The Changing Face Of Kenyan Civil Society

Photojourenalists Boniface Mwangi seats next to the graffiti drawings in town
Photojourenalists Boniface Mwangi seats next to the graffiti drawings in town

During his recent visit to Kenya President Obama made time to meet civil society. This was partly in recognition for the crucial role this sector has placed in bringing about progressive political change over the last three decades. No such group was available to interact with him when he went to Addis Ababa. A vibrant ever vigilant and demanding civil society has helped shape Kenyan democracy. Even now when they face their most determined opposition from government since the 1980s they remain essential to what Kenya is.

In truth, according to the Carnegie Endowment recently, over the last three years 90 countries have moved to limit the activities of civil society and 60 are legislating this shrinkage of space. In part they argue this is because of essentially: the battering the Western model of political and economic governance has taken since the financial crisis of 2008 and their own funding strategies that are continually in flux. This is combined with the apparently growing legitimation of more authoritarian models as China rises and especially when legislation that comes as part of the grand package of today’s war against terror is thrown into the mix. Its also true that ‘civil society’ since 2011’s ‘Arab Spring’, that was preceded a decade of muscular efforts in Eastern Europe and current rolling giant demonstrations against incumbents in a number of important developing countries means civil society has never been more powerful. It is diffused, its most traditionally structured elements under tremendous State pressure, but dynamic, nimble and with a capacity to spring a myriad of surprises on complacent elites.

In Kenya, many pioneers of ‘civil society’, individuals like the current Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, joined government after the 2002 election. Other like Paul Muite, former firebrand head of the Law Society of Kenya, went into politics. The leadership they left behind in civil society, some argue, was more professional but also more bureaucratised and less passionate. This argument is sometimes used by critics to explain the state of drift that gripped sections of governance-related civil society especially after the 2013 election.

On the other hand one discerns that a younger generation of civil society activists has emerged and are coming into their own – most in their 20s and 30s. The older generation is treated like dinosaurs whose life’s work effectively ended when the new constitution was promulgated in August 2010; the wazee who love press conferences, workshops, enjoy spending time with politicians and send applications to join commissions or take up other lucrative government posts.

The millennial governance sector civil society activists and political commentators tend to be more diverse and also deeply creative. They use the arts and culture far more effectively for advocacy: everything from film, to cartoons, music, pictures and, importantly, humour. Editorial cartoonists like Gado, Maddo, the late Frank Odoi, Gathara and others are more influential now than any other time before. They are the most astute and insightful observers of Kenya’s current condition. They are more likely to commentate online than in print. The 1990s were the years of the columnist; the 21st century is the era of the editorial cartoonist and the blogger.

This younger generation seems to demonstrate some other unique characteristics as well. First, they seem far more confident about the impact they can have working alone and as part of networks using little more than a phone, computer tablet or laptop. Their solidarity around an issue can start off as virtual but it’s become apparent that the gadgets of the digital age merely allow for organization.


The youth also seem more convinced that there is an extent to which integrity can be digitized when combined with aggressive transparency regarding the behaviour of governments, corporations, security establishments and the like. Thus the proliferation of ‘apps’ that allow for social audits, scrutiny of government spending and general behaviour. Indeed, because today’s mobile phones are also powerful computers and cameras the era when politicians could claim to have been ‘misquoted’ when they say something outrageous is dying off. They claim to have ‘misspoke’ or simply be patient and count on the fact that today’s new cycle is short, shallow and forgettable – keep heads low and wait for things to blow over.

From police brutality to official corruption or politicians simply snoring through a conference, these gadgets have turned all citizens into reporters redefining journalism. The flip side of course is that those committed to asymmetrical confrontation of state excess also include extremist groups of all kinds have become highly sophisticated in the use of online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, mobile texts, WhatsApp as well.

Unlike the precursor generation of activists in the governance area, today’s youth don’t necessarily use an activism framework that is derived from the human rights community – based on the essential dignity of all human beings and the rights derived therefrom. Profit, via social enterprises, and a deep mistrust of politicians, governments, the military and security sectors, multi-national corporations, mainstream media etc are the foundation upon which the millennial generation’s agenda is built. The mistrust has caused the progressive degradation of power that State’s traditionally wielded through their control of what citizens knew and when.

Indeed transparency supersedes which used to be a subset of the human rights agenda today is an issue to advocate for in and of itself. Partly as a result the phenomenon of the whistleblower has spread across large parts of the world. Wikileaks and a host of other similar organizations have proliferated. They are fed by this existential mistrust.

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