What is the future of Kenya’s reform movement?

Saturday July 13 2019

Opposition leaders Raila Odinga, (right), Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang'ula arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground where they addressed a rally on January 18, 2014. PHOTO | FILE


Last Sunday July 7, Kenya’s reformers of yesteryears returned to Limuru, where they first met in 1997, to audit reforms 29 years after Saba Saba 1990.

I wish to examine the reform contribution of civil society including the faith sector from 1990 to the present.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, civil society together with the intelligentsia, university students, the political opposition, the faith sector and the Kenyan middle class and masses began to assault the one-party state demanding multiparty democracy.

In 1991, after the Saba Saba uprising, section 2A of the Constitution, which had legalised the one-party state, was repealed, thereby allowing multiparty politics.


Secondly, the civil society then pushed for an overhaul of the 1963 Constitution. By 1990, the original basic law had substantially whittled down human rights, independence of the Judiciary, free elections and so on. Indeed, the state did not implement most constitutional provisions.


The civil society first adopted a strategy of holding workshops which were largely attended by middle class professionals, university students and other youth.

These workshops addressed the changes needed to restore Kenya’s democracy. With time the reforms-oriented political opposition joined the workshop initiative.

Initially the Daniel Moi administration did not perceive significant danger from essentially a middle class which was meeting behind closed doors in Nairobi. Also after the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, Western countries began to openly support Africa’s reform forces.

Thirdly, the international development partners helped to fund civic education among the Kenyan populace. There were many passionate Non-Governmental Organisations, including the Law Society of Kenya, International Commission of Jurists (Kenya Chapter), Kenya Human Rights Commission, Centre for Law and Research International, FIDA, League of Kenya Women Voters, Mazingira, Citizen Coalition for Constitutional Change (4Cs) among others, who championed delivery of civic education.


At this juncture, the Kanu government sensed danger. Civil society sought the religious sector which, through the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and Hindu Council was itself engaged in pro-democracy work. The faith sector provided safer venues for civic education. The government was hesitant to attack the faiths.

In the mid-90s, the reform movement made a decision to engage the government through mass action, the electrifying clarion call being “No Reforms, No Elections”.

The reform civil society which up to 1997 led the pro-democracy movement through the National Convention Assembly/National Convention Executive Council (NCA/NCEC), unwittingly handed over the mandate of mobilising the proverbial Wanjiku — the masses — to the political opposition.

Suspicious of the new reform-based civil society power, both Kanu and the political opposition united to ditch the civil society. They proceeded to agree on the 1997 Inter Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms (dubbed minimum reforms) whose thrust was the creation of an environment for freer and fairer elections.

After the IPPG, bad blood developed between the reform civil society and the political opposition. The latter was to lose the 1997 election to Kanu.


After 2002, a section of civil society joined electoral politics and government bureaucracy. They were, like myself, castigated as sell outs.

These entrants into government weakened civil society because there was no proper succession plan to raise new seasoned leaders in the NGO ranks.

After the Mwai Kibaki administration took office in 2003, civil society lost substantial support from the international development partners who now engaged the democratically elected government. The reform civil society had to ponder about another barrier: Is the reform class able to raise its local resources?

The 2005 referendum further divided the reform civil society when a section of it and the faith sector voted “No”, and another section supported the “Yes” side.

Despite the problems highlighted above, the reform civil society was largely responsible for the 2010 Constitution through their intellectual, organisational capacities and consistency. Critically, the civil society successfully agitated for a people-driven constitution making process instead of Kanu’s favoured parliamentary process.

For the reform civil society and a section of the political opposition led by Raila Odinga, the Constitution of their choice was the Bomas Draft which created essentially a parliamentary system with a weak president.

Reform civil society opposed the subsequent Kilifi or Wako Draft, and the Naivasha Draft which was finalised by a select parliamentary committee chaired by the then deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta (representing the Party of National Unity) and cabinet minister William Samoei Ruto (representing Orange Democratic Movement).


Reform civil society in the past contributed to other important initiatives in Kenya. Examples are the Ndung’u Report, which sought state repossession of grabbed public land; the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Report which addressed historical injustices; the Kriegler Report on measures to curb electoral fraud; the Waki Report whose focus was politically instigated violence; police reforms initiative; Kofi Annan’s inspired raft of reforms to deal with unemployment, youth disempowerment, unequal development and marginalisation, among others. Unfortunately, most of these reforms are yet to be implemented.

Currently, there is a clamour to change the Constitution. The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), inaugurated after the “handshake”, has been collecting views on possible constitutional changes. In 2016, a committee led by the Auditor General produced a comprehensive audit of the 2010 Constitution.

The formal opposition led by Mr Odinga and part of the ruling Jubilee Party support the referendum. Another section of the ruling party opposes the referendum. It would appear 2020 will be the contestation year for the change-the-constitution referendum.

The question to be asked is: Does the religious sector and the reform civil society currently have the gravitas to influence, either way, the outcome of the future possible referendum?

Prof Kibwana is Governor of Makueni County