Uhuru's threat to NGOs is reminiscent of Moi's crackdown in 1995

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s mashujaa day threat to NGOs and civil society organizations is very disturbing. His speech sounded like a polished script from former President Daniel arap Moi’s numerous attacks on nonprofits and the civil society. If the President’s threat to “defund” the civil society groups, (never mind that these groups do not receive any Kenyan taxpayer’s money) is implemented then Kenya will have gone 20 years back overnight.

For beginners the 1980s and 1990s were some of the darkest years in Kenya’s political history. Moi’s crackdown on dissenting voices back then was suffocating. Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, the God father of the civil society in Kenya can attest to this.

Like Jubilee today, President Moi’s government camouflaged it’s intolerance to dissent with catch phrases like protecting Kenya’s “sovereignty”, unmasking foreign masters funding the civil society and vilifying civil society leaders as unelected “sellouts” serving selfish “foreign” geopolitical interests.

Moi and other KANU hawks whipped sections of the citizenry to believe that civil society groups were destabilizing the country and used all manner of brute force and savagery to silence critics.

I vividly remember working for Kenya Human Rights Commission as a very young Program Officer in charge of research and reporting. My job entailed researching, documenting and compiling quarterly repression reports and the state of human rights in Kenya.

Between January and December, 1995 for instance, Kituo cha Sheria and the Kenya Human Rights Commission led by Dr. Willy Mutunga and Maina Kiai were attacked a few times by hired goons sympathetic to the government  philosophy. Further, on February 20, 1995 the Kivutha Kibwana led CLARION was deregistered by the NGO Board for allegedly publishing material that “damaged” the credibility of the government.

Attacks and threats of deregistration were not the only tactics used by the then KANU regime. The NGO Board created under the NGO ACT of 1990 comprised government appointees and NGO representatives.

Unfortunately the NGO representatives on the government regulated NGO Board were a minority and their vote did have any impact. Such composition explained why the chairman of the NGO BOARD unilaterally issued the de-registration notices without listing the alleged “offensive” publications or explicating how such reports were "injurious" to the government’s credibility.

Apart from outright civil society organizations leading the clamor for a new constitution and political dispensation, policy groups or think tanks were also targeted by the government. Like today, the government hid under the guise of fight terrorism to deregister six nonprofits following the 1998 bombings of the US Embassy in Nairobi.

The government could provide enough evidence to back up their claims that these organizations were associated with the terror attacks.  Just like clarion before them, the six organizations were reinstated by the High Court for lack of evidence.

Flash forward to 2014. Some of the leading lights in the civil society movement of the 1990s are now deeply entrenched in government. These include Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga, embattled Makueni Governor Professor Kivutha Kibwana, Mukurweini MP Kabando wa Kabando, my friend Cecily Mbarire of Runyenjes and her Gatundu South counterpart Moses Kuria to mention but a few.

Government advisor and originator of “The Tyranny of Numbers,” Dr. Mutahi Ngunyi was also a fierce defender of the citizen’s right to assemble and associate freely and a donor magnate. How about Attorney General Professor Githu Muigai? He was a household name in NGO circles back in the day. It will be interesting to watch how these government officials will advise the President as he embarks on an all out war with the civil society.

The president is not entirely wrong on designating some organizations as terrorist sympathizers. Extraordinary circumstances necessitate extraordinary measures. However, using this as an excuse to gag and emasculate the civil society is ill advised. Like back in THE 1990s, today’s opposition in parliament is disillusioned and impotent owing to the ruling coalition’s tyranny of numbers in both houses.

For this reason alone, Kenya needs a vibrant civil society to check on the excesses on the government. Further, it is wrong for the government to assume that it has the right to decide how Kenyans are supposed to think and perceive it. Citizens, including nonprofit organizations have a right to differ with the government. Such differences do not constitute sabotage, espionage or “hate” of country.

Proponents of the impeding bill to reduce funding for PBOs to 15% allege that their goal is to ensure that such organizations account fully for donor funding. They have also threatened to follow the sources of funding. This is a laughable hard sell for two reasons.

First, my experience with Western donors shows that organizations are required to account for every penny. It is inconceivable that any donor expects the government to be its watchdog over funds disbursed to nonprofits. Secondly, safe for a few groups with potential terrorist links, most nonprofits list their donors on their websites. The government does not therefore need to go on any fishing expedition.

The author is the Assistant Director of International Programs at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC.