ICC cases sowed seeds of discord between the State and civil society

Activists demonstrating in Mombasa. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

In the 10 years of the Jubilee administration, relations between the State and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have grown colder.

Although the frosty relations begun before the 2013 General Election, it got worse just after President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto were sworn in.

The two declared their intention to contest despite having been indicted by the International Criminal Court to face charges on crimes against humanity.

In fact, they used the move to charge them over the 2007/2008 post-election violence, which left more than 1,000 people dead and thousands of families displaced after disputed presidential election results, to excite voters.

Although they were not in the ballot, they supported the two protagonists Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity and Raila Odinga of ODM.

Uhuru and Ruto were not happy with the prominent role played by the civil society in facilitating justice for the victims of poll chaos.

When the Kibaki administration showed little interest in taking action against the perpetrators of the violence, the civil society led calls for the matter to be referred to The Hague.

And as the country's top leaders battled to clear their names, calls for justice for the victims of the post-election violence grew even louder.

The new administration was determined to weaken the NGOs, some of which had worked with the ICC to build the cases. Leaders loyal to Uhuru and Ruto accessed the civil society of conspiring with the court.

“During Uhuru’s reign, the civil society was largely apprehensive and suspicious, as the Jubilee administration closed the space, turned hostile particularly to the human rights discourse,” says Joseph Omondi, the executive director at the Midrift Hurinet, a human rights lobby.

Mr Omondi recalls that at one point the government accused them of promoting foreign interests.

In 2015, a Cabinet Secretary, speaking during the presentation of the annual report on NGOs, emphasised that the organisations must move away from political activities.

A year earlier while addressing the nation during the Mashujaa Day after his official speech, President Kenyatta reprimanded the civil society.

But it was in 2016 that the government begun to clamp down on the lobby groups through the NGOs Coordination Board, a State agency that registers and monitors the organisations.

The board threatened to deregister 959 groups for various reasons, including alleged misappropriation of donor funds, diversion of funds, undeclared foreign funding, money laundering and terrorism financing.

The list included vocal NGOs such as the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

The notice was later suspended following protests from both within and outside the country, but was never cancelled.

According to Gitile Naituli, a professor of management and leadership, the government appeared to have been targeting groups that were in the frontline of documenting human rights abuses by the State’s counter terrorism campaign.

The next onslaught was the proposal to amend the law that governs the operations and funding of NGOs.

According to lawyer Steve Otieno, the Public Benefits Organisation Bill was designed to help NGOs fulfill their function, but successive amendments introduced by the government had the opposite effect.

“In the proposed amendments, the government pushed for a 15 per cent cap on foreign funding, which was aimed at crippling many NGOs,” he says.

What followed was the clamour by the civil society to have the Bill passed in its original form.

For two years, the amendment saga was left hanging, causing apprehension among NGOs.

The State tried to turn the public opinion against the civil society by linking NGOs to terrorist activities.

“The civil society was painted extremely negatively in the face of the public. The narrative then was that NGOs are not patriotic, that they go to the West to look for money and use it for selfish ends,” says Dan Murugu, a rights activists.

Mr Murugu, who runs the Nakuru Public Opinion Consultative Forum, recalls that the government was determined to portray NGOs as not accountable to anybody.

“The government wanted to show Kenyans that the NGOs were using the money to support terrorist and criminal activities."

He says the Jubilee government failed to appreciate the value that comes with the civil society and failed to protect that space.

“It was surprising to many, including internationally, for a country that had started implementing a new constitution and was known for citizen engagement,” he says.

On the relation between the Church and the Jubilee administration, it has been a love-hate one.

After his falling out with his deputy following his ‘handshake’ with Raila, President Kenyatta accused some church leaders of encouraging graft by accepting donations from corrupt politicians.

“Some of church leaders have been compromised by huge donations donated by corrupt leaders. I want to say that you should know that it is wrong to lie through the Bible and you are heading to Jahannam,” he said in an apparent reference to his deputy in a meeting at the Sagan State Lodge in Nyeri County.

“The money you are receiving is the same money that was to build dams in Elgeyo Marakwet so that God’s children can get water.”

But the Church and Clergy Association of Kenya asked the President to respect the Church.

The association chairman, Hudson Ndeda, said it's not their role to ascertain the source of cash donations.

"The church has no capacity to ascertain the sources of funds flowing into it. Respect the church and give it room to grow and regulate itself," he said.

But as his term comes to an end, President Kenyatta has been warm to the Church. He joined the Akurinu church during 100 years celebrations last month, and even offered one of them a job, donated five acres of land to church in Naivasha, contributed Sh10 million to support it and further donated Sh1 million to buy Akurinu books.