Struggle within the struggle



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The world watched in awe as a group of activists dumped pigs at the gates of Parliament to protest against the legislators’ greed in clamouring for a pay rise. The dramatic May 14 event was organised by the civil society under the umbrella of the Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice.

But while on the surface the organisers succeeded in grabbing attention, The Nairobian has learnt of a simmering battle of supremacy within sections of the civil society.

“That day’s demonstration was a well-choreographed ritual by the ‘elite’ career activists and it was supposed to be performed and executed as per the planned script,” says a civil society insider, who asked not to be named for fear of being shunned by his comrades.

“As pre-planned, 10 demonstrators were to dare the anti-riot police, be clobbered and arrested. They would then be paid Sh50,000 each. Some NGOs are also said to have prepared the cash to bail out those who were arrested.”

But part of the plan is said to have crumbled after young activists from Dandora, Kibera and other humble neighbourhoods joined in. Some within the civil society think such protesters are the genuine patriots, with their raw passion, but others believe they are just bidding their time for a chance to climb higher up the food chain controlled by the ‘elite’ activists propped by donor-funded NGOs.

“Africog (an NGO) contributed cash to buy and transport the pig and piglets from Dagoretti to the gates of Parliament,” our source reveals. “Muslim for Human Rights (Muhuri) contributed in printing T-shirts and Transparency International Kenya was in charge of media mobilisation”.

Our source however claims the perception of oneness against MPs’ greed was just a façade.

“Elitist civil society activists are hypocrites per excellence. They were not ready to be overshadowed,” he says, adding that the high profile demonstration, and similar ones, are usually driven by overlapping agendas and vested interests – including proving to donors that their money is well spent.

But Boniface ‘Bonnie’ Mwangi, one of the pig protest organisers – who is described by our source as a ‘lone ranger’ – strenuously denies the supposed material motive. 

“I never do this for money and if somebody thinks that’s the case, let them come with the evidence and I vow I will never go to the streets again. Why should I set up myself to be clobbered, expose myself to being shot and even get a life-long injury or end up in prison?” he asks 

Bonnie, famous for his Picha Mtaani and Kenya Ni Kwetu projects, says he cannot be a gun for hire since he makes more money through photography and giving talks in various institutions across the world.

“I travel to at least six countries every year where I am invited by academic and other institutions to give talks on issues to do with social justice and photojournalism,” the two-time CNN photojournalist of the year says. “I don’t need anybody’s bribes to demand justice and create a better Kenya for my children”.

Bonnie says there is no ongoing struggle among factions of activists. He instead urges his comrades to direct all their energies towards fighting for a better Kenya rather than jostling for fame and fortune.

But our multiple sources maintain that there is a ‘struggle within the struggle’ pitting ‘elite’ activists who wield economic might against their counterparts from humble neighbourhoods and ‘poor’ organisations.

To prove his point, our source gives the example of Bonnie allegedly manhandling fellow activist Joseph Gitonga of Bunge La Mwananchi (considered by some to be the antithesis of elitism) at the pig protest. 

“He grabbed Gitonga’s megaphone and threw it inside Parliament’s perimeter wall, saying he has enough money to buy him (Gitonga) another one,” he says.

But Bonnie alleges that Gitonga was paid by politicians to disrupt the peaceful protest.

“He was telling people to storm the precincts of Parliament. This would have amounted to trespass, leading to many arrests and violence,” says Bonnie. “That is why I took the loud speaker after the police refused to arrest him. I told him I would buy him another one, and the pledge still stands”.

Bonnie, who is organising another demonstration against MPs’ pay demands for June 11, says Kenyans should brace themselves for surprises yet again.

Okoiti Omtatah, a veteran of the civil society movement, says he does what he does because of his love for Kenya.

“I dedicate one per cent of my time and ten per cent of my income to agitating for the rights of citizens through civil society engagement,” Omtatah says.

“This I do as a way of giving back to the Kingdom of God since I am a devout Roman Catholic. Even Jesus Christ was an activist because he spent his life on earth advocating for justice and fighting religious dogma.”

Omtatah, who is also a playwright, says he makes enough money and does not need to be paid to protest.

“I write books, do farming in western Kenya, give talks and do consultancy. I am not on anybody’s payroll and I don’t know of any activist who is paid to be beaten on the streets,” Omtatah says, adding that the activities of his organisation, Kenyans for Justice and Development, are funded by members’ monthly contributions.

He is emphatic that there is no struggle within the civil society made up of patriots whose conviction transcends money.

However, he admits there are those who form organisations to attract funding. These, he says, are the ones who give the civil movement a bad name.

“These are lobbyists who are paid to agitate for a certain agenda and their mission is supply-driven,” Omtatah says.

He cites the Mau Mau and individuals like Dedan Kimathi and Martin Luther King Jr as activists spurred into action by the demand to see change in society.

“Those who say people are being paid should know that sometimes we contribute to give the young men bus fare to go home after a protest since most of them come from very poor backgrounds,” Omtatah told The Nairobian.

“Therefore the issue of people being paid to be on the streets is a lame excuse by cowards who don’t have the guts to face the police in a protest.”

The same sentiments are echoed by Gladwell Otieno of Africog, who says accusing activists of being inspired by money is part of a smear campaign. 

“Most of those who work in civil society organisations are driven by a desire to see change in our country. Besides, for some who work there full time, it is a job,” she says. “Africog acts what it preaches and that’s why we display our financiers (mostly foreign donors) on our website for everyone to see.”

She says although Africog is donor funded, “we turn down any funding that comes with conditions or attachments that we consider not to be in line with our vision and mission”. The Africog board of directors includes Maina Kiai, John Githongo, Gladwell, Funmi Olonisakin, Stella Chege and Duncan Okello.

For now, it seems, the struggle continues but is it as much inside the civil society as it is outside?