Activism has transformed Kenya in ways we do not appreciate

Friday February 12 2016

Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi. He has this penchant for treating donor funding as a sin. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi. He has this penchant for treating donor funding as a sin. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Sometime in September last year, I had a brief exchange with an MP who also chaired a parliamentary committee. He was unhappy with a small paragraph in my column.

To him, the paragraph appeared to cast a committee report on the Judiciary in bad light. In concluding his email to me, the MP advised me to read the report (I had read it already) and cautioned me against what he understood to be ‘very sensational but unnecessary ‘editorial activism’.” Activism, to him, is a really bad thing.

The MP is not alone. It is increasingly normal for Kenyans to dismiss activism and adduce only negativity to it.

The irony is that as an opposition MP and one whose politics, I assume, are aligned with those of his party leader, I expected him to appreciate more than anyone else the value of activism.

When he sits in his party meetings, I suspect this MP is surrounded by some of Kenya’s most accomplished activists, people whose status in this country is guaranteed by how much their activism transformed Kenya. No wonder, he was surprised when, in that exchange, I defended activism as a good thing and proudly lectured him on its value in our history.

Donor funding is another thing that seems to have recently acquired negative connotations. This make-over popped up again in the week when lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi engaged activist Boniface Mwangi on Twitter.

Mr Abdullahi has this penchant for treating donor funding as a sin. He dismisses those who benefit from it as mindless supplicants to donor dictates. What worries me is that he knows better. Indeed, it can be demonstrated that he is himself a beneficiary of donor funding.


Some of the individuals and organisations that he occasionally represents are beneficiaries of donor funding. Indeed, when he sat in the Judicial Service Commission, he may have noticed that the Judiciary was itself a recipient of donor support.

Other institutions include the IEBC, which received and continues to receive substantial donor support including the basket fund that supports elections.

It is fair, therefore, to call for consistency. Kenyans cannot be beneficiaries of activism and still walk around dismissing activists. We must give this behaviour its accurate English description without being accused of being abusive.

It is plain stupid to rant against activism and donor funds like we repeatedly do and still sit pretty and benefit from the very advantages that come with activism and donor funding.

There are many Kenyans who either have forgotten or do not know that the democratic transformations that have happened in this country have largely been through the gallant collective action of activists and the steadfast support of both local and foreign funds.

Just a little reading will demonstrate this; perhaps Smith Hempstone’s book Rogue Ambassador is a fair starting point.


We, however, must acknowledge that in the overall scheme of things, donor funding is in fact very minuscule. I wonder why we put so much weight on it in our everyday discourse.

Thus, the dismissive attitude towards donor funding is a waste of time if we understood that a huge chunk of democracy work occurs independent of that funding. The funding only complements what is already a local initiative.

In the realm of democracy support for instance, donor support is less than five per cent. What this means is that advances in democracy in Kenya have proceeded through the everyday struggles of ordinary people.

What has helped matters is when there is synergy between the initiatives of ordinary people and those of civil society activists.

This synergy was indeed very consequential in paving the way for multi-party politics, in forcing the KANU regime to accede to minimum reforms in 1997 and in 2002 in harnessing the energies of the political opposition to dethrone an authoritarian regime.

Godwin R. Murunga is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi. [email protected]