Acting Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi’s intervention may have suspended de-registration of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and Africa Centre for Open Governance (Africog), but it is likely to be only a temporary reprieve for key civil society bodies that have been on the government’s radar for quite a while.
Dr Matiang’i acted following widespread condemnation of the move to halt activities of the two organisations that have, for many years, been at the forefront of democratisation, good governance and human rights advocacy in Kenya.
The “ban” edict was widely seen both locally and internationally as a brazen political crackdown on critical civil society voices even before President Uhuru Kenyatta had formally assumed his second term in office.
It was also noted that the two organisations had for many years been associated with opposition causes, and might be deeply involved in National Super Alliance (Nasa) presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s Supreme Court challenge of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s election victory.
It was in the wake of withering criticism – including from key Western governments that had endorsed the election outcome – that the government decided to beat a retreat.
Dr Matiang’i directed NGOs Co-ordination Board director Fazul Mahamed to put on hold de-registration of the two civil society groups pending investigations into alleged tax evasion, fraudulent accounting and illegal employment of foreigners.
He asked the Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho to form a committee to review the accusations over 90 days.
The team is composed of State bureaucrats that are more likely to toe the Jubilee Government line pursued by Mahamed that is deeply hostile to civil society groups deemed hostile to the administration.
The committee is chaired by Interior Principal Administrative Secretary Joseph Irungu, and includes Principal Secretaries Monica Juma (Foreign Affairs), Kamau Thugge (Treasury), Kenya Revenue Authority Commissioner-General John Njiraini, Solicitor-General Njee Muturi, and Director of Immigration Services Gordon Kihalang’wa.
Also included in the probe team was the umbrella body of civil society groups, the National Council of NGOs; as well as representatives of the two organisations under scrutiny, Africog Executive Director Gladwell Otieno and her KHRC counterpart George Kegoro.
From the word go, it was apparent that the targeted NGOs were not impressed by Dr Matiangi’s reprieve, seeing it as more of a tactical retreat in the face of international pressure rather than a genuine roll-back of incessant government efforts to tame civil society.
They were also not impressed by composition of a probe team that could hardly be expected to conduct an independent and objective investigation.
Their fear was that State bureaucrats in the team were unlikely to take a position against sustained anti-NGO crusade that is seen to be driven by State House and the Jubilee Party machinery.
It might be instructive that even as Dr Matiang’i was suspending de-registration, KRA officers and the Kenya Police Directorate of Criminal Investigations were raiding the Africog offices in apparent compliance with “orders” from Mr Mahamed. They were denied entry when it turned out their warrants were defective.
Mr Mahamed had also written to DCI boss Ndegwa Muhoro, who closely hews the party line in criminal investigations, asking him to close down Africog and arrest its directors, saying it was operating illegally. Another letter was to the Central Bank of Kenya demanding a freeze on bank accounts of the two organisations.
It was under such circumstances that KHRC chairman Makau Mutua demanded that the order to ban or deregister the two organisations be rescinded altogether rather than just suspended.
The statutory Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and other civil society groups weighed in too, demanding that the ban be rescinded. They also pointed out that the entire order was null and void as Mr Mahamed had no authority to supervise civil society as the NGO Co-ordination Board ought to have been shut down once the Public Benefits Organisation Act was passed. The problem here is that the Interior Cabinet Secretary has failed, despite a court order, to operationalise the new law governing the NGO sector.
The political import of Mr Mahamed’s latest assault on civil society can probably be gleaned from the fact that when Mr Odinga announced a change of mind and decided to file a Supreme Court petition against President Kenyatta’s victory, he cited the fact that civil society groups were being crippled. Africog was one of the key plaintiffs in the 2013 election petition challenging Mr Kenyatta’s election.
It might not be coincidental that as Mr Mahamed was cracking down on the two, Jubilee social media activists, as well as surrogates in the mainstream media, had been activated to launch slur campaigns against civil society groups.
The latest campaign read like a reprise of the vicious 2013 campaign against what the Jubilee propaganda machine labelled “Evil Society” it accused of having a hand in the International Criminal Court indictments against Mr Kenyatta and Mr William Ruto.
At that time Jubilee had identified key civil society figures it accused of using donor money from Britain, Germany, the US, and Scandinavian countries to run political programmes in Kenya.
In the Jubilee spotlight at the time were figures such as Dr Mutua and his co-founders at KHRC, including the first executive director Willy Mutunga, who went on to become Chief Justice. Also targeted were other human rights crusaders such as Mr Kegoro, his predecessor Muthoni Wanyeki, and Mr Maina Kiai who had greatly raised the profile of the public human rights watchdog, KNCHR. Others were former Ethics and Governance PS John Githongo, who was the founding director of Transparency International-Kenya and now chair of Africog, and Gladwell Otieno.
The latest propaganda onslaught targets pretty much the same cast, and puts at the centre controversial American tycoon George Soros, who is accused of sponsoring “regime change” in Kenya and other countries through his Open Society programme.
An ongoing social media blitz by Jubilee operatives is quite telling. It places the American financier in the middle of a concentric ring entitled “Soro’s blueprint for regime change”, going on to list his “seven steps to bring down a government”.
The list includes: Form a shadow government, control the airwaves, destabilise the State, sow unrest, provoke an election crisis, take power, and outlast your opponent.
It is apparent that the propaganda campaign was designed in expectation that Mr Odinga was going to reject the presidential election results and might resort to civil disobedience.
The campaign in both social and mainstream media was to provide justification for a crackdown on civil society, as well as possible jamming of broadcast airwaves under the guise of the nation confronting a foreign-inspired rebellion.
Under that scenario, the action by Mr Mahamed was not some lone-ranger initiative, but something planned at the very highest levels, just like previous “bans” on foundations associated with Mr Odinga’s daughter, Rosemary; his presidential election running mate Kalonzo Musyoka and outgoing Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero.
The KRA and Police have also been used to launch tax and criminal investigations on other opposition personalities.
In all cases, Mr Mahamed has employed a familiar modus operandi: he writes to the Central Bank, the KRA and the DCI demanding tax and criminal investigations on the targeted group, and freezing of bank accounts.
He distributes copies of the letters to Jubilee social media activists as well as selected journalists in the mainstream media he can rely on not to ask any questions, but conveniently neglects to copy the targeted groups or inform them that they are under investigation.
That gives them no opportunity to respond to any queries on their registration status, financial filings or other statutory returns by the time their deregistration for alleged non-compliance is splashed all over the media.
The crackdown on critical civil society groups might just be the indication of the hardline stance the Jubilee administration wants to pursue in its second term.
For instance, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale has signalled that a priority for Jubilee when the House reconvenes will be to revive a push for the removal of Auditor-General Edward Ouko.
Jubilee might also be raring to take the fight to the Judiciary, having already pointed accusing fingers at judges it feels do not give favourable rulings.
Another obvious target will be the media. President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto do not hide their disdain for critical media outlets, famously dismissing newspapers as only good for wrapping meat.
This is ironical as the Kenyatta family is itself a major investor in the industry through Mediamax Ltd. The stable includes the freesheet People Daily newspaper, K24 TV, Kameme TV and a chain of vernacular radio stations. The popular Kikuyu language Kameme FM radio openly campaigned for Jubilee, and was on the radar of various media monitors for content verging on hate speech.