Which way forward for Kenya’s Civil Society?

It is no secret that the candidature of Raila Odinga had the backing of the largely progressive Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Kenya. Odinga’s loss to Uhuru Kenyatta, someone they considered an unelectable ICC suspect, was their loss too. In addition, both during the campaigns and after the election, CSOs in the country found themselves on the defensive against charges of being stooges of Western donors and institutions (including the ICC) out to subvert Kenyas sovereignty. An ill-advised move by Western embassies to show their hand in the contest backfired spectacularly and provided more ammo for the anti-CSO brigade. An even bigger problem for Kenyan CSOs was that at some point in the election cycle they lost the support of a sizable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.

Kenya’s upwardly mobile middle class was desperate to get past the election, peacefully. Many took to heart the Peace Brigade’s PSAs that blanketed the airwaves in the run-up to and after the election. This lay the groundwork for everyone to “accept [the results] and move on,” no uncomfortable questions asked. The media too played ball, glossing over even the most glaring of irregularities in the IEBC’s tallying process. Indeed up to date none of the major media houses has seriously reported on the delayed release of constituency-level vote tallies for the National Assembly races. Reports in a section of the print press suggest the IEBC is “reconciling the presidential results and those of other positions. Over a million votes must be reconciled with others….” The silence from the major media houses on this issue is all part of accepting the official outcome of the election and moving on.

Recent discussions on the opinion pages here suggest that the chasm between the middle class and CSOs might be widening. Kenyan CSOs have been tagged as gratuitous rubble rousers intent on scaring away investors. Mention of their Western “puppet masters” has now become a must in the media when covering CSO activities. Even the recent protest against demands by Kenyan parliamentarians to increase their pay has not escaped the question of whether it is yet another plot by neocolonial schemers. The attacks have now extended to the social sphere as well. Exploiting Kenyas social conservatism, some have accused progressive CSOs of colluding with foreigners to destroy the country’s moral fabric with liberal and anti-African, atheist values. In their minds Civil Society has become “Evil Society.”

The resulting situation raises important questions regarding the future of CSOs in Kenya. Can they remain relevant without the support of the middle class? What tactics must they adopt to survive in the current political landscape? When did the rain start beating Kenyan CSOs and how can they regain the allegiance of a wide section of the middle class?

The Civil Society movement in Kenya was born out of the clamor for political space and greater civil rights during the height of Moi’s single party rule. As such, most Kenyan CSOs have always had an anti-government streak, with an inherent predisposition “to speak truth to power.” This was a strategy that worked well in fighting a widely unpopular government. And then Kenya changed. The Kibaki administration robbed Civil Society of quite a few luminaries that earned their badges of honor in the fight for the Second Liberation. Once in power these individuals faced different incentives. Many felt that it had now become their turn to eat.

The 2007-08 post-election violence weakened CSOs further by bringing to the fore ethnic divisions that existed among them. Come 2012-13 the ethnic chasm became even wider. And the ranks of CSOs thinned even more. The middle class also got alienated by a movement that seemed (fairly or not) more concerned about the past and intangible rights at time when the Kibaki boom years had given the middle class a glimpse of new economic possibilities. The mood had changed. Some suggested that Kenya had “too much democracy” that would stand in the way of development.

In a twist of irony Kenyan CSOs and the political left are a victim of their own success. Much of the Kenyan middle class, for better or worse, have since become convinced that the fight for political rights and space had been won. After all Kenya now has a new constitution; the devolved system of government is being implemented; and we no longer have an imperial presidency. For many middle class Kenyans, it is now time to focus on winning the economic fight and achieving the Kenyan dream. Many Kenyans are persuaded to believe that their own economic success is hinged on general investor confidence, and that the country needs to project an image of peace and stability.

Throughout the election cycle, no one wanted to let the ghosts of 2007 forestall Kenya’s quest to regain its place as the oasis of peace and stability in the region. The allure of 10% annual growth rates and the promise of Vision 2030 have proven very hard to resist. Many cling to the hope that mega infrastructure projects – including LAPSSET, the Thika Super Highway, and new cities and gated communities –  are about to catapult Kenya into middle-income status. Under these conditions, the ideology of peace, stability and public order was an easy sell.

In light of these developments, in order for progressive CSOs to remain relevant to the middle class they must adopt tactics that are in line with middle class aspirations. The confrontational tactics that were successful in the past will probably no longer work. I have no doubt that the government will opportunistically continue to react to public demonstrations in a manner to provoke riots that will then be labeled as anarchic and a threat to public order. Shop owners, small business operators and much of the middle class, all averse to public disorder, will no doubt nod in agreement. Despite the challenges, it should not be lost on those involved that in order to guarantee their continued survival and ability to check the government Kenyan CSOs must reengage their middle class allies. The moderating effect of the middle class will also serve to make CSOs more attractive to the wider public. As a first step CSOs must formulate a strategy that is less confrontational and more in tune with the emergent focus on the economy.

This is not to say that public demonstrations should cease to be a tactic used by CSOs in Kenya. Far from it. Public demonstrations are the best way to get the publics attention. The recent anti-parliamentarians protest, complete with a sow and its litter, was very successful in catching public attention. But such public stunts must be backed by deliberate formal engagement with the relevant authorities. This is because for a section of the public Kenya is now supposedly a nation of laws and institutions in which public protests are not allowed. All aggrieved parties should go to court where decision-making is sanitized, with minimal risk of scaring away the all-important investors. On this score both the government, wary of the unpredictable nature of unchecked public demonstrations, and the development-hungry middle class seem to be reading from the same script.

The imperative to play within the institutional framework will necessarily require CSOs to become even more institutionalized. Many Kenyan CSOs will soon be forced to morph into full fledged professional Think Tanks that can credibly address the middle class desire for economic progress, while at the same time continuing to hold those in power politically accountable. This is a lesson that I hope CSOs got from the last election.

Their skeletal operations and poor strategic judgment – which also extended to Odinga’s party – might have cost them an election that was theirs to lose. They appeared to not have done their homework when confronted with the media savvy and incredibly moneyed Kenyatta campaign. It is now well known that Odinga did not have agents in key polling stations. When the IEBC’s tallies became suspect they did not have their own numbers to report, even as they were disputing the IEBC’s tallies. Such sloppiness betrayed both a party and its CSO allies that lacked organizational competence and took too much for granted. This has to change. In this new game only those that have institutional and organizational depth will effective compete. The era of “capacity building” seminars and workshops is gone.

In addition, those in the middle class that support the incumbent government should be persuaded to form their own CSOs. The idea of CSOs being a preserve of the progressive movement in Kenya should be a thing of the past. Vigorous debate ought to be encouraged among CSOs representing both sides of the political divide. That is the mark of a true democracy. Such an eventuality would make incumbent governments and their supporters less hostile to CSOs in general. It would also force a situation in which “incumbent” CSOs, as part of a wider community of activists, felt the need to provide well argued justifications for government action and policies.

These are interesting times in Kenyan politics. Pocketbook issues are rising faster and faster up the list of Kenyans’ concerns. For now this shift in public mood appears to have been at the expense of concern over political rights. This means that in order to remain relevant, especially in the eyes of the middle class, Kenyan CSOs must change tactics and address Kenyans’ economic needs as much as their political needs. Activism, as we know it, must be backed by more institutionalized Think Tanks that can competently play the new institutional game. There is also a need for greater democracy among CSOs by encouraging the growth organizations that support the incumbent government. This will serve to further institutionalize and professionalize both the development of public policy and the conduct of politics in Kenya. It will also guarantee much-needed cooperation between Civil Society and the middle class. Merely accepting the present estrangement and moving on is not an option.

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