism for activism sake

One of the constant accusation of the civil society, off course, it convenient by those suing it, is the civil society are in perpetual state of activism for the sake of it. There is some element of truth to it. The philosophy, strategy and tactics of the civil society needs to change is they are to remain relevant in the next dispensation. There is a need for a new brand of activism that doesn’t rely purely on demonstration, press conferences and editorial pages of the newspapers. While these methods have served the civil society in the past, fatigue amongst their core target audience as well as the efficacy of these methods needs to be evaluated.

Further, the civil society has also been accused of living in an elite bubble of Lenana Road- where most of them are located. They need to break out of this bubble and be engaged with the broader public through other means other than through the media.

If they want to remain relevant, they need to diversify and decentralize- less urban/Nairobi and more rural.  Further, the civil society needs to go beyond activism for activism sake, and be hugely involved in three things, participate in the court system actively, invest in the policy arena, and focus on social-economic and environmental rights.

The judiciary is the next frontier of contest, and if previously the excuse was the judiciary was not reformed, that excuse is no longer applicable; the judiciary is reformed, although, there is plenty of room for improvement. Invest in policy. With the passage of the new constitution, many of the issues the civil society have been agitating have been passed, at least on paper. Their implementation in reality is where the civil society needs to invest. Granted, resource wise, they are thinly spread, it would be cruel, if a movement that valiantly fought for the enactment of the new constitution fails at the critical stage of its entrenchment. . Move towards social-economic and environmental justice issue

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One thought on “Kenya @50- the need for a new social contract : Part I

  1. I totally agree with you on this. The first phase of activism is over and CSOs need to get to the next level. It is much more of a technical field where linkages with the wananchi must still be retained. More importantly the leadership of the civil society must chart this new course with more tact than aggression, a characteristic of the previous phase.

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