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The state of civil society in the post-2022 election period is a critical topic of discussion. This is because the civil society has increasingly become the alter ego of the Kenyan public and republic. Whenever the civil society takes a position on an issue or comments on a matter of public interest, a lot of whataboutism ensues. Demonstrations and other civic actions are questioned by the public and the government alike: “They want donor support”, we say, “They have been paid to do this”, we argue; “Why did they not speak when this and that happened”, we pontificate. Yet the work done by these organisations is critical. I will start with a short anecdote.

Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC), the Greek historian and geographer is aassociated with the myth of the phoenix – a mythological bird associated with the sun that dies in a “show of flames and combustion” and from the ashes rises again. In my creative writings, I conceive the sun as the “child of an idiotic mother” because no matter how much people curse it, the mother allows it to rise again in the morning of the following day. Have you ever imagined the mother of the sun saying “My child, these beings are not happy with you… stay here some”? We would not know day and night! So the sun rises every day. A bird associated with the sun burns to ashes and from its ashes, it rises and flies away – new and renewed.  Just like the phoenix, the sun that rises the following day is not the one of yesterday. But it is the sun.

And so it is with civil society.

In Kenya, the emergence and proliferation of civil society organisations and formations in the 1990s was predicated on the repeal of Section 2 (A) of the constitution that ushered in political plurality and the age of freedom to associate. Although some organisations like Kituo Cha Sheria, ICJ-Kenya, Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya), etc. already existed, they had little impact in the political sphere because of the draconian state that ran affairs in Kenya. The neoliberal culture to which Prof. Issa Shivji attributes the emergence of civil society has run its course. In his book, Silences in NGO Discourses, Shivji argues that the emergence of civil society is to blame for the death of revolutionary fervour that could have overthrown colonial and postcolonial demagoguery. True, the Hehe Rebellion in Tanganyika, the Mau Mau war, the Arab spring and other truly revolutionary movements were not organised as programmes of development partners.

This does not mean that the civil society has not achieved a lot. It has. But it only did this when it was catalytic as opposed to programmatic. The work done by the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) in the late 1980s and early 1990s could not have been achieved by civil society. The work done by the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC) and the National Convention Assembly (NCA) was only possible because the NCA negated the principles of civil society programming and instead took the form of socio-cultural dynamism dictated by the situations obtaining at the community level. For both FORD and the NCEC, the organising principle was radical change – not incremental gains. The two used popular political mobilisation and localised change agenda to build a national framework for creating a new Kenya. Civil society came to temper this radicalism with caution, asking for and working towards reform as opposed to revolution.

That notwithstanding, the civil society gained gravitas and when the Daraja Initiative of 1998 died, from its ashes rose the National Civic Education Programme (NCEP – later Uraia). The NCEP was very programatised – complete with a South Consulting Ltd. (associated with Carl Wesselink and Prof. Karuti Kanyinga) managing the programme and Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) as the Financial Management Agent (FMA). But the implementers radicalised it; while it was completely non-partisan by design and intent, its implementation nevertheless bore the political dissonance that led to the “Moi Must Go!” mantra.

From this time onward, the civil society moved into the organisational development mode – focussing on the professionalization and strengthening of systems – using the models of the Northern and Western counterparts. CSO coalitions on thematic issues were formed whose professional secretariats and “movements” are run like fully-fledged organisations. Strategic planning, organisational development, corporate governance, capacity-building frameworks, work-plan matrixes based on theory of change and SMART objectives, comprehensive policy frameworks and SWOT analyses became the hallmark of “serious” organisations. They also became a precondition for funding – and the funding is usually programmatic and budgetline-specific. And so the echo-chambers deepened. And creativity, passion, and impromptu action were severely curtailed. Bureaucracy was instituted.

And the sun rose, travelled the sky, and set.

This is not to say that important work was not done, no. A lot was achieved in this period. A civil society initiative, The Yellow Movement (a coalition including Citizens’ Coalition for Constitutional Change – 4Cs; Kenya Human Rights Commission – KHRC; Legal Resources Foundation – LRF; Education Centre for Women in Democracy – ECWD; NCEC; and many others) led the onslaught against the dismembering of the Bomas draft constitution by parliament. It was these efforts that defeated what is famously called the Wako draft constitution that was being forced on Kenyans in 2005. In the post-election chaos of 2007, the Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice (KPTJ) coalition can be credited with the inclusion of Agenda 4 in the negotiations for the restoration of democracy. This civil society coalition also led the push to punish those most culpable of fuelling the chaos (who later became known as the Ocampo Six). The members of the coalition – International Centre For Policy And Conflict (ICPC), Charles Ndung’u Mwangi, Public Corruption, Ethics And Governance Watch, Henry Nyakundi Nyang’aya, KHRC, and ICJ-Kenya Chapter – were  to further pursue the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictees Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in a petition that sought to have the duo struck from the presidential ballot. In 2009 and 2010, the National Civil Society Congress (NCSC) initiated the Katiba Sasa! campaign that became the clarion call for the birthing of the new constitution. The civil society ensured that progressive articles on human rights, public participation, integrity in leadership, devolution of power and public finance management were retained in the constitution. That most of these remain unimplemented is the challenge going forward.

In my opinion, the greatest singular story of achievement for the civil society is the socialisation of the women’s agenda in a deeply patriarchal society and especially the inclusion of the principle of “not more than 2/3rds of either gender in elective and appointive offices” as a constitutional requirement. Although this is still facing resistance (despite a supreme court advisory to the president to prologue parliament), the solidification of the women’s movement owes its success to gender activists within FIDA-Kenya, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), ECWD and the defunct Gender Consortium, among other spaces. Significantly also, the civil society movement is credited with the birthing of the youth movement (The Youth Agenda and the National Youth Movement) and a plethora of other organisations and youth initiatives across the country.

The National Civil Society Congress (NCSC) initiated the Katiba Sasa! Campaign which became the clarion call for the birthing of the new constitution.

Over the years, organisations have been involved in community organising, budget tracking, social accountability research and education. These include the CSO-Network in Nyanza, the Centre for Enhancing Democracy and Good Governance (CEDGG) in the Rift Valley, the Mobilisation Agency for Community Paralegals in Africa (MAPACA) in Eastern Kenya, Inuka Ni Sisi! Ltd. and Umande Trust in Nairobi, Ujamaa Centre Kenya and Haki Africa in the coastal region, to mention but a few. They have kept the fire of good governance and democracy burning in community discourses across the country. This is monumental work.

And again the sun rose, travelled across the sky, and set.

The overarching purpose of the civil society, especially the governance CSOs, has been the guillotining of the KANU oligarchy, the stream forming at Jomo Kenyatta’s feet, who, by amending the independence constitution to create a constitutional dictator and outlawing the Kenya People’s Union that was formed in 1965, visited unfreedom upon our land. This trajectory of righting the wrongs of the state and its operatives has been maintained – even when there have been significant democratic reversals: the IPPG betrayal in 1997, the Kibaki betrayal of the Bomas constitutional process in 2004, the stolen elections debacle in 2007/8, the failure of the leadership and integrity principle in the clearing of the ICC duo to run in the 2013 elections, and the failure by the government to implement the Constitution of Kenya since its promulgation in 2010 to date. The civil society has trudged on, making consistent efforts to customise the democracy project.

The sun rose, travelled the sky, and set.

The post-2022 elections period offers perhaps the greatest challenge for the sector, and this is attested by the loud silence ensuing, the stagnation of civic responsiveness and the tongue-tying anger and bewilderment that abounds. The problem is that even if you are an Azimio apologist and you hold the opinion that the Kenya Kwanza/UDA team did not win the elections fair and square, what do you say about the many people (about half of the voters) who supported them? Granted, the hustler narrative – a promise to alleviate the economic suffering of the poor and slay those who enriched themselves from the public coffers, the dynasties – was a strong narrative. And many people believed it – aided of course by the obvious isolation of William Ruto, the perception of persecution of Kenya Kwanza/UDA leaders and the near-fanatical call for citizens to defeat the “deep state” which “threatened to subvert” the people’s will in the elections. This narrative was populist, and the problem with populism is that it takes the wind out of the sails of the conscientious. Thus the civil society was left high and dry.

In my opinion, the greatest singular story of achievement for the civil society is the socialisation of the women’s agenda in a deeply patriarchal society.

The questions being asked are: How do you hold to account a regime that is clearly antithetical to the democratic principles that civil society espouses? How do you interface with a regime that represents populism but lacks realism? How do you support (whether positively or through constructive criticism) a regime that fails the basic test of good governance – that of fighting corruption so as to protect the public purse? What do you say to the brazenness of its members and its high-ranking officials? If you say I am pessimistic or I judge too quickly, be my guest and help me understand why the prices of basic commodities like fuel and flour have continued to soar and why taxation is growing. Hustlers are in tears. It will be a long five years indeed.

How do you hold to account a regime that is clearly antithetical to the democratic principles that civil society espouses?

On the petition filed by Azimio et al., the Supreme Court ruling (its badass language and poise) meant that very few progressives will expect fairness from the courts on issues of social justice. The judiciary is gone – either in fact or in perception. The fact that the president has been able to have his way with parliament on all counts – the leadership of the houses, the supplementary budget, the passing of his nominees for CSs and PSs, etc. – means that the august house is gone. So, what do we have? An oligarchy. And what does an oligarchy mean? That anything the president (and his men and women) says will be implemented. Welcome to the mid-1960s.

And so, before the sun sets to herald a new country, the civil society must quickly realise that the journey it took – from KPU in 1965, to the Karl Marx times at the University of Nairobi, to the Mwakenya and February 18th Movements of the early 1980s, to the Mageuzi movement of the late 1980s, to the Release Political Prisoners’ advocacy in the early 90s, to the constitutional reform efforts of 4Cs and NCEC, to the betrayed “No Reforms No Elections” campaign of 1997, to the uncertainties and convolutions of the last two decades – that this journey, has brought us to the edge of a precipice, and that it is imperative that the civil society become a phoenix, burning to ashes and from its own ashes emerging renewed and new to meet the challenges of starting a new journey in a new sunrise.