By Nkaari Martin K
On Friday October 7th 2016, over 350 NGOs from 33 counties met at Jubilee Hall at the All Africa Conference of Churches. I was present as a board member from Emerging Enterprise, a Public Benefits Organisation of young entrepreneurs seeking to ensure equitable opportunity in government sponsored youth empowerment projects particularly the affirmative action funds.
The subject of the meeting was the commencement of the Public Benefits Organizations Act 2013(PBO Act) that had been on the shelf for a while after former President Mwai Kibaki signed it into law in 2013. On September 9th, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri gave notice to commence the Act without Changes. On September 19th, a Kenyan Kenneth Otieno successfully applied for a judicial review to constrain the Ministry, Office of the Attorney General, and the Government Printer from publishing the Act. The affidavit cited inconsistencies, legal and national security concerns and attached documents produced by the NGO Coordination Bureau.
The meeting was convened by the big boys of the civic space, both local and international and brought the biggest donors in the space particularly the American Ambassador Bob Godec and his European Union Counterpart Stefano Dejak. The UN and UNDP Resident Coordinator Siddharth Chatterjee was also present. The Irish Ambassador to Kenya Vincent O’Neill was also present.
The agenda was simple according to the invite; expanding civic space towards implementation of the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013). According to the conveners of the meeting, there is a shrinking civic and democratic space in Kenya that is a governance issue for civil society and other independent voices and actors globally. The gist of the matter is that non state actors are not being able to act freely. The welcome note was given by Suba Churchil, a veteran of the political civil society space who paid his history justice by painting the picture of an autocratic Armageddon that he super imposed on the present with a brilliant if false oratory.
Echoes of the past were writ large, a place from where in all reality Kenya has moved on from. A specific hangover hang on the militarised words more disposed for a student union’s Kamukunji than a conglomeration of 350 diverse civil society actors most of whom were in the humanitarian relief space that were co-opted into an agenda they were unprepared for. From my youth enterprise perspective, my space was neither recognised nor even appreciated yet youth is one of the biggest issues in Kenya today.
The narrow definition of the civil society space to mean the political civic space is a wrong and misleading definition that excludes the rest of the public benefits actors the room to both be heard and operate. The political actors have hijacked the space to themselves often in confrontation with the state to the detriment of the rest of the field that suffers from the sour relationship between the two. The outright exclusion of opinion from other civil society actors in the field, the humanitarian relief actors, gender and youth affairs actors, enterprise actors, religious actors and others is sad and leaves them as seat fillers and endorsers of objectives exclusive to a narrow set of players within the space.
And yet in truth, the civil society space has not narrowed in Kenya; it is the cheese that has moved. What in the period before 2003 and particularly before the new 2010 constitution was defined as civil society space has largely seen new actors come in and taken the space that was once exclusively reserved for the agitation by non state actors. The new constitution has fifteen independent commissions that have largely taken over the roles that were exclusive to the non state actors before then. Today, it is the Francis Ole Kaparos, Halaqhe Wako, Edward Ouko, Micah Cheserem, Otiende Amollo, Prof Margaret Kobia and others who command both the space and the duties that were once the reserve of these non state actors.
Today, we are more likely to hear about corruption from the Auditor General than Transparency International. The Kenya National Human Rights Commission will more likely raise the issue over disappearances than the Kenya Human Rights Commission. We are more likely to hear about hate speech and ethnicisation of institutions from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission than the International Commission of Jurists. All these were roles previously exclusive to the political civil society space.
There is also a new form of activist who has infiltrated the space and almost completely sent the old activist packing; the social media activist and the power of the hash tag. Instead of the lengthy memorandum, petitions and demonstrations of yore, today a pithy hash tag is all that is needed to bring a situation to the fore. The real watchdogs of society today is #KOT or Kenyans on Twitter who have captured the activist space and made it all their own, sometimes anonymously from behind their phones. Long gone are the days an action needed a project proposal, budget, project officer and report launch at a five star hotel and big foreign donors to bring an issue to trend. Hash tags like #SomeoneTellCNN #MyDressMyChoice, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo #Kenyans4Kenyans and many others have resulted in more results than traditional civil society methods. Social media has democratized and disrupted the old civil society paradigm without the old civil society class realizing it. All they can point to is the old enemy, the state while in reality their space has just been opened up to anyone with an internet connection.
Issues that are pressing the country today have also radically changed. Youth unemployment, equitable development, disaster relief, terrorism and radicalization, immigration and other emerging issues have risen to the top of agenda to be addressed. The old agenda of political civil society activism although relevant is today not Kenya’s overarching issue. Political actors and spaces have also multiplied several times. Where before the executive and parliament were the only actionable state political spaces, today we have the executive, a senate, a national assembly, county governments and county assemblies as legitimate political spaces that have taken up the political civic space. The individual actors have proliferated with about 3,000 elected actors in that space.
The conveners of the Jubilee hall meeting have legitimate concerns over a narrowing civic space. Their diagnosis of the cause of the problem is however false. Where they were once a monopoly, the space has been completely democratized, disrupted and liberalised in a state that is itself liberal by the mould of the constitution that has created it. The capture of the entire civil society space and narrowing its definition to the political is regrettable since it is testimony to an old civil society elite that has refused to accept that Kenya has new emerging challenges, new actors and new challenges. Those who come from other sectors in the civil society space were censored at the meeting that came up with resolutions based entirely on their view from a receding backwater. The transition to the Public benefits Organisations Act must not be captured and stifled to the exclusive use of a bygone agenda and washed out actors out of step with the times.
Nkaari Martin K is a board member at Emerging Enterprise