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February 23, 2019

Looking Forward To 2016's Grassroots Rights Groups


Last year was a challenging one for Kenya and the world generally on almost all fronts: economically, socially and politically. There is nothing to suggest that things will improve this year as new nations emerge in some parts of the world. Indeed, in important ways they’ll worsen considerably before they improve but I’ll leave that for another day.

That said, something wonderfully subversive that we thought had ended in 2002 with the end of Kanu’s era is back. Ordinary Kenyans are standing up for themselves while coming to terms with the fact that, by and large, thieves in suits run this duka called Kenya. Harambees that public officials are legally not supposed to officiate over – at least since 2004 – are all the rage once again. Politicians are dishing out hundreds of millions of shillings at events that see fat brown envelopes being handed out with impunity. There are those who would argue that State House has once again become the nerve centre of a major reversal in the accountability gains Kenya has made over the last three decades. That said…

Towards the end of last year, the terrorist group al Shabaab attacked a bus in Mandera. As has become their modus operandi, they sought to divide the Muslim from the Christian passengers and do harm to the latter. This time, however, the Muslim passengers in an outstanding display of compassion, courage and patriotism refused to be thus segregated. Some Muslim women are reported to have given shawls to their Christian counterparts as a disguise. Ironically, as Christmas approached it was Muslim Kenyans who demonstrated the Christian creed of: “No man has greater love than this than to lay down their life for another.”

And yet, while we speak of the ‘heroes of Mandera’ today, they remain to a considerable extent nameless. There is still something slightly disturbing about this anonymity rendered to those who do good in Kenya. Thankfully, the profound act of selflessness captured the imagination of the public, even if fleetingly. It demonstrated at once our resilience and our deepest aspirations as Kenyans of who we want to be.

Kenyans, including the opposition and civil society, have also been persistent in questioning the management of the proceeds of the $2.8 billion (Sh250 billion) Eurobond borrowed in 2014 and the controversially funded Standard Gauge Railway. The extent to which questioning has captured the interest of the public has been as impressive as the questioning and analysing itself.

Corruption is 50 per cent about perception. It is likely that the regime will find that Kenyans have already crossed a psychological barrier with regard to these two projects. In the public imagination they are associated with grand theft. The totally unsatisfactory contradictory statements of Treasury mandarins and their Kool-Aid salesmen cheerleaders in the private sector with regard to the use to which the resources have been put and how has not helped the government’s cause.

Every regime in our history has had a defining corruption-related issue that changed the politics of the time. For Jomo Kenyatta it was land that precipitated a fallout with the likes of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Bildad Kaggia and others. Goldenberg defined Moi and his regime and their reputation never recovered from it. Anglo Leasing defined Kibaki. Eurobond may come to define Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, though their scandal-prone regime seems likely to come up with a raft of other competing scams.

Over the Christmas break, so-called ‘private developers’, the Kenyan euphemism for a white collar thief who appropriates land against the public interest for exclusively private gain, tried to move into the property of two well-known Nairobi primary schools. It was a move similar to the attempted grabbing of land from Lang’ata Road Primary School last year that caused widespread public opprobrium. Parents, teachers and even the National Land Commission intervened quickly and the would-be grabbers were forced to give back the land but the struggle is most likely not over.

In the counties, a transformation may be underway as well. The wealth that has reached the ground has started a major change in the lives of millions of Kenyans. Now we need to grapple with the fact that we’ve devolved corruption too. There are the beginnings of serious agitation for accountability and basic rights. The slow burn land-related conflict in Narok, for example, will proceed and intensify. However, recently we also saw Syokimau residents demanding accountability regarding the quality of their roads; Nairobi residents clamouring for rubbish collection; villagers in Shinyalu banning the MP and an MCA from using a road because it was impassable despite residents’ petitions to leaders to do something about it. These actions are heartening and hopefully an indication of what the future holds.

There are grassroots rights advocacy groups like Bunge la Mwanachi, which continue their unsung quest for a better Kenya, regularly imprisoned and mistreated, but grimly committed after decades of struggle. Kenyan civil society is often maligned for not stepping in when things go wrong and critics say, where are they? The reality is that civil society at its most basic level is made up of ordinary people like you and I, who are seized by an issue and organise themselves to do something about it. True, there are those – as in every other sector, including politics, business and religion -– whose only motivation is to get rich quick, but the vast majority serve often thanklessly in places where the state has no capacity or will to ameliorate the lives of Kenyans, particularly those on the periphery suffering from various forms of physical, social, political or economic exclusion.

Civil society has been the saving grace of the nation for the past few decades, the driving force behind many of the freedoms Kenyans enjoy today that were mere dreams three decades ago. It is all the more important now given the retreat by the religious sector and important parts of the international community from the cause of freedom, transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs.

But organised civil society can achieve only so much. The time has come for the kind of energetic civic action, driven by ordinary citizens passionate about defending constitutional rights and mature enough to be committed to their responsibilities as citizens to get into the driving seat. Ideally, the role of organised civil society then would be to facilitate such citizen action.

Given the systematic dismantling of the constitution that’s underway and the orchestrated reversals of our most basic freedoms, never has the challenge to civil society and Kenyans at large been more urgent.


John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. [email protected]

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