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Civil society and its role misunderstood in Kenya

By Rachael Onyango | July 5th 2016

Africa's civil society is facing defining moments. In Kenya, particularly, because it faces a hostile Government and a shrinking civil space in the run-up to the 2017 elections.

Knowledge and perceptions about civil society's role and core premise are, seemingly, barely understood. We are all part of civil society, unless we are defined by what we do.

The organisation of groups and entities working in the public interest are collectively referred to as civil society organisations (CSO).

Broadly, CSO refers to not only non-state actors, but those that are of a non-profit nature. The Public Benefits Organisations Act, 2013 defines PBOs as voluntary membership or non-membership group of individuals or organisations, which are autonomous, non-partisan, nonprofit-making and engaged in public benefit activities.

The CSO roots are erroneously traced to the clamour for civil rights and multi-partism in the early 1990s. Public benefit entities existed way before then, with some international charities having landed in Kenya before independence.

The error is plausible, because, the civil society term has (again, erroneously), been associated with a particular sub-sector; those that engage on governance and human rights issues.

The sector has inaccurately been profiled and narrowed to this cohort, perhaps because they are the loudest. A lesson for the development and humanitarian focused players to up their communications and public information game!

After the 2002 General Election, and strengthened by the discernible pro-democracy role the civil society played in the run-up, CSOs enjoyed improved government relations, buoyed by dialogue and mutual interests.

Fast forward to post-2013 elections, they face an uncertain future as Government intensifies efforts to crack down on their independence; a glittering pro-democracy constitution notwithstanding.

The widely held view that the Government is intent on shrinking civil space holds water, if you consider the raft of CSO pursuits that seem to put the Government on edge.

Key is the strong stance taken by majority of the governance CSOs in support of the International Criminal Court. In 2013, CSOs once more took issue with the conduct of the IEBC and were enjoined in the famous presidential petition filed by the Opposition.

In 2015, CSOs rubbed legislators the wrong way; voicing their opposition to the creation of the affirmative action; social development fund, and successfully petitioned the courts to declare the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) unconstitutional.

More recently, human rights abuses carried out under the Government's counter-terrorism campaign haven't gone unnoticed, thanks to human rights CSOs. Lastly is the courage exhibited by sections of civil society to call out the Government and legislators to account through demonstrations.

This explains the Government's unease with the civil society. Evidently, the Government is trying to sway public opinion by linking CSOs to terrorist activities and touting them as mouthpieces of the West.

Activists have also faced intimidation and threats. Government has also not shied away from robbing the CSO cradle; recruiting pro-ICC CSO diehards who are now its propagandists and puppeteers.

Attempts to change the PBO Act to limit CSO foreign funding did not go unnoticed, neither did the superfluous deregistration threats by the NGO Coordination Board.

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