Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power in January 1986, at the head of a victorious National Resistance Army rebel movement that had won a bitter five-year guerrilla war.
30 years later, with nearly an equal number of constitutional amendments to extend his stay in power, including lifting presidential term and age limits, he is a man who looks determined to put in another 32 years, if his body allows it. His spirit is certainly very willing.
He has scattered and broken the spirits of his challengers with beatings, harassment, jail and even exile. Until 2005, his grip on power was largely aided by the fact that Uganda was a single-party state, ruled by what Museveni’s government elegantly called the “no-party system”.
Everyone was assumed by default to be included in his ruling National Resistance Movement. It thus followed that there were no ideological differences among them. Therefore, candidates could run for office on the only thing they could conceivably have differences on – “individual merit” (do the people consider you a good or bad woman?).
All that was upended in the late 1990s when Museveni’s former physician in the bush and later party ideologue, Kizza Besigye, broke ranks with the NRM in one of the most audacious political moves of the time in Uganda, and challenged him in the 2001 elections. For Museveni to triumph, it took a muscular vote-rigging effort, and the raising of a militia led by a vexatious colonel to suppress the wave of support that greeted Besigye.
However, Besigye had tasted the forbidden political fruit, and there would be no going back. The country’s rejection of the “no-party” system, and the opposition to Museveni’s 15-year rule couldn’t be denied. Four years later, multiparty politics was restored, but there was a caveat to it: the referendum that introduced pluralism was accompanied by a proposal to scrap presidential term limits.
In late 2005, a senior Museveni aide sat across my editorial conference desk at the Monitor media offices in Kampala, where I was editor. With just the two of us, there was no need to play to the gallery, so we could speak reasonably about the election. He said he had studied the election outcome in some detail, and his conclusion was that Museveni was unlikely to be unseated in the long term by a conventional opposition candidate.
The force that would bring him, and other African strongmen, down, he said, was urbanisation. Even at that point when Museveni had a stranglehold on the country, urban areas, especially Kampala, eluded him. Despite the ruling NRM deploying the most lethal weapons in its vote-cheating arsenal, they had failed to wrestle the capital’s mayorship and the majority of the parliamentary seats around the capital, from the opposition. The bulk of the opposition gains in recent years have all been largely in urban areas.
In late 2005, a senior Museveni aide sat across my editorial conference desk at The Monitor, where I was editor. With just the two of us, there was no need to play to the gallery…He had studied the election outcome in some detail, and his conclusion was that Museveni was unlikely to be unseated in the long term by a conventional opposition candidate.
They were cosmopolitan, more expensive to bribe, more knowledgeable, more demanding of higher value public goods (jobs and housing, not maize seeds like the rural voters might), he noted. Most African governments, he said, either don’t have the financial and policy resources to assuage these urban demands, and where they do, they face entrenched opposition by vested interests, some regime-linked, for them to be effective.
Today, looking at the rising wave of protests over service delivery, cost of living and jobs across the continent from the Cape to Tunis, and Mombasa to Lagos, he could not have been more prescient.
The conventional wisdom goes that Africa has too many young people who are poorly educated, and economies that don’t offer them anything gainful to do so they are angry – especially because the politicians and bureaucrats are stealing the resources that would have gone to creating opportunities. Or they are educated, but still have no opportunities, and so are frustrated and therefore inclined to take down establishments that aren’t working for them.
Indeed Africa’s population has been on the rise over the past 50 years, and over 60 percent of its current 1.3 billion population is below the age of 25. The continent’s youth account for 60 percent of all Africa’s unemployed. This has led to sometimes-apocalyptic declarations of the continent’s youth bulge being a “ticking time bomb”.
If that were the only driver of current unrest in Africa, it would be relatively easy for scrupulous and effective governments to fix. However, it is not.
Rather than just protesting at poor economic conditions, and a bleak future, Africa’s youth are doing much more, and have many in the world frightened. For example, Europeans are afraid of the wave of African migrants, and people of colour in general, driven from their homes by lack of economic opportunities overrunning their cities and taking over their countries, given their declining populations. That fear is rocking the European Union, feeding the rise of anti-immigrant forces.
Rather than just protesting at poor economic conditions, and a bleak future, Africa’s youth are doing much more, and have many in the world frightened.
To be sure, young Africans are on the move. The majority don’t try to negotiate treacherous Mediterranean waters to get to Europe, or trudge through war-ravaged Yemen to get to the Gulf. More than 80 percent of African migration occurs within the continent.
But that is not the only movement they are making. They are also moving from the rural to urban areas, with Africa’s urban population projected to reach 60 percent of the total population by 2050.
They are moving from the analogue to the digital world. By 2017 there were 419 million Africans connected to the internet via mobile broadband, and that number is estimated to hit 1.07 billion by the end of 2020.
They are moving from consuming culture in the real world, to doing so online, with its artists beginning to ride the viral wave in a big way. Davido’s “Fall” in January 2019 became the longest charting Nigerian single in Billboard history, and the first video by an African musician to rack up more than 100 million views on YouTube in December. He was closely followed a few weeks later by Yemi Alade whose hit single “Johnny” pulled her across the line to make her the first female African artist to reach the 100 million views milestone on YouTube.
They long ago moved from watching local to global football. They are abandoning the old hierarchical Catholic and Protestant churches, and signing up to the range of Pentecostal and other independent churches, a few led by charlatan pastors, hawking instant miracles, and direct tickets to paradise. At base, however, they are looking for real life solutions, not to go to heaven.
Davido’s “Fall” in January 2019 became the longest charting Nigerian single in Billboard history, and the first video by an African musician to rack up more than 100 million views on YouTube… A few weeks later Yemi Alade’s “Johnny” pulled her across the line to make her the first female African artist to reach the 100 million views milestone on YouTube.
And, yes, in all African countries except a handful, opinion polls tell us as high as 50 percent to 75 percent of them would like to move as far away from Africa or their home countries as they can.
These actions, aspirations, and shifts are challenging the status quo, borders, and power in non-traditional ways, and they are panicking.
Understandably. If you have millions of your young people speaking their minds freely on social media, without passing through conventional channels such as mainstream media, schools, and churches curated by grown ups who are considered trustworthy guardians, the national project can be imperilled. If you have young people ogling skimpily dressed men and women, or watching pornography, going against longstanding moral codes and the rules about when and how you see the opposite sex naked, it threatens the soul of the republic.
They are listening to all sorts of music, some of it with cuss words, twerking dancers, and simulated sex online.
The establishment is striking back. In Uganda, you have an anti-pornography commission, and a social media access tax that is a sin tax. A similar digital sin tax has been slapped in Zambia, and put on hold after a backlash in Benin. In Tanzania, the joys of blogging will set you back a stiff $900 in fees. In Egypt, social media users with more than 5,000 followers are considered publishers, and are subject to state regulation.
If you have millions of your young people speaking their minds freely on social media, without passing through conventional channels such as mainstream media, schools, and churches curated by grown ups who are considered trustworthy guardians, the national project can be imperilled.
Music is being banned around Africa in record numbers, and musicians like Diamond Platinumz in Tanzania are not even allowed to travel and perform their banned music in more liberal jurisdictions. Countries like Uganda are now considering new rules to censor lyrics, plays, and movie scripts.
Music is being banned around Africa in record numbers.
In other words, an old elite that wants to keep them in the structures that constitute the current states is blocking young people’s movement to alternative political, cultural, aspirational, and virtual worlds. Some of the protests are informed by youth resistance against these attempts by power to control or kill off shifts to their “new world”, as it were.
This mass migration across many aspects of life on the continent represents an old phenomenon in some respects. Like elsewhere, every generation has tried not just to remake their environment to conform to their worldview, but also to claim their share of the national goods.
A time always comes when every national cohort seeks a round of redistribution of the nation’s wealth. It can take different forms, including a chance to unlock natural resources through policy, direct handouts, or a place at the political table.
For the first 40 years of Africa’s post-independence period, it was fairly straightforward. There was independence, and the political and economic freedoms that came with it. Most African countries had relatively small populations, and the prices of the primary commodities they sold in the world market were fairly stable.
A time always comes when every national cohort seeks a round of redistribution of the nation’s wealth.
There was an expansion of education, health, jobs new and old as the colonial officials vacated, the generation that fought for independence and their children were, on the whole, well rewarded. The bar was low.
There were European settler farms, businesses, and Asian stores to parcel out among the new African elite, as in Kenya and Zimbabwe, in the flood of“Africanisation” and nationalization actions in their various forms.
Today, these have run their course. There is little left to steal or expropriate for the current generation. Aid has slowed down, and cheap post-financial crisis capital is no longer flowing.
Chinese money doesn’t travel far to the private sector, largely fattening state bureaucrats and regime affiliated business people.
Post Cold War economic liberalisation either recapitalised a few bankrupt state enterprises, or privatised them to the new elite spawned from the second and third liberation wave. The rest were buried in the graveyard of structural adjustment.
Meanwhile Chinese goods, cheaper and wider in range than the stuff that flowed in from Dubai after 1990, have ravaged artisanal industries, once thought to be immune to globalisation, as has happened in Sudan, compounding strongman Omar al-Bashir troubles.
Post Cold War economic liberalisation either recapitalised a few bankrupt state enterprises, or privatised them to the new elite spawned from the second and third liberation wave.
Besides increasing urbanisation, even in rural areas more and more Africans are moving to live a short distance away from main roads and highways. Just seeing the shiny cars, and the movement on pick-ups and lorries full of goods they cannot afford (mattresses, furniture, beer) radicalises them.
As Zimbabwe has proved, there’s little political capital to be gained from land redistribution. Most people don’t have the capital to work the land profitably. In many cases the soil is tired, trashed by either abuse of fertiliser in the past, or population pressure, and environmental ravages of recent decades that have ravaged its fertility.
On the whole, the cost of expropriation and nationalisation, once popular tools, is too high, because you are no longer grabbing from European settlers or an Asian minority that is afraid to fight back, but your own. You risk a civil war when you do.
The longest period of peace and democracy on the continent has bequeathed us an Africa where the likelihood of dying in a traffic accident is much higher than being killed by a bullet in conflict.
But it also means that it is harder now to get rid of leaders or ruling parties that have entrenched themselves and often rig elections as in Uganda, Togo, Gabon, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, to name a few.
The longest period of peace and democracy on the continent has bequeathed us an Africa where the likelihood of dying in a traffic accident is much higher than being killed by a bullet in conflict.
The five-to-seven year cycle in and out of power that happened in the coup era is now harder to achieve if you find a determined strongman dedicated to hanging on. Media liberalisation has actually helped dictators, because you cannot seize the state broadcaster and declare yourself the new junta leader. There are dozens, even hundreds of private radio and TV stations, some controlled by regime supporters, who will foil you, as happened in Burundi in 2015 and Gabon earlier in the year.
So we have a war fought on so many fronts. Offering people jobs and money cannot end it, because some of the demands are born of sharp cultural cleavages.
It is complex, because some of it stems from progress: expanded democracy, health, and technology. In turn, the young are threatening the old states in new ways. Previously, the worst was a guerrilla insurgency, and maybe a deadly famine; now it’s urbanisation, digital secession by the youth, and a different kind of imperialism we quite don’t know how to confront – China’s global market communist imperialism. The novelty of it all is exciting and even mildly intoxicating – if you are not a Big Man in an African State House.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Philosophy for the People
For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.
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.
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