The Law Society of Kenya has hit out at President Kenyatta for his blanket condemnation of non-governmental organisations involved in civic education ahead of the 2017 polls.
In a statement on Tuesday, LSK president Isaac Okero argued that NGOs were doing great work in educating the masses about Kenya's electoral and political system, and helping them understand issues of concern.
“The State has a responsibility to protect citizens from any real external threat, including that directed at the electoral process. But general statements demonising Kenya’s civil society engaging in carrying out civic education programs to prepare Kenyans for the 2017 elections are unfortunate and unnecessary,” Mr Okero said.
President Kenyatta on Jamhuri Day argued that foreign powers were planning to interfere with the 2017 polls by financing civil society groups under the guise of civic education.
“In the United States, following the last election, much has been said about potential foreign interference with the electoral process. We are also going into elections next year. There is already money coming into Kenya from abroad in the guise of supporting good governance or civic education,” the President said in Nairobi.
“However, its true intention is to influence our electoral choices.”
The President was citing the recent US elections in which tycoon Donald Trump won the presidency amid claims that hackers supported by Russia helped him by discrediting his opponent Hillary Clinton through email leaks.
However, the lawyers’ body challenged that analogy, saying there are many gaps that the activists are filling such as informing the public on how electoral systems work both before and after voting, helping them identify candidates that promise to deal with challenges affecting them and holding those elected leaders accountable once they get to office.
“These Kenyans are patriots assisting their countrymen to be best able to properly exercise their rights under Article 38 of the 2010 Constitution. Civil Society in Kenya has played a critical role in election preparation since the advent of multi-party politics.”
Article 38 of the Constitution deals with the political rights of Kenyans and, among other things, says “every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage and the free expression of the will of the electors for” any elective public body.
President Kenyatta did not name particular civil society groups, but generally said there were “crooks” running around town with the intention of causing chaos.
On the same day of celebrations, activists, led by Boniface Mwangi, were tear-gassed for demonstrating against corruption under the banner of “Take Back Kenya.”
On Tuesday, some of the activists argued the President should have instead called for a forum with donors and civil society on how they can work with government agencies.
“Rather than whipping up a shallow nationalism to fight donors and civic education organisations, the government should set up a stakeholder committee to oversee the preparation of Kenyans to register and vote wisely,” argued Irungu Houghton, associate director of the Society for International Development.
“The Devolution ministry also has this mandate. Why is it not using it? Or is there no real intention to mobilise Kenyans to vote?”
The government has been consistent in accusing unidentified foreign forces of interfering with Kenya's internal political affairs.
In May, at the height of demonstrations to force electoral agency commissioners out of office, government spokesman Eric Kiraithe claimed some neighbouring countries were working with certain politicians to cause trouble.
He argued those unnamed countries were involved in a scheme to “create conditions of instability, insecurity, lawlessness and strife.”
“The government considers these contemptible undertakings to be a betrayal of Kenya and Kenyans. These are acts of treason,” he argued.
On Tuesday, the LSK said civil society should be encouraged to assist the public to prepare for elections either as candidates or voters regardless of whether they are channelling their programmes through government agencies as long as their programmes are lawful.
The society said it was willing to assist “all Kenyans of good faith” involved in civic education whether as activists or state agencies to prepare for elections next year.