This wasn’t how things were meant to turn out. It was so very different 16 years ago, when we sang of how Unbwogable we were and dreamt that Yote Yawezekana bila Moi. Across the entire governance space, the state was in retreat. By 2002, a true civic space had been created, which was evidenced by the flowering of music and arts. Organised civil society could indeed claim a lot of the credit for it through their efforts to advance political rights and freedoms as well to broaden the democratic process.
Fast forward 16 years and the situation is reversed. To understand what went wrong, we have to look back at our history.
According to Wikipedia, “civic space is created by a set of universally accepted rules which allow people to organise, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them.” From colonial times to the present, civil society organizations (CSOs) have played a prominent role in the struggle to create and protect this space from the predations of the state.
In fact, civil society groups were the forerunners of political parties. It was folks like Harry Thuku and organisations such as the Young Kikuyu Association and later the East African Association who early on articulated the political visions and programmes, and defined the goals, values and principles that would drive political action for a generation and beyond. Their significance for the civic space lay in the fact that their struggles often went beyond the acquisition of power to encompass respect for fundamental rights, social and economic justice as well as the freedom and dignity of Kenyans as human beings.
After WWII, with a broke Britain beginning to retreat under pressure from such organisations, many activists transformed into politicians. By the time Independence arrived, civil society organisations had taken a back seat. Politicians and political parties were doing the driving. And very quickly, they constricted the space for citizens to communicate freely and influence politics. It would be a pattern with which Kenyans would become familiar.
In the first decade-and-a-half of Independence, politics and governance were for the most part left to the politicians. However, the 1980s and 1990s, as donors increasingly conditioned their support on governance reform and democratisation, civil society became more vocal. Outfits such as the National Convention Executive Council and religious organisations under the Ufungamano Initiative refused to leave constitutional reform to the state. Others, like the local chapter of Transparency International, were determined to hold their own against the government in the anti-corruption space. By the 2002 election, Kenyans had clawed back many of the freedoms and reclaimed many of the spaces that the colonial state had denied them.
Sadly, though, we made the same mistake we had made 60 years before. Many of civil society’s leading lights switched sides and became politicians, ran for office and actually won. Others were raptured into government via appointment. Organised civil society was effectively decapitated and went quiet. Once again, the civic space was slowly constricted. Soon the Mwai Kibaki regime was sending GSU into Bomas of Kenya to stop debate on a new constitution, sending masked police into The Standard, teargassing demonstrators and stealing elections.
The same happened in 2013 and 2017. And every time civil society has retreated, the state has expanded with the consequent loss of civic space and the threat to civic freedoms.
Our history has shown that the state will not be reformed from within. Rather it will be kept accountable by citizens interacting with each other freely within a civic space. The guardians of that space are organised civil society – churches, NGOs, media, trade unions, academia and other institutions citizens establish outside the state. We should thus be worried when civil society stalwarts troop to the state. Journalist-turned-politician Mohamed 'Jicho Pevu' Ali, and his parliamentary colleague from the musical world Charles 'Jaguar' Kanyi are walking a path many have before them. And we now know what comes after.
Holding the state requires powerful actors outside the government who are able to challenge it. We should therefore urgently find ways to incentivise the habitation of non-governmental spaces. We must also work to protect the existing spaces where citizens today can congregate and freely interact - especially on the internet and on social media – from a state that is keen on policing them. The fox must not be left to watch over the hen house.