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The return of civil society challenge

Monday November 6 2017

Civil society

Inuka Kenya Trust CEO John Githongo (left) and Muhuri Chairman Khelef Khalifa converse on November 6, 2017 after addressing journalists regarding intimidation of civil society members. Civil society has stood up to challenge the legitimacy of the October 26 repeat presidential poll. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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One of two things is about to happen. President Uhuru Kenyatta will be sworn into office for a second and final five-year term, or Kenyans will go into a third round of presidential electioneering.

Whichever scenario carries the day, the most visible aspect of the lead-up to the August 8 poll and up to now is the return of civil society.

Love it or hate it, the resurgence of civil society organisations (CSOs) — the Uhuru administration unflatteringly calls it ‘the evil society’ — has revived memories of the vibrant people’s movement that effectively ended the Moi dictatorship.


The 1990s generation will surely recall Mr Elkanah Odembo, when as chairperson of the National Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, he led a civil society movement that focused on good governance.

Burton Odera and Jam Karanja, Donata Obara, Dominic Walubengo, Achoka Awori, Adelina Mwau, Oduor Ong’wen, Irungu Houghton, Davinder Lamba, Abdulrahman Wandati…


These are but a handful of civil society luminaries who will be remembered when the history of CSOs in Kenya is finally written.


Some of them, like Prof Wangari Maathai, Willy Mutunga and Salil Shetty rose to become the first African woman Nobel Peace laureate, the first president of the Supreme Court of Kenya, and secretary-general of Amnesty International, respectively.

What marks out the above-mentioned personalities is that although they ran NGOs that had specific agenda, with the environment and human rights standing out, they stood up for Kenya when it needed them most.

The outcome was a relentless campaign that ended the Kanu regime.

Cyprian Nyamwamu was part of that great movement, and I recently sought his views on what became of the vibrant SCOs of the 1990s.


The context was the persecution of CSOs by Mr Fazul Mahamed, the executive director, NGOs Coordination Board.

In the post-August 8 election, Mr Mahamed hounded Ms Gladwell Otieno and Mr George Kegoro, bosses of the African Centre for Open Governance (Africog) and Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), respectively, on tax-evasion claims.

The two read mischief, accusing Mr Mahamed of targeting them for challenging the legitimacy of President Kenyatta’s win in the August 8 poll.

Their claims are understandable. CSOs — and they include trade unions of the pre-independence era — have been in the forefront of Kenya’s political liberation.


Mr Nyamwamu cites the different approaches that CSOs have used from the 1990s to date.

The Elkanah Odembo troops employed confrontational approaches to force Kanu to accept to talk.

In the Kibaki administration, Nyamwamu accuses CSOs of going to bed with the government, albeit with good results, including seeking accountability for the post-election violence.

Things took a turn for the worse for CSOs under Jubilee, which saw the ‘evil society’ hand in the ICC cases that tried, but later freed Mr Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr William Ruto for bearing the greatest responsibility for post-poll violence.


The ICC cited lack of cooperation by the government.

Although the Jubilee policy on CSOs has been containment and silencing, which explains why the Public Benefits Organisations (PBOs) Act has not been implemented since 2013, recent CSO activism indicates that they may be down, but not out.

Civil society has stood up to challenge the legitimacy of the October 26 repeat presidential poll, in which the voter turnout in 113 constituencies was less than 20 per cent.

We could be witnessing the return of the civil society.


The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Kenya Chapter’s Njonjo Mue has been vocal against police brutality, traditionally a pointer at dictatorship.

The church — and it is part of the civil society — is also joining voices of concern that all is not well with Kenya.

As great ecumenist and first woman moderator of the World Council of Churches, Kenya’s Dr Agnes Abuom, told me at a different forum before the August 8 poll that Kenya might be headed for a second liberation.

Given the stand-off between Jubilee and Nasa, will CSOs, once again, save Kenya from descending into the abyss?

Donors have previously held CSOs hostage.

The greatest problem is their infatuation with self-serving public-private-partnerships.

Perhaps it’s time CSOs charted a people-driven movement independent of donor funding that keeps shifting goalposts.

Ms Kweyu is a freelance journalist and consulting editor. [email protected]