Kenyans must remember role an active civil society played in pushing for reforms

NAIROBI: Pheroze Nowrojee, one of Kenya’s most prolific lawyers and human rights advocate who has always been at the forefront in the democratic struggle, never forgets to remind us that “we have come a long way in this struggle.” Though we cannot afford to sit on our laurels, let us not deny ourselves the joy of celebrating the victories we have had. But in doing that, the warnings of Amilcar Cabral are apt; let us tell no lies nor claim any easy victories.

In that regard let me express my gratitude to Njehu Gatabaki, the long serving editor of Finance magazine and vociferous critic of the Kanu regime. After my article last week on “the role played by the left in the democratic struggle in Kenya,” Njehu reminded me that I forgot to mention many other Kenyans in the left who made tremendous contributions to the struggle in the context of their time.

I agree with Njehu; for we need to celebrate all these gallant Kenyans and correctly record their role in our history. At the same time we need to remind those still around that the struggle is not yet over. The roles we play will, of course, face new challenges which some of us may not be able to cope with. Let the victories be noted while the challenges are confronted.

Two components of the left are critical in confronting the challenges facing progressive politics in Kenya today. These are what has now come to be known as “civil society” and what has always been known as “the media.” Yet it is here that the identity of the left may be fast becoming vague, no doubt as a result of the wide democratic opening into which many players now insert themselves as democrats. The term “civil society” has assumed an omnibus connotation devoid of any ideological content in Kenya today. It is used to group, describe and characterise non-state actors especially when claims of entitlement to designated civil society participation or representation is at stake.

At such times, the descriptive character of civil society requires that aspects of civil society clarify which sector, section or group of civil society is laying claim to a specific form of entitlement. In this regard, a new form of civil society identity has emerged. This is what is currently called “organised civil society” as opposed to inchoate, ad hoc and at times opportunistic civil society.

The most organised form of civil society in the context of Kenya’s democratic struggle have been found in the religious, academic, professional, media and environment sectors. Last week I handled the academic and religious sectors; not in detail but by mentioning key individuals and the roles they played in the democratic struggle from the seventies to the nineties. I also covered what some in the legal profession did; and attention will need to be paid to the Law Society of Kenya in its heyday as a progressive social force. Two social forces in civil society played very key progressive roles in our democratic struggle; these are the media and the environmental movement.

Right from colonial times, progressive journalism and media has always been part of the vanguard for social progress. In the 1960s, the NCCK newspaper, originally edited by Rev Andrew Hake but later taken over by Henry Okullu and Odhiambo Okite, played a very key role in exposing the rot in the Kenyatta regime and the oathing that followed Mboya’s assassination. In the 1970s some writers and columnists in both the Daily Nation and the East African Standard were brave enough to criticise the Kanu regime in defence of people’s democratic rights. But the real “alternative press” did not emerge until the seventies, eighties and nineties with magazines like “Viva” edited by Salim Lone; “Beyond” edited by Bedan Mbugua; “Nairobi Law Monthly” edited by Gitobu Imanyara; “Society” edited by Pius Nyamora and “Finance” edited by Njehu Gatabaki.

I call these magazines “the alternative press” because they had a specific mission in the struggle; they offered an alternative voice to the progressive left. Discussions that could not be carried out in the mainstream media were carried out in these magazines which usually appeared monthly. They were also an important outlet for news coming from the left. It was in the Nairobi Law Monthly that we first published the manifesto of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the precursor of the famous FORD.

With the wider democratic space having been opened since then, and especially following the passing of the new Constitution, debates now go on in the mainstream media which could never have been envisaged before. The mainstream media owes it to the brave pioneers of the alternative press for having opened this frontier of freer discourse in the media. This frontier must never ever be closed. This is why progressive democrats will always fight for the freedom of the press, not in its banal meaning that the press is free to write or publish any nonsense, but that open discourse is the litmus test of a free press. When the late Prof Wangari Maathai refused to allow Kanu to build its gigantic headquarters in Uhuru Park during those gloomy days of the one-party rule, it was her persistence, resolve and courage that brought many wananchi together to hold forth with her and repulse Kanu. Kenyans began to understand the true meaning of her Green Belt Movement. If Wangari were to be alive today she would have taken the securing of our water towers as her mission. Davinder Lamba, Odenda Lumumba and many others who have taken the land issue as an economic and environmental agenda for the social democratic transformation of our nation need to be appreciated in the same league with Wangari. Likewise, the Friends of Karura Forest, who were likewise inspired by Wangari, have done Kenyans proud to keep environmental degradation at bay as they fight marauding capitalists bent on encroaching on Karura to satisfy their real estate appetites.

In the history of democratic struggles, civil society has always been understood to mean social movements and organisations concerned with the public good and social issues and seeking to influence state power without necessarily competing for positions in the State. Civil society is therefore in essence political and interventionist in politics without necessarily being a competitor in the political process with political parties, for example. This is why when leaders of human rights organisations were absorbed in the NARC government, civil society became substantially weakened in Kenya. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) may help in promoting the work of civil society but they are not, in themselves, civil society. That is why they are often quick to announce that they are “non-political”, whatever that means.