'Celebrity activists' tainting image - human rights defenders

There has been concern over credibility of activism with some quarters dismissing activists as guns for hire

In Summary

• Activists insist their cause is a genuine pursuit for justice and rule of law and not directed by love of money and fame.

• Boniface Mwangi says he has had to endure torture and shooting as he pursued causes that do not benefit him personally.

Activists protest outside Kibos Sugar and Allied Industries over pollution
NO WAY: Activists protest outside Kibos Sugar and Allied Industries over pollution

Winfred Wamuyu, a 27-year-old Dandora resident, took to the streets among scores of other Kenyans during the April 30 civil society march against rampant corruption. 

Asked about what she does and why she took part in the march, Wamuyu said she hustles for a living in every way and always watches out for demonstrations where they are given transport to town and some pocket money. 

"I go back home with between Sh500 and Sh1,000 after a march. But sometimes it can be as low as Sh200 or empty-handed," she said. 


The case of Wamuyu raises the question of whether human rights activism in the country is a genuine cause or laced with commercial interests and disingenuous drama.

Critics of the civil society movements argue that some of its elements are modeled to be easy buttons for the state so they march cosmetically to "show that the government allows street protests and activism".

Some call them 'celebrity activists'. 

However, sector players told the Star that while there are a few elements doing activism with ulterior motives and pursuing self-gratification, the movement in the country is sound, focused, selfless and professional. 

Popular activist Boniface Mwangi told the Star that "Kenyans suffer from Stockholm syndrome, falling in love with their oppressors and attacking those that fight for them".

"I find the notion of celebrity activism, mostly thrown at me, very offensive. I'm a pretty young person who is a photojournalist. I have been shot at, beaten, tortured and harassed many times while doing activism for causes that I don't even benefit from," he said on phone.

He added, "In my latest arrest, the National Intelligence Service tracked me using my phone. That means they have all the information about me, including that of my alleged sponsors. They could have unleashed all this. All serious people who caused impact through their activism like Martin Luther King and Wangari Maathai were denigrated but praised later." 


Ndung'u Wainaina, a veteran human rights and governance activist, told the Star that rights activism in the country in the modern times is largely not based on foundational philosophy as was the case in the 80s and 90s.

"It is true there are briefcase entities and individuals in the human rights defence world whose actions are not based on any value system or persuasion. They are out for self-gain," Wainaina said. 

"There is a need for strong visionaries grounded on firm principles for effective activism," he said.

For example, he said, Prof Wangari Maathai became renowned as a crusader for environmental justice because of her consistency and ability to carve a niche for herself in that area. 

But Al Amin Kimathi, a renowned activist, acknowledged that a pocket of dubious activism exists "but they are fringe, in a minority."

He said there are countless genuine activists pursuing issues that improve people's lives at great personal cost.

"Most of us earn our living doing all sorts of other things and put the earnings in our activism. That's my situation. I work far away from media most of the time, giving myself as an example of so many colleagues," he said, adding that the notion of celebrity activism is "a creation of the media obsessed with the stars."

Hussein Khalid, the executive director of Haki Africa, a Coast-based human rights organisation, told the Star that the majority of activists in the country are driven by a passion for justice to the helpless rather than money and fame.

"As a lawyer, I could make much more money and be more famous taking up big, high-profile cases. But I choose to remain at Haki Africa to serve the meek and poor in society," he said.

He dismissed the notion that most activists are shallow with a huge appetite for money and media attention.

"At Haki, for example, we only do media when absolutely necessary. When we can handle matters outside media then we do so. But there are a few activists out there who just do it for show. When asked about their work and impact they have nothing to show." 

Kenya National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders chairman Kamau Ngugi told the Star that like every sector, there are always rogue elements but "who are very few". 

He said there has been a systematic agenda targeted at denigrating and criminalising the place of human rights activism and journalists in the country.

Demas Kiprono, campaign manager at Amnesty International, told the Star that genuine activism has been the cog for positive change and reforms in the country "which detractors are not happy about".

"The celebrity narrative is a counter-narrative created by those opposed to human rights in order to de-legitimise human rights work. They conveniently leave out the fact that activists have secured justice, dignity and a voice for the downtrodden in society," he said. 

Kenya National Human Rights Commission vice chairman George Morara said there are no entities or persons in the sector with commercial interest because "it's not and cannot be about making a profit out of violations suffered by people". 

Kenya Human Rights Commission executive director George Kegoro, however, declined to comment, saying he did not understand the question and the motive behind it. 

(Edited by R.Wamochie)