In considering the various threats posed to electoral integrity by digital platforms, it is imperative to discuss the use and regulation of personal data. The link between access to personal data on the one hand and the commission of electoral fraud or voter manipulation on the other has been examined severally in academic articles and news media. The pertinence of this discussion in Kenya is clear considering two major developments have occurred since the last election cycle – parliament enacted the Data Protection Act (DPA) and approved the appointment of a Data Commissioner. The nature of our discussion in this article revolves around whether these changes are likely to result in a positive material change in the conduct of campaigns, and if not, what can be done to ensure this. We focus on the use and regulation of personal data in the context of political messaging/campaigning.
Political messaging is central to electoral integrity. How political actors conduct themselves in the dissemination and crafting of their messages can either promote or undermine a democracy. The aim of political messaging is often persuasion. Through their messages, political actors hope to convince voters to support their policy positions or candidature. In the not-so-recent past, political messaging in Kenya—and generally around the world—was aired through traditional broadcast media. Radio, newspapers, and television served as the primary means through which political actors could reach their audiences. The nature of these means of communication, and the context surrounding their use, often meant that political messaging was easily discernible from regular content. In other words, audiences could easily tell when they were looking at a political advertisement due to the overt nature of the means and message. Further, since these are mass forms of communication, there existed little opportunity for targeted messaging – differentiating the type of messages disseminated based on the receiving audience and thereby disguising the political aims sought through the message. This meant that the electorate often had a shared experience of elections because they were subjected to uniform persuasion tactics by political actors.
Nevertheless, even when using one-to-many forms of communication, there were attempts to use targeted messaging. During the 2007/8 elections, for example, some local language radio stations were used to fan the flames of ethnic violence by exploiting the homogeneity of their respective listeners to disseminate messages of hate. In another example, bulk text messages targeted at specific communities were used to divide Kenyans along tribal lines to the extent that the then Safaricom CEO, Michael Joseph, considered blocking text messaging services.
The premise of targeting is simple. With basic demographic information, a person crafting a message can do so in a manner that appeals to specific subsets of the target population with a view to persuading the recipients. The demographic information required for targeting is often clearly observable and easily obtainable—names, ethnicity, age, occupation, etc. Through targeting, the messages disseminated to members of one demographic may vary considerably from messages sent to the rest. Targeting has been shown to be practically effective, and in some cases beneficial. In Wajir, community radio has been used to educate the local community on the effects of climate change as it relates to them. The fact that the information has been presented in the community’s language Somali, coupled with the relation of the messaging to their lived experiences, has led to robust community engagement on the topic. In political contexts, targeted messaging may be used to raise awareness around key policy or legislative decisions to ensure affected individuals are involved in the decision-making process. However, it may equally be used to achieve undesirable outcomes as we noted in relation to the bulk text messages used in the 2007/8 elections.
Targeting and microtargeting: why split hairs?
One election cycle later, political parties involved in the 2013 elections had significantly increased their reliance on digital campaigning and engaged in more detailed targeting. With an increased rate of internet connectivity and smartphone penetration in the country, political actors were better able to reach audiences at an individual level. For example, messaging targeting younger audiences appealed to their concerns about unemployment, while older audiences were informed of candidates’ plans for national stability. This was perhaps aided by the fact that a lot more demographic information was readily available on social media, and there existed no legislation regulating the collection and use of such personal data. However, the use of this ordinary targeting did not reflect the state of technology at the time.
Through the introduction of social media, and the large-scale collection of personal data that takes place on such platforms, the nuance applied to targeting had considerably developed by the 2013 election cycle. The sheer amount and scope of personal data available to political actors through these platforms meant that the precision of targeting could be infinitely refined. Essentially, there was a shift from targeting to microtargeting, with the major difference being the amount and scope of personal data used. While targeting involves using basic demographic data to craft messages for subsets of the target audience, microtargeting makes use of a wider range of data points such as online habits gleaned from trackers on social media platforms. With a broad enough range of data points, individuals conducting microtargeting can create profiles on each audience member and tailor individual messages that are a lot more subtle and convincing than ordinary targeting.
If a political actor were deploying ordinary targeting, their messaging would focus on the homogeneity of the receiving audience, assuming that the factors that would persuade them lie in their homogeneity. In microtargeting, the audience, despite being homogenous, would be further broken down at a granular level, bringing out each individual’s unique profile, and the motivations behind their political positions. The messaging targeted at such individuals is often presented in a seemingly organic manner. For example, by tracking an individual’s social media use either directly or through analytic firms, political actors can create a profile on the said individual and use that to inform the type of online advertisements they would purchase and organically place on the individual’s social media feed. In essence, microtargeting campaigns hone in on the specific trigger points of an individual or small blocs of voters, seeking to influence their behaviour during campaigns and on voting day in subtle ways.
There was a shift from targeting to microtargeting, with the major difference being the amount and scope of personal data used.
There is not enough publicly available evidence to assess the extent to which political actors in Kenya engaged in microtargeting during the 2013 and 2017 election cycles, perhaps other than the documented use of social media advertising. However, in both cycles, it is widely reported that Cambridge Analytica rendered its services to various political actors in the country. Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenya—which it described as “the largest political research project ever conducted in East Africa”—entailed a large-scale gathering of Kenyans’ data through participant surveys. This, coupled with the personal data it had already improperly acquired through Facebook, ostensibly allowed it to carry out microtargeting. It claimed to be able to craft messages specific to individuals as opposed to broad demographics. In particular, it admitted to developing messaging to leverage voters’ fears of tribal violence.
The risk posed to electoral integrity by practices such as microtargeting are clear – an inability on the electorate’s part to discern organic content from political advertising calls into question their democratic autonomy and the legitimacy of political processes. The lexicon adopted by some commentators in relation to these practices—“digital gerrymandering” and “computational politics”—is therefore unsurprising. The progression of political messaging from a relatively transparent and clearly discernible practice which was uniformly applied to the electorate, to a subtle, insidious process which is based on a sophisticated level of differentiation is possible, in large part, due to the unregulated collection and use of personal data.
Personal data use in targeting and microtargeting
The idea that one can sort personal data based on certain traits and analyse it for purposes of targeting is not novel. Neither is the audacity of the attempt. In her book If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future, Professor Jill Lepore chronicles how Simulmatics Corporation—a company founded in 1959—laid the foundation for the type of microtargeting Cambridge Analytica was engaged in. Simulmatics, through its “People Machine”, purported to be able to predict voter behaviour by making use of predictive models it developed using large swathes of personal data which it categorised into 480 subsets. Their aim was to breakdown voter profiles as granularly as possible, and to predict how each subset would respond to political stimuli. They sought to forecast voter behaviour and influence the 1960 US elections. They failed. In their pursuit of this aim, however, they foreshadowed and contributed to current microtargeting practices, which appear to be significantly more effective. They certainly highlighted the centrality of personal data to the development of such predictive models, long before average voters began publishing vast amounts of personal data on social media platforms.
As we previously discussed, the type and scope of personal data required to conduct regular targeting is basic. In Kenya, such data has previously been easy to obtain, with little-to-no controls on its usage. In everyday life, Kenyans encounter dozens of vectors through which their personal data is collected. From mobile money payments to entry logs at government buildings, Kenyans are forced to part with crucial personal data to obtain various services. The value of this personal data for commercial advertising has been recognised by data brokers who reportedly harvest such data for direct marketing. Political parties have also collected personal data from such brokers for targeting.
The lexicon adopted by some commentators in relation to these practices—“digital gerrymandering” and “computational politics”—is therefore unsurprising.
For political parties and candidates, the avenues through which they can harvest personal data are not limited to brokers. In an article on political microtargeting in Kenya, Hashim Mude helpfully identifies four additional avenues. The first of these is the register of voters which is publicly accessible during election periods by virtue of Section 6 of the Election Act. The second avenue is the membership lists compiled by the political parties themselves by virtue of their compliance obligations under Section 7 of the Political Parties Act (i.e., parties have to demonstrate that their composition is sufficiently representative). More traditionally, political parties also conduct direct collection through their grassroots networks – this is the third avenue. Finally, political parties are also able to collect personal data from other registered parties through the publicly accessible members’ lists under Section 34(d) of the Political Parties Act.
The data collected through these means primarily serves political actors in regular targeting; microtargeting would require them to gather a much broader set of data points to complement the basic demographic data they have access to. While political parties may not be able to gather such specific data sets themselves, they are often able to either contract analytic firms such as Cambridge Analytica to do so, or to leverage the data gathered by social media platforms by purchasing advertising whose audience is curated to fit the needs of the political party. This notwithstanding, evidence suggests that political parties primarily engaged in regular targeting, i.e., crafting and disseminating communications based on broad demographics such as ethnicity.
Despite Cambridge Analytica’s implication that the scope of personal data it harvested enabled it to conduct microtargeting, the evidence that is publicly available seems to suggest that basic targeting through bulk messaging along tribal lines was the primary outcome of their operation. However, one of the material differences arising from their involvement was the vast amount of personal data they collected both directly and indirectly, likely rendering this regular targeting even more potent than usual. They were able to collect such data due to Kenya’s weak regulatory framework. As Cambridge Analytica’s CEO at the time explained, Kenya’s virtually non-existent privacy laws provided them a conducive environment for their activities. This is arguably one of the main reasons political actors have been able to get away with the improper harvesting and use of personal data for both targeting and microtargeting in the past. With the enactment of the DPA, it is hoped that this will change.
Towards regulation: is there a practical difference?
As a starting point, it must be noted that Kenya’s constitution guarantees every person the right to privacy. However, until 2019, Kenya did not have a centralised law detailing how this right should be respected and fulfilled, particularly in an increasingly digital age. The DPA therefore seeks to regulate the processing of personal data. By putting in place restrictions on the collection, use, sharing and retention of data relating to identifiable natural persons, the DPA is expected to mitigate the improper handling of personal data and safeguard the right to privacy. It applies to all persons handling personal data, including political parties and candidates.
Practically, the enactment of the DPA means several things for political actors seeking to make use of personal data. For one, the obligations introduced by the DPA would invariably hamper political actors’ ordinary collection and use of personal data. Since the DPA contains prescriptions at each stage of the data lifecycle (collection, storage, use, analysis, and destruction), political actors have to be a lot more careful. For example, while it was previously easy to collect personal data indirectly and indiscriminately, political actors now have to do so directly seeking the consent of the individuals to whom the data relates (data subjects).
In everyday life, Kenyans encounter dozens of vectors through which their personal data is collected.
The collection and use of personal data would also have to be grounded in a lawful basis. Further, the principles that underpin the DPA would operate to restrict some of the microtargeting practices political actors are engaged in. In requiring that political actors only collect and make use of the minimum amount of data required for the lawful purpose they are engaged in, the DPA forecloses, to some extent, microtargeting which relies on a wide scope of personal data. The DPA also brings the practices around personal data collection and use under the supervision of the Data Commissioner, with whom these political actors would be required to register.
It is not yet clear what tangible effects (if any) the DPA has had, or will have, on the practice of targeting and microtargeting other than, perhaps, a broader awareness of privacy rights among individuals. It is also too soon to measure this because the operationalisation of the DPA is, at the time of writing, still ongoing. To be clear, the DPA is fully in force and is binding. However, key components such as the draft regulations are yet to be put in place; they were only recently developed. Without these, the Data Commissioner would be unable to, among other things, register data controllers and data processors (in our case political parties and candidates) to ensure that their activities are monitored. The proposed regulations, for example, would require individuals and entities involved in canvassing for political support to mandatorily register under the DPA, enhancing the Data Commissioner’s visibility of such actors, and facilitating enforcement action (if required).
The fact that the DPA is yet to be fully operationalised has not prevented Kenyans from relying on it to hold institutions accountable. The Data Commissioner commendably provides the public with an opportunity to file a complaint through its website even though the regulations relating to compliance and enforcement are yet to be enacted. In June of this year, a large number of Kenyans discovered—through the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties’ (ORPP) online portal—that they were registered as members of political parties without their knowledge or consent. After receiving over 200 complaints, the Data Commissioner held a meeting with the ORPP to arrange for the deregistration of those individuals. Less than a month after the ORPP scandal, the guest list of an upscale hotel in Nairobi was leaked online for purposes of revealing that a certain politically connected individual had resided there for a period of time. Shortly thereafter, an advocate filed a public interest complaint with the Data Commissioner. In response, the Data Commissioner indicated that it would look into the possibility of a data breach.
The implications of these complaints to the Data Commissioner are twofold. On the one hand, it is a positive development that Kenyans are aware of the office and its mandate. However, on the other, it is concerning that the improper handling of personal data is still common nearly two years after the enactment of the DPA. Such practices are indicative of either the absence of a sufficient understanding of the DPA and its requirements, or a blatant disregard of those requirements, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Putting in place the systems and infrastructure required to operationalise the DPA is important. However, it may not be very effective if the culture around data use is not reformed.
The fact that the DPA is yet to be fully operationalised has not prevented Kenyans from relying on it to hold institutions accountable.
From the improper handling of personal data, it is apparent that broad sensitisation around digital rights is required. Innovative initiatives such as Nanjala Nyabola’s Kiswahili Digital Rights Project which seeks to “translate and popularise’” key digital rights terms into Swahili may serve as a useful starting point for the sensitisation of individuals. Indeed, one of the Data Commissioner’s functions under the DPA is raising awareness around data protection. Synergistic collaborations with academics, civil society, and even the private sector can greatly contribute to a better understanding of data protection concepts, and how various actors are to conduct themselves. These efforts may also increase the electorate’s understanding of how microtargeting works, and the steps they can take to reduce their susceptibility to targeted messaging, such as using search engines that do not allow trackers for example.
For the use of personal data in campaigns, the involvement of political parties and candidates in these sensitisation efforts is especially crucial. As noted by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) “the true ethical evolution of political campaigning in the long term will only be possible if political parties recognise that they are drivers in ensuring a high standard of data protection through the whole system”. In fact, the ICO proposed that such sensitisation be carried out by political parties and candidates in collaboration with electoral commissions (in our case the IEBC) and data protection authorities. By consulting with the two authorities, political parties and candidates would also be able to agree on standards that would guide their use of commonly held data such as that derived from the voter register and party membership lists. These efforts could perhaps even dovetail into public commitments by political actors to shun the improper use of personal data in campaigning. An example of such a commitment is the Pledge for Election Integrity developed by the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity.
The efforts to improve the culture around personal data use in campaigns could further be supplemented by regulation of the actual political messaging that results from this data use. The result of microtargeting campaigns is often political advertising that is precisely targeted and subtle. Kenya’s legal framework governing political advertising is currently underdeveloped. Aside from the Communication Authority’s (CA) guidelines on bulk messaging, there are no detailed guidelines on how political advertising ought to be carried out and how transparency can be achieved. The CA’s guidelines effectively aim to increase the transparency of political advertising done through bulk text messages. This is the aim of the regulation of political advertising – reclaiming the transparency lost over time through advancements in technology. Considering the subtle nature of messaging derived from microtargeting campaigns, an increase in transparency would likely contribute to restoring (or at least safeguarding) some level of autonomy for the electorate.
The CA guidelines would sufficiently cover the use of ordinary targeting in the form of bulk text messages as we head into the 2022 elections. However, further prescriptions may be required to deal with microtargeting conducted through social media. Such prescriptions could include disclosure obligations on the part of political parties and candidates when running advertisements. They could also include transparency obligations on the social media platforms which host these advertisements. For example, some platforms have taken to labelling accounts which are government-affiliated or are running political advertisements.
There are no detailed guidelines on how political advertising ought to be carried out and how transparency can be achieved.
Armed with the knowledge that a particular piece of content is sponsored by a certain political actor, a voter may at least have an opportunity to question the motives pursued. Authorities such as the IEBC and the Data Commissioner may be able to work with social media platforms to identify appropriate transparency tools that could be deployed in the forthcoming elections. Such a collaboration would have to be alive to unique local contexts. For example, applying labels to the accounts of political parties and candidates may not be sufficient considering the practice of hiring third party groups to push certain messaging online. One such group is known as the 527 militia, its name being derived from the amount of money each member is paid to run with a campaign – KShs527 (approximately US$5).
Heading into the 2022 election cycle, Kenya ought to do a few things. First, the DPA should be fully operationalised. Second, the Data Commissioner should collaborate with political actors and the IEBC to engage in widespread sensitisation around data protection and the use of personal data in campaigns. Third, political parties should commit to the proper use of personal data in their campaigns, perhaps even signing public pledges as a show of goodwill. Fourth, political advertising on social media platforms should be more closely regulated to ensure transparency. Finally, the Data Commissioner and the IEBC should work with social media platforms to develop appropriate tools that would be applied in Kenya to enhance platform accountability and transparency of messaging.
This is the second of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation and is made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.
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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.
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.
War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War
The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.
It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.
Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.
In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.
Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.
The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.
The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.
The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.
The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.
This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.
Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.
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