It is easy to dismiss Moses Kuria. The Gatundu South MP has pretty extreme and downright stupid opinions on issues ranging from the effects of the foreskin on mental faculties to the relationship between Cord and al Shabaab. However, it would be a mistake to not keep an eye on what he and his ilk are doing in Parliament.
He has vowed to reintroduce an amendment to the Public Benefit Organisations Act to cap foreign funding for NGOs at 15 per cent, by requiring those exceeding the limit to be classed as foreign agents. A similar bill was introduced and withdrawn last year. The move seems to be part of a determined effort by Jubilee, whose manifesto does call for such a cap, to bring to heel the organised civil society groups that have been the bane of the UhuRuto candidature and administration.
The proximate cause of this, as identified by Ngunjiri Wambugu in his Monday column in the Star, is the prosecution of the President and Deputy President before the International Criminal Court. He claims the civil society provoked hostilities with the government by “criminalising the state”, though he does not explain what he means by this.
Apparently he believes that the fact that the state was itself implicated in the 2007-08 post-election violence and the push by civil society to secure accountability is equivalent to delegitimising the state. Thus, the state is responding, albeit in a misguided fashion, to an (unwarranted) attack.
This analysis ignores several facts of history. It was not civil society that opened the door to The Hague. As the violence was unfolding, PNU and ODM each threatened to institute proceedings against the other at The Hague.
The Waki Commission recommended that the ICC be brought in if the political elite was unable or unwilling to establish a local process to try high-level suspects.
Shouts of “Don’t be vague, it’s The Hague” did not come from civil society, but from the political elite themselves. The DP was one of those who rejected a local process.
Further, as Wambugu notes in passing, the war of the state against organised civil society did not begin in the run-up to the March 4, 2013, elections. It has been part of a wider attempt by the Kenyan elite to avoid any manner of scrutiny and accountability for its penchant to impoverish and brutalise the population.
It is important to make this distinction, for outside the arena of accountability, the state has actually been instrumental in encouraging the growth of NGOs.
As Jennifer Naomi Brass notes in her PhD thesis, Surrogates for Government? NGOs and the State in Kenya, both local and international NGOs have a long history in Kenya.
Since independence, the government has encouraged the development of indigenous not-for-profit organisations, self-help societies and community-based organisations. This happened even as the state was seeking to restrict citizen participation in politics and government.
In this way, NGOs did become surrogates for government, offering services where government was unable and unwilling to do so. Through them, the reach of the state was extended.
The government was happy to piggyback on this as long as NGOs stuck to ‘development’ and did not question the goings-on in the halls of power. They were expected to deliver services to the people, but not to introduce subversive and un-African ideas of democracy and accountability. It is precisely when they started to do so, especially with the emergence of governance NGOs in the 90s, that the state begun to decry foreign funding and foreign agendas.
The co-option of many of the leading lights of civil society into politics and government in 2003 left the movement floundering and blurred the distinction between the political NGOs and those competing for state power.
In the last decade, many governance NGOs have tried to reclaim the pedestal they once had and to refocus their efforts to core issues of governance. However, we still have a political elite, much of it infused with their former colleagues, that is not interested in enduring scrutiny or having its opportunities to ‘eat’ extinguished. This elite has focused its guns on preventing the re-emergence of civil society as a real check on government excess. The focus, as we are once again reminded daily, should be on ‘development’ and ‘peace’ and that we should guard against foreign agendas.
In the end, this is what Kuria’s proposed amendments are about. Not the doomed cases at The Hague, but protecting the avenues for patronage and enrichment at home. And that is why we should not dismiss him, tempting as that may be. We should all pay attention if we are to prevent a slide back to the dark days of the Kanu dictatorship. As Plato once said: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and political cartoonist.