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No smooth march for civil society, but gains are evident

KENYA @ 50
By Stephen Makabila | December 18th 2013
Civil society activists protest in Nairobi against the contentious Media and NGO bills. [Picture: File]

By Stephen Makabila                                   

Kenya: Kenya’s civil society is one of the most vibrant in Africa. Experts say it has a bright future despite visible challenges, given that its operations are now anchored in a progressive Constitution promulgated in 2010.

Its history can be traced back to 1920s when Africans started forming welfare associations such as Kavirondo Taxpayers Welfare Association, East African Association, Taita Hills Association and Ukambani Members Association to advocate for their rights and express dissatisfaction with the colonial government.

However, the post-independence civil society of the 1990s stamped its authority as a force well prepared to check the excesses of Government.

“It is in the 1990s during the fight for multi-party democracy that we experienced a strong civil society. It also played a key role when political parties were banned by the colonialists in 1950s during the Mau Mau struggle, leaving trade unions, which are part of the civil society to carry the mantle of fighting for freedom,” points out Dr Adams Oloo, head of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Nairobi.

Dr Joseph Magut, a political scientist at Kenyatta University, concurs with Oloo on the strong showing of the civil society movement in 1990s.

“Civil society in Kenya today is a third force and agent of change when it comes to advocating human rights and civil liberties. Right from the 1990s under the umbrella of the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC), it has played a tremendous role in expanding the democratic space,” notes Mr Magut.

But what is Civil Society in the first place? Its definition is diverse since it has different understandings from different scholars and interested parties. Therefore, it lacks a distinct universal definition.

The World Bank has adopted the definition of civil society as developed by a number of leading research centres. Hence civil society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations with a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.

Clamour for justice

From this point of view, civil society organisations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide array of organisations, community groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith based organisations, professional associations and foundations.

Kenya has plenty of these whose effects have been felt in every nook and cranny.

In April this year, former Governance and Ethics Permanent Secretary (PS) John Githongo argued that in the imagination of many Kenyans, civil society refers to those mainly foreign funded NGOs involved in advocating for rights, tackling corruption, clamouring for and promoting the Constitution – generally in the area that speaks the way Kenya is governed.

Oloo and Magut say civil societies have played immense roles in Kenya’s political, social and economic growth, but their strength has been varying for the last 50 years.

Success stories

Magut explains that successes of civil societies in Kenya are on political, economic and social fronts.

Apart from having fought for restoration of multi-party democracy, they have been at the forefront in championing for the restoration of peaceful co-existence among Kenyans after the post-election violence of 2007-2008. This they have done through awareness and vigorous campaigns. Examples of these organisations involved are the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, the media, the Church and Islam, and the Kenya Red Cross Society.

Their efforts paid off with the calm experienced in the just concluded 2013 elections where there was no aggressive ethnic violence.

Among those involved in the fight for multi-partism were church leaders such as retired Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, the late Bishop Alexander Muge, Rev Timothy Njoya, the late Archbishop David Gitari, and the late Bishop Henry Okullu. Due to the agitation, the civil society dream was achieved in the 1992 historic repeal of section 2A of the Constitution, which ushered in multi-party democracy.

The civil societies have also been equivocal in the multi-party era advocating for a new Constitution, which was achieved in August 2010. More so, they were vital in the institution of the post-election Grand Coalition in 2008, and kept it under check to ensure gains made over the years were not subverted.

Role in polls

The civil society ensured success of the just concluded elections by monitoring their conduct and exercise to enhance credibility.

AfriCog, a civil society, in the spirit of democracy launched two petitions, one demanding stoppage of vote counting due to anomalies associated with the IEBC’s electronic vote submission system and the other challenging the presidential results.

Although AfriCog lost both petitions, it showed the civil society was actively involved in the elections.

The organisations have also been at the forefront in the fight against disease. Examples are Kenya Aids Consortium (Kanco), Kenya Network of People Living With Aids (Kenwa) and the Network Of People Living With HIV and Aids in Kenya (Nephak). These have been instrumental in curbing the HIV epidemic, which is a huge challenge.

Further, the civil society has proved a great partner to the Government in the slum-upgrading programme.

It has contributed to establishment of better housing and sanitation projects in slums in major urban centres.

Groups’ failures

But it has its failures too. One of these has been identified as their silence after ascendancy to power of retired President Mwai Kibaki in 2002. Some argued given the goodwill Kibaki enjoyed, it was too early to criticise his government.

However, the Government would soon be accused of defending corruption in high places as the NGOs largely kept a low profile.

Despite fighting the Kanu government on policy issues, it never came out strongly to point out corruption under the Narc regime. This led some to think it harboured ulterior motives during the Kanu era.

“What happened is that Narc co-opted members of the civil society into government. Funding was also undermined with donors feeling a good government was in place. This led to the civil society’s weakening,” explains Oloo.

He says while the civil society is slowly regaining the force of the 1990s, the Jubilee government may be keen to put it under check. However, the organisations are necessary in future for sustenance of the country’s hard-achieved democratic space.

“I can see MPs going slow on the NGOs Bill because NGOs supplement them in terms of development at the constituency level, but they (MPs) may not be comfortable with the advocacy role of the same organisations,” adds Oloo.

Creation of jobs

According to Dr Hezron McÓbewa, the Executive Director of the NGOs National Coordination Board, NGOs last year attracted Sh150 billion to the country and between Sh7 to Sh9 billion to the exchequer in taxes, not forgetting over 240,000 jobs generated.

Players in the sector have already raised a red flag over the move by the Government to clamp down on their right to operate without unwarranted State interference.

Members of the Civil Society Organisation Reference Group, a loose network of civil society organisations has expressed disappointments with the recent publication, by the Attorney General, on October 30, 2013, of the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2013.

They are particularly unhappy with the proposed amendments to the Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act, 2013.

Promote growth

Ndung’u Wainaina, the executive director, International Centre for Policy and Conflict, argues that these organisations have played a critical role in promoting and delivering socio-economic development, promoting social justice, good governance and democratic development, rights of participation, fundamental rights and freedoms and a wide variety of other outcomes for the benefit of Kenyans. They must therefore be protected.

But Magut argues while the future for the civil societies is bright, the Government should have the capacity to monitor and cross check them.

“Some groups are not accountable. For example who elects officials? They are accountable to who,” poses Magut.

He notes some civil society group use nearly 80 per cent of foreign sourced funds on hefty salaries for staff, seminars and workshops, leaving only 20 per cent for target communities they purport to assist, the electoral system and process, basic rights, rights of vulnerable groups, affirmative rights, land and property rights, cultural, ethnic, regional diversity and communal rights, management of natural resources and the constitution of constitutional commissions.

Succession and transfer of power was catered for to avoid a repeat of swearing in to office of presidents at night without any recourse to courts for the aggrieved in such elections.

Reforms in vain

Freedom of expression and the media was enshrined in the Constitution after journalists and media owners made their presentation to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) chaired by Prof  Yash Pal Ghai.

It is now more than three years since the reforms were made, but not much has been realised by the reformed institutions, as corruption, insecurity, cut throat competition for scarce resources and unemployment ravage the country.

Devolution is facing perhaps the biggest challenge due to lack of cash to spur development and fund projects and turf wars by the Executive, the National Assembly and the Senate waged against governors in fight for control of the little resources available.

Police reforms hit a dead end after powers bestowed in the office of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC) were returned to the Inspector General’s office.

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