Civil society have chance to define people's agenda amid the standoff

When Elimu bora working group called for meaningful educations reforms and remedies to end CBC system confusion. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Ufungamano House has been hallowed ground for reformers for over three decades. It is a safe space but a revered and symbolic one, full of history and memories for two generations of change agents.

It is a venue to return to, to rekindle the fire when new battles need to be fought. No surprise then that Raila Odinga and his Azimio colleagues held its first town hall meeting there.

He extended the invitation to the nation's most experienced civil society organisations (CSOs). Getting support from civil society would not just give a degree of legitimacy to Azimio's protests and demands, it would also bring a lot of brain power and moral standing to the table. The CSOs, however, graciously declined Odinga's invite and held their own strategy meeting across town at the same time. That must have been a grave disappointment for the opposition team who have enjoyed close working relationships with civil society for decades.

It must have come as a surprise too to Kenya Kwanza strategists who consistently demonise human rights organisations as 'evil society' in bed with the opposition. So, what is one to make of this decision? Does it represent a parting of ways, a rebirth of civil society or a decision borne from past experiences?

Context matters, however, and it constantly changes. The lack of sincerity, seriousness and trust around the proposed bipartisan talks has led many stakeholders to watch cautiously from a distance and strategise around an agenda bigger than the 2022 election and future IEBC.

The two protagonists have dug a hole for themselves and have no desire as yet to venture outside its perimeters. Azimio still insists the election was fraudulent while Kenya Kwanza has no intention of revisiting the Supreme Court verdict; so, don't expect much progress for now.

Yet both parties are comfortable with the current stalemate despite the divergent impressions they may give the public. Azimio is happy to be a disruptive force for the next five years undermining the legitimacy of this government, while Kenya Kwanza does not want any discussions where it might lose ground.

Civil society, however, now has a golden opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the political stalemate and devise a progressive and radical agenda. From past experiences they have learned that cooperation with any political party is fraught with risk as politicians are adept at stealing their ideas, claiming them for themselves and making private deals while excluding civil society at the critical decision-making moment.

Besides, such deals, handshakes, accords - call them what you will - bring at best incremental changes; at worst they stifle the reform ideals and make the public ever more cynical about the political class.

This has been the trend since the political elite hijacked the NCEC and 4Cs agenda back in 1997 through the Inter Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG). The IPPG package addressed the concerns of politicians about the powers of chiefs and the right to assembly.

However, the larger issues of political, constitutional and economic justice were shelved when political expediency replaced citizen's demands. The process of betrayal and domination featured frequently during the Constitution making process and reached its culmination in the most recent handshake of five years ago.

Civil society may occasionally meet politicians but they have little trust in either camp's willingness to address people's anxiety over cost of living, privatisation of public services and the wastefulness, arrogance and corruption that characterises this regime. Neither side has shown any interest in tracing theft of Eurobond loans as they seek another one despite the promise just last week of no new loans. The state capture of both the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and the Police Service not only attacks the independence of both those offices but paves the way for an authoritarian police state.

The agenda of civil society is to wrench the country back from the two protagonists and give space and a forum for citizens to be heard as in Article 1 of the Constitution. Yes, there is need for dialogue but it must be citizen led and be a comprehensive, inclusive process.