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State of the Nation: Corruption: A Brief History – 1997 to 2018

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By the twilight of the Moi era, the effects of economic plunder had restructured Kenyan society. 20 years on, under UhuRuto, corruption is better dressed, digitised and speaks finer English. No family is untouched by it. For the millennial generation, the social and economic effects of moral collapse have profound personal consequences. By JOHN GITHONGO

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State of the Nation: Corruption: A Brief History - 1997 to 2018
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My brief sojourn in government from 2002 until 2005 began on the wave of an anti-corruption agenda that Kenyans had bought into. The NARC coalition that swept into power at the end of 2002 was really no more than a collection of rebelling KANU politicians who had the backing of civil society and the religious fraternity fired up by wananchi utterly exhausted with 24 years of President Daniel arap Moi’s stagnating regime. NARC also had a solid economic plan and an anti-corruption platform. For some months in government part of my job in the Office of the President was helping to manage the contradictions caused by citizens arresting policemen and civil servants caught soliciting bribes. The Public Complaints Unit (PCU) that eventually became the Ombudsman’s office emerged out of this in 2003/4.

We were all excited at the possibilities of transformation. The administration was full of leading ‘reformers’, among them Kiraitu Murungi, Anyang Nyong’o and Raila Odinga. And those who were not in government were advising it: Makau Mutua, Maina Kiai, Gibson Kamau Kuria, David Ndii, Kivutha Kibwana to name only a few. They all occupied the same space in the State. Harris Mule, David Ndii and Caleb Opon put together the Economic Recovery Strategy.

However, we learnt quickly that while we were in office, we were not in power. While the anti-corruption push, led from the front by President Mwai Kibaki, started with a bang it faltered within eight months. From my vantage point in the Office of the President there were three immediate reasons for this.

First of all, the nexus of the Office of the President (which included all security and defense agencies) and the Ministry of finance was the fulcrum of corruption in Kenya. And it was from here that a gaggle of civil servants engineered a successful counter-reform effort. Through a series of circulars, directives, committees, commissions and endless meetings, the fight against corruption was bureaucratised, effectively reduced to an annual laundry list by the anti-corruption authority of what they mostly hadn’t achieved, and the odd court appearance by suspects wearing broad smiles and expensive suits. The public treated the emerging charade with deepening derision.

We learnt quickly that while we were in office we were not in power. While the anti-corruption push, led from the front by President Mwai Kibaki, started with a bang it faltered within eight months.

This bureaucratisation was sealed when Kenya ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003 – a case of policy surrender if ever there was one. The expertise of the World Bank, IMF and other donors in this area was unchallenged, programmatised and affirmed. Our political class had outsourced anti-corruption. This was ironic given the improvements in economic management that gave the regime considerable leeway to define the fight against graft within our own particular African political reality.

Secondly, some of my own colleagues were essentially ‘bought off’ or overcome by greed, all rigorously and robustly justified. Some were refreshingly honest about it. One cabinet minister told me directly, “After 10 years in the opposition we have to eat, John, and if it means shaking down banyanis – sawa!” Others – much to my surprise, it was the ones who’d been most vocal against the ‘Moi dictatorship’ and were activists for good governance, transparency, human rights etc – degenerated into very basic ethnic chauvinists. One colleague, who has done very well for himself and his practice since 2003 to date – whispered to me one evening in Kikuyu: “We have arrived! This thing is ours John. We can never let it go.” He was as, as they say, a grown ass man, as excited as a child allowed into the cookie shop at night. For this lot ‘eating’ was a tribal right that had been earned by years in Moi’s political wilderness.

Much to my surprise, those who’d been most vocal against the ‘Moi dictatorship’ and were activists for good governance, transparency, human rights etc, deteriorated into very basic ethnic chauvinists. One colleague, who has done very well for himself and his practice since 2003 to date – whispered to me one evening in Kikuyu: “We have arrived! This thing is ours We can never let it go.”

I remember one group of senior colleagues who’d been given an all-expenses paid trip to Asia. They returned with new clothes, expensive watches and their skins glowing from massages and other ‘treatments’ that had been laid on. Before long if you wanted to chat with a senior colleague about something urgent it was easier to catch them at the building site of a house that was being expanded or built from scratch. Or even better, at the home of a second wife or concubine, where the mood was far more relaxed.

Thirdly, there were those for whom state power had always been about business – ‘reforms’ were an after-thought. Many of them were former bureaucrats who’d gone into politics. Some of them were old-school types – bright, well educated, experienced and systematic in the affairs of government. It was utterly fascinating watching them slip and slide. At first everyone tried to be at all the important policy meetings, to contribute to the great changes underway. Among these were some of the key players around the President – the so-called Mount Kenya mafia. Within months though, they started to spin away. The amount of time dedicated to official business declined. They stopped picking up their phones. They would eventually be tracked down at country clubs, or meeting bankers, architects, lawyers – transacting.

 

*******

 

Earlier this week President Kenyatta, while addressing the 8th Presidential Roundtable Forum hosted by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), railed against corruption condemning the vice and noting accurately that it had the potential to undermine his Big Four agenda ‘and completely destroy the country’.

Of all Kenya’s heads of state, Kenyatta has been by far the most articulate against graft – and the least successful in fighting it. Painfully aware of this stark dichotomy, he has sometimes launched angry tirades and, at other times, defeated proclamations with regard to the rampant theft and plunder his regime has overseen.

These failures were never more apparent than when Kenyatta delivered his fifth State of Nation address to parliament earlier this month: Watching his speech, I was struck by the extent to which despite his proclamations and purported actions with regard to graft since 2013, the Kenyatta regime is stuck in a situation and condition very similar to that of Moi in 1997 despite vastly different circumstances.

By the late 1990s the Moi regime had literally emptied the public coffers. The giant Nyayo Era patronage machine was operating under the constraints of the IMF and World Bank’s stringent fiscal policy supervision. Teams of technocrats sent from Bretton Woods were drafting policy, dictating budgets and keeping a watchful eye on the till. But somehow the Nyayo Machine found a way. Taking advantage of the Bretton Woods’ prescribed massive offloading of public assets – especially land, houses and other assets owned by parastatals, the railways, universities, etc – they literally dished these out to themselves. Some of these assets were disposed of and quickly entered the bloodstream of the banking sector. The building boom in Nairobi’s Upper Hill harks back to this time. Many of the current shenanigans in the NSSF, NHIF, telecoms and power sector were seeded in the ‘liberalisation’ and ‘privatisation’ processes that were pushed through back then. It’s worth noting that the current anti-corruption agency was itself a creature of this IMF-Nyayo compromise.

The giant Nyayo Era patronage machine was operating under the constraints of the IMF and World Bank’s stringent fiscal policy regime. But somehow it found a way. Taking advantage of the Bretton Woods’ prescribed massive offloading of public assets – especially land, houses and other assets owned by parastatals, the railways, police etc – cronies literally dished these out to themselves. Some of these assets were disposed of and quickly entered the bloodstream of the banking sector. The building boom in Nairobi’s Upper Hill harks back to this time.

The impact of the regime’s plunder back then was to restructure society in ways reminiscent of what’s happening today. While newspapers regularly carry headlines on the latest scandals Kenyans have become numb to them. Economist David Ndii recently observed that ‘the Uhuruto kleptocracy has plundered Ksh. 350 billion (US$3.5 billion) since 2013, ranking fifth in the world kleptocracy league table, right behind Mobutu and Abacha  (US$5 billion), Ferdinand Marcos (US$10 billion) and Indonesia’s Suharto at US$35 billion’.

The logic of the looting since 2013 has been different, however. It is driven by a Faustian pact between the Kikuyu elite led by Uhuru Kenyatta and the Kalenjin elite organised around Deputy President William Ruto. It was a pact forged out of the 2007/8 Post-Election Violence and the subsequent International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. It has turned out to be the most expensive political coalition in Kenya’s history and one that has liberalised corrupt activity to an extent that for a generation of millennials it has been normalised

 As I said, the 1990s was a similar time in terms of theft and plunder in Kenya. The regime deliberately ensured it was so pervasive – that everyone was touched by it. As a result, many Kenyans were gripped by a moral paralysis. Today, the elite has gorged so wildly and widely that there is no one who isn’t affected by it in very practical ways. This is especially true of the urban middle class, historically the primary articulators of the country’s governance-related aspirations. Because, almost every family today has a wheeler-dealer flashing rapidly accumulated wealth while being reticent about discussing its sources. We all have a cousin with a ‘ka-contract’ of the NYS, Kenya Power & Lighting variety; a nephew who’s paying the odd kickback to keep business going and justifying it with persuasive arguments. Many of us have a relative or a friend sleeping with so-and-so for this and that, in these deeply unequal times where a weekly sexual escapade, no matter how distasteful, can totally transform one’s life and that of their family.

Today, the elite has gorged so wildly and widely there is no one who isn’t affected by it. This is especially true of the urban middle class…[A]lmost every family today has a wheeler-dealer flashing rapidly accumulated wealth while being reticent about discussing its sources. We all have a cousin with a ‘ka-contract’ of the NYS, Kenya Power & Lighting variety; a nephew who’s paying the odd kickback to keep business going and justifying it with persuasive arguments.

We all have Harambees for medical bills, school fees and other domestic crisis where the preferred guests of honour are those closest to the plunder. And so, a toxic cloud hangs over even the best of us. Many single malts are downed justifying why things have to be the way they are while simultaneously decrying the situation.

Part of the genius of crony capitalism and theft-fed plunder is to ensure as many people are touched by it as possible even if all it means is owing a favour.

The real difference between the present and the 1990s is that the normalisation of plunder is better educated, better dressed, speaks finer English, is digitised and has aspirations equivalent to their metropolitan counterparts in the West. The architecture of theft is conceived not by whispering bureaucrats and politicians in drinking dens but well coiffured lawyers, accountants, bankers, lawyers and the exotic breed of ‘investment advisors’ with MBAs who invest in the arts, join wine tasting clubs and are as impressive when discussing the Kenyan Stock Exchange as they are holding forth on Brexit. Corruption smells better in 2018, it is better dressed and better read. That said, there is still a vicious model of extortion for corrupt purposes that has become prevalent at top levels of the regime.

Ultimately, the plunder Jubilee has unleashed is constructed on a bed of conflict of interest that necessarily involves rotting the public services sector, acquiring publicly-owned bodies on the cheap via privatisation exercises, and then corporatising the new private outfits through mergers and partnerships with global multinationals. This is best exemplified by the binge on foreign debt and the international cast of suspects that attend to it.

Just as the Arab Spring terrified authoritarians around the world closer to home, impatient millennials are pressuring the politics. They are at once cynical about change and desperate for it. Their university degrees are increasingly meaningless. They realize that you only get ahead if you are part of a racket or in the neighbourhood of one.

And yet one gets the distinct feeling that the elite realises the game cannot continue forever. Just as the Arab Spring terrified authoritarians around the world, closer home, impatient millennials are pressuring the politics. They are at once cynical about change and desperate for it. Their university degrees are increasingly meaningless. They realise that you only get ahead if you are part of a racket, or in the neighbourhood of one. For them inequality has never been more personally consequential. The Nigerian election in 2015 that saw Muhammadu Buhari ousting Goodluck Jonathan was in part a revolt driven by these forces. We’ve seen a former head of state imprisoned for corruption in South Korea. A couple of weeks ago former South African president Jacob Zuma was in the dock for corruption. This week the Malaysians, for the first time ever, voted the opposition into power led by a 92-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. One can’t help the thought that the giant Malaysian 1MDB scandal in that country had something to do with these extraordinary political developments. Elites here too will have to duck and dive to stay ahead.

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John Githongo is one of Kenya’s leading anti-graft campaigners and former anti-corruption czar.

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Why Voluntary Clean-up of Plastic Waste by Companies is Trash Talk

Manufacturers should be held liable for the harm caused by their products and they should be made responsible for the collection, recycling and final disposal of plastic waste.

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Why Voluntary Clean-up of Plastic Waste by Companies is Trash Talk
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By global standards, Kenya is generally not a wasteful society. Estimated in 2018 at 11 kilograms per person per year, the country’s waste generation is just over a third of the world average of 29 kilograms. In places like Nairobi, up to a fifth of that waste is plastic and relatively little of that is properly disposed of. However, only around 7 per cent is recycled. The rest, from bottles, caps, and food packaging to illegal plastic bags, finds its way to dumpsites, rivers and the ocean, or clogging up drains and littering the environment, into the stomachs of animals, birds and fish, and eventually into our own bodies.

With the problem set to get much worse—estimates are that by 2060, plastic generation will have nearly tripled—the question of what to do about it, and specifically who is responsible for cleaning it up, has become contentious. After all, pretty much all the plastic we have is produced by private industry. For example, a 2020 study shows the industrial sectors that produce the most plastic waste are food, packaging, textiles, and automotive tires. But the companies involved have long foisted the responsibility for the clean-up on their customers and on public entities.

Basically, the issue is framed in moral terms. If only people were more careful about where they disposed of their plastic bags and bottles, we wouldn’t have this problem. It is the end user who bears responsibility and thus needs to change. But this ignores that people don’t always have the resources, knowledge, choices and ability to safely dispose of plastics. On the other hand, the companies that saturate the market with convenient plastics can be among the largest, most powerful and wealthiest in the world.

According to the 2021 Brand Audit Report, a global audit of plastic trash conducted by the Break Free From Plastic movement, “fast moving consumer goods  companies (FCMGs) such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Mars buy packaging from manufacturers supplied with plastic resin from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, Ineos, and Dow”. The audit involved over 11,000 volunteers cataloguing and counting the branding on plastic waste across 45 countries in six continents to help identify the companies that created it.

What responsibility do these global corporations, and their local partners and competitors, have for mitigating the harm their products cause? The idea behind the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is that product manufacturers and distributors are responsible for the entire lifecycle of products and packaging they bring to the market, even after the consumer is through with them. Introduced by Thomas Lindhqvist in Sweden in 1990, it moves the burden for dealing with waste away from individuals and society, to the businesses that profit from its production. Lindhqvist, who presented his research to Sweden’s Ministry of the Environment, theorized that companies responsible for their products would make them more recyclable and reusable, making the overall system less wasteful. In his doctoral thesis written a decade later, he listed models for EPR including holding manufacturers liable for the harm caused by their products, making them pay for—or physically responsible for—their collection, recycling and final disposal, and requiring them to provide information to consumers about the environmental damage they cause.

EPR seeks to make environmental costs visible. Lindhqvist calls it “a necessary condition for reflecting the essential life cycle costs in the price of the product” and alerting buyers to them. “With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products. Consequently, these costs run the risk of being [overlooked] by the consumer when he is making the buying decision. Indeed, they are beyond the control of the consumer today and will not be influenced by his actions. Equally important, the manufacturer of the product may [overlook] such costs when designing the product”.

According to an article by Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative, not all EPR systems are born equal. Potentially good EPR programs can become bad because of poorly crafted implementation, especially when public oversight and control is handed over to business. As he notes, “corporate objectives for maximizing profits are not always compatible with achieving the highest environmental values,” offering examples when such programs have either gone awry or been deliberately sabotaged or undermined by corporate interests.

“With the exception of a few EPR systems, costs connected to waste collection, recycling, or final disposal, for instance, are not reflected in the price of the products.”

In Kenya, efforts to tackle plastic waste have faced fierce resistance from local manufacturers and distributors of plastic. In the mid-2000s, attempts to increase taxes on “flimsy” plastics bags (with a thickness of under 30 microns) were met with widespread protests by traders, as were similar efforts in 2011 by the National Environmental Management Authority and the Kenya Bureau of Standards to ban bags below 60 microns. The 2017 ban on plastic bags also faced stiff opposition, with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and several traders filing an unsuccessful petition at the High Court to block its implementation.

Since 2019, the government has sought to transition the country from a linear economy, where raw materials are collected and transformed into products that consumers use and discard as waste, to a circular economy, where products have an extended shelf life and are built so they can be repaired and recycled. The latest policy and legislative interventions in this regard are meant not only to strengthen the overall waste management landscape in the country but to also tackle the growing problem of plastic waste. These include draft regulations that seek to establish a mandatory EPR scheme whereby producers are legally responsible for the entirety of their product’s life cycle.

In a typical bid to head off regulation by the state, Kenyan corporates have set up voluntary EPR schemes such as PETCO, which identifies itself as “the Kenyan PET plastic industry’s joint effort to self-regulate post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling” and the Kenya Producer Responsibility Organisation (KEPRO) which was established 2021. However, the Talking Trash report published by the Changing Markets Foundation in 2020 describes PETCO as a ploy by “FCMGs such as Unilever and Coca-Cola . . . to ensure they can continue to sell single-use plastic products in the country” and to push responsibility and blame for pollution onto consumers by urging them to “#do1thing. Recycle”. The companies have fiercely resisted introduction of a mandatory Deposit Return Scheme for plastic beverage containers, where consumers leave a small deposit which they recover when they return the empty bottle or can, which was how Kenyans for a long time bought their drinks in the era of glass bottles. By far the world’s top polluter according to the Brand Audit Report, Coca-Cola has claimed the scheme would be inappropriate for the country despite a finding by KAM in its 2019 Kenya Plastic Action Plan that while not suitable for collection of a wide range of plastic products, DRS was nonetheless feasible for collection of beverage containers. It is important to note that KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.

The behaviour of local and global corporates validates Seldman’s point that businesses cannot be trusted to voluntarily implement EPR as the profit motive does not always align with environmental objectives. For example, according to the Talking Trash report, Coca-Cola “has a double incentive to stymie DRS—every refillable glass bottle that is displaced from the market is replaced by 25 single-use plastic bottles, and, in Kenya, the advent of single-use plastic bottles has outpaced local glass bottlers—which would also bottle beverages from local soda brands, stifling the company’s competition”.

Further buttressing the point, local activist organizations, such as Clean Up Kenya, have accused PETCO of “continuing to piggyback on the existing system to score public relations points while spending millions of shillings in media campaigns to green-wash what is already a PET bottle recovery scandal”. In a May 2020 open letter, Clean Up Kenya described the pay per kilo  for PET bottles—KSh10—offered to collectors as “almost laughable” and said PETCO had relegated collectors to “slaves of the system” having to gather a pick-up load of bottles just to earn KSh100, with reports of many “in peripheral areas being stuck with as much as 2000 kilos of PET bottles after months and months of hard corporate slave labour”.

KAM frames DRS as an incentive or reward scheme for consumers behaving in an environmentally decent manner rather than a way for polluters to fix the mess they have created.

Around the world, there is little evidence that voluntary targets by industry ever contribute to significant plastic clean up. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that the plastic problem can be addressed through recycling. Yet globally, as reported by The Intercept, “the value of recycled plastic is undercut by “virgin,” or newly produced plastic, which is cheap both because of the low cost of the subsidized fossil fuels used to make it and because its pricing doesn’t reflect the cost of cleaning it up”. Kenya is no exception. In a September 2020 interview, PETCO Country Manager Joyce Gachungi claimed the company had collected and recycled 7,700 metric tons of PET, or over 320 million bottles the previous year, and a further 3,500 metric tons in the first 9 months of 2020. It sounds impressive until one remembers that the industry generates 40,000 tonnes of new PET every year!

In the same interview, Gachungi admitted that PETCO was formed to head off a ban on PET. “When the government banned plastic bags they said that were also planning to ban PET bottles as well. . . [T]he government does not need to ban anything. All companies need to do is to join or form organizations such as PETCO that can be able to hold them accountable,” she said. On mandatory EPR legislation, she says such should only obligate companies “to join organizations that would make rules” which would leave the industry free to set its own targets and priorities.

The fact is, despite the flowery rhetoric, recycling and voluntary EPR schemes are not about companies living up to their responsibilities, but just ways to delay and frustrate the goal of a world free of plastic waste and to socialize the cost and responsibility for cleaning up existing plastic waste while continuing to profit from generating ever more plastic. In the end, only legislation forcing them to actually pick up after themselves rather than foisting the burden on consumers, and that moves towards a full and complete cessation of plastic production, will do.

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?

William Ruto’s administration has an opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role.  

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Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?
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When scholars speak of “civil society”, they usually mean all organized groupings of people that are neither part of government nor part of business. Sometimes media groups are also included. Using this definition, Kenya’s civil society sector is rich and diverse. It ranges from neighbourhood chamas, to churches and mosques, to international NGOs with billion-shilling budgets. Yet it is the highly focused governance and democracy-promoting civil society organizations (CSOs) that usually have the most prominent voices in Kenya. Around the world, the 1990s heralded an “opening” of space for such organizations, but that space eventually began to close. Kenya is no exception to this experience.

There has also grown some confusion in the country about the role that civil society ought to play. In the 1990s, CSOs were perceived by wananchi as primarily interested in fairness, accountability, and human rights—not political power—as they pushed to make Kenya a democracy. But as the new millennium has unfolded, prominent CSO leaders have increasingly been seen as “taking sides” in the political arena, whether in supporting the International Criminal Court indictments and the challenge to the 2022 presidential results, or in themselves running for political office. Although most NGOs and community-based organizations remain apolitical, these changes can make CSOs in general appear to be less united with wananchi as a whole. And this leaves CSOs in a more precarious position.

With the new William Ruto administration, the country now sits at a possible inflection point. Will Ruto follow in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, in threatening to close the space for CSOs, or might he take an approach similar to Mwai Kibaki, under whose leadership vocal Kenyan civil society largely thrived?

As a candidate, Ruto ran as a proponent of accountability. If he wishes to continue in the same vein as president, he will facilitate Kenyan civil society and free media. Doing so will not only help to guarantee his legacy among Kenyans, it will also help to retain Nairobi as a regional leader and an employment hub for the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector. And it could bring more politicians with a CSO background to his side.

Here, we present a brief history of the space allowed for civil society over the past sixty-plus years and under the three previous administrations, followed by a discussion of possible trajectories for Ruto and their potential outcomes.

Kenya’s rich history of civil society since before independence

Kenya has had a reputation for being home to a strong civil society sector—arguably the strongest in East Africa. This reputation stems from the long-standing culture of harambee, which encourages people to work together to better the community. The sector has also grown in part out of the country’s religious communities. But it has also grown from the decolonization movements that included educational institutions, trade unions, and ethnic associations, among others fighting for self-rule.

Kenya’s CSOs are diverse, yet they all share at least one thing in common: the space in which they can operate is determined by government regulation—and sometimes by a government’s whims. During colonial times, space was exceedingly limited. The colonial government restricted education and assembly in order to maintain its illegitimate power. During the Jomo Kenyatta administration, local community based organizations and harambee groups were granted more space, but also something of a responsibility to provide self-help solutions.

Closed space: repression and resilience under Moi

For more than two decades, civil society was tightly controlled by the Daniel arap Moi administration. After the 1982 coup attempt, Moi learned to carefully monitor society for potential sources of alternative power, including from nongovernmental organizations and the media.

Given flat economic growth and increasing calls for economic liberalization and budget downsizing from powerful Western donors, however, Moi also recognized the benefits of some types of civil society actors. He recognized that they could provide social services like healthcare, education, and sanitation services where the state could not.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work. At the same time, the creation of the governmental NGO Board in 1989 gave his administration an organizational authority to shut down or intimidate democracy, human rights, and governance organizations that he perceived as threatening him politically, while the NGO Act, passed in 1990, provided the legal justification. Media was similarly repressed while harambee organizations, meant to be an avenue for self-help, became politicized tools for support and mobilization.

Moi skilfully developed regulations that allowed such apolitical service-provision organizations to offer needed services, while maintaining the ability to take credit for their work.

Yet individual proponents of opening up the civic space, like Wangari Maathai, Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba, could not be fully deterred. Under Moi, they were largely based in professional organizations like the Law Society of Kenya, religious ones, like the National Council of Churches of Kenya, national movements like Greenbelt, or banned political parties like FORD. From these havens, they pushed for political opening and democracy for Kenyans.

And, importantly, they attracted popular support from wananchi wanting to live without fear of government. Activists and Kenyans together sought basic political and civic rights.

Opening space: CSOs in the Kibaki administration

When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002, he brought with him many allies from civil society. Kibaki’s regime not only hired many CSO leaders like Maina Kiai, Willy Mutunga, Kivutha Kibwana, and John Githongo into government, but also deliberately worked more openly with those who stayed in the third sector. Many thought Kibaki’s technocratic background allowed him to adopt a hands-off approach.

These strong relationships soured somewhat when Githongo was run out of the country in 2005. And tensions grew after the 2008 post-election violence, when some governance, human rights, and media leaders were harassed or restricted, and even murdered.

Yet Kibaki signed the Public Benefit Organization (PBO) Act of 2013 into law before leaving office. The progressive law, which aims to ensure transparency and accountability for organizations in Kenya, has been lauded by civil society advocates, but is yet to be operationalized nearly a decade later.

Further, beyond civil society leaders moving into administrative offices, during Kibaki’s time some civil society leaders began to seek their own political ambitions as well. New research shows that NGO work can act as a pipeline to politics for potential candidates by placing them in politics-adjacent roles and providing them with deep community connections and relevant expertise. Civic activism can align well with opposition politics. This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good. In seeking political advancement—especially in a country where MPs are among the highest paid in the world—former activists-turned-politicians may muddy the waters of civil society, blurring the line between governance and accountability.

Contracting space: Uhuru warns CSOs

The start of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration in March 2013 was in many ways overshadowed by the indictment in the preceding months of both Uhuru and his deputy, Ruto, at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in relation to the violence that followed the 2007 elections. Although service-providing civil society organizations were largely unaffected, and most NGOs stayed out of the conversation, many prominent governance and human rights organization leaders supported the ICC investigations. They petitioned for the courts to bar Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy on account of the indictments and demanded that the trials move forward even after the two were in office. They focused on the worrying “culture of impunity” in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence.

This trend of CSO activists making the leap into politics could erode a focus on human rights and the collective good.

This had caused tension even before the 2013 election. Uhuru’s rhetoric troubled many CSOs as he supported calls for limits on foreign funding of NGOs. Public support for restrictions on NGO funding rose in some quarters as Uhuru supporters suggested that civil society had evolved into an “evil society.”

In the coming years, the space grew more hostile. Uhuru made sharp statements threatening to defund NGOs and restrict foreign worker permits. His administration also stridently refused to implement the PBO Act of 2013, even when ordered to do so by the High Court.

The administration was even willing to use the NGO Board, which the PBO Act abolishes, for political purposes. It sent harassing letters from the Board in an attempt to silence human rights and governance NGOs that had spoken out against Chris Msando’s brutal murder in the lead-up to the 2017 election.

These challenges were compounded by the government’s support of a controversial media bill which would have forced journalists to reveal their sources and, unsurprisingly, drew immediate protests. These efforts to restrict free expression led to reports that Kenya was experiencing significant free speech backsliding,

Yet these setbacks for civil society occurred as Kenyan legal institutions grew stronger. The courts’ empowerment culminated in the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on the 2017 election, annulling Uhuru’s win and requiring that the election be rerun. This dramatic democratic showing buoyed the CSO sector, reassuring governance groups that they were not operating alone, but rather had powerful allies on the march toward a stronger democracy. In so doing, however, did these prominent governance organizations increasingly politicize themselves?

New space: greater autonomy and accountability on the horizon?

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead. We see a unique opportunity for this new administration to distinguish itself from its predecessor as a defender of civil society’s independent role. In so doing, he may thwart further politicization of the sector.

Will President Ruto follow Candidate Ruto’s roadmap? While campaigning, Ruto worked hard to separate himself from prior administrations. He presented himself as an “outsider” candidate, immune to dynasty politics. His opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative suggested wariness of the strongman politics of years past and signalled an openness to robust government accountability, a point he has made at home and abroad.

Candidate Ruto appeared to extend a hand to civil society groups, in contrast to Uhuru’s contentious engagement with the sector. He promised that they would be free to operate without government interference. He explicitly invited them to hold the Kenya Kwanza government to account, referring to the sector as a key accountability mechanism, essential for good governance.

Yet during the same period, Candidate Ruto’s team was accused of media harassment that threatened progress toward a more robust democratic space for all. Prominent CSOs called for an opening of civic space with an eleven-point list of demands. They noted that Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations, had rated Kenyan civil society as “obstructed” while Ruto was deputy president.

The future prospects for Kenyan civil society now depend a great deal on how Ruto decides to lead.

It remains unclear what hand Ruto may have had in marginalizing civil society during the Kenyatta administration. And he may still harbour a grudge against CSOs for their support of the ICC trials. Regardless, the relationship between his administration and CSOs is off to a rocky start, as it is well known that prominent civil society groups strongly supported Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga, in the August general election. After the election, leading civil society activist (and The Elephant founder) John Githongo, claimed to have evidence that the IEBC could have been hacked easily. Githongo’s affidavit, which the court ruled could amount to perjury, was a prominent part of the larger, unsuccessful, effort to overturn Ruto’s win.

Moreover, compared to past periods, activists such as Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform. Even former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has advocated that civil society actors form a political party, a move which would further muddy the waters. Through these explicitly political dabblings, and by betting on Odinga in the August poll, the civil society sector may have inadvertently undermined its future relationship with the Ruto government.

Nevertheless, as president, Ruto can choose whether to see civil society as a continued opponent or not. At least publicly, he has not moved to restrict the sector in retaliation, and has called for civil society and media to work hand in hand with government to amplify the voices of Africa globally with regard to climate change. Yet after more than two months of the Kenya Kwanza government, it is not clear that the administration is going to heed its own calls.

If the new administration can put aside its election-related differences with prominent civil society actors and submit to accountability meted out by CSOs, Ruto will find an undeniably effective way to prove the anti-dynasty politics for which he campaigned. This may prove fruitful if he plans to seek re-election in 2027. It could also endear him to Western allies, who have historically encouraged democracy.

Activists such as John Githongo and Boniface Mwangi have been more open about their partisan leanings, which may make it easier for citizens to discount their calls for reform.

Indeed, abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally. The West is facing challenges with declining democratic credibility both at home and abroad. The US and UK spoke out in support of the ICC cases, yet took a “business as usual” approach to relations with the Uhuru/Ruto administration. Western leaders also praised the 2017 elections before they were annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court. If Ruto shuns the temptation to ignore the warnings of civil society, his administration could be a model on the international stage that would needle at older democracies that may be leaning away from accountability.

On an even more practical note, re-opening space for civil society could help Ruto fulfil his vow to reinvigorate the Kenyan economy. The international humanitarian and development sector comprises a nontrivial part of the economy. There are not only UN agencies based in Nairobi, but also around 12,000 active NGOs countrywide, who employ an estimated quarter of a million people. The sector brought in KSh185 billion in donations in the 2019/2020 financial year.

Abstaining from undermining civil society freedoms while also choosing to embrace criticism from CSOs could distinguish Ruto’s leadership internationally.

Research shows that development sector organizations like international NGOs tend to locate in democratic countries more than in authoritarian ones. Thus a welcoming environment for civil society could help to retain Nairobi as a leader and an employment hub of the large Eastern Africa and Horn development sector.

Ruto must decide which legacy to leave for the history books. Ultimately, his administration, like those of his predecessors, may find itself unable to resist the temptation to frustrate and marginalize civil society actors who opposed his presidency. If that happens, we expect the sector to grow ever more nimble, adapting to restricted space just as it has in the past.

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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Philosophy for the People
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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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