The civil society, according to the London school of economics, “refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, and market, though in practice, the boundaries between the state, civil society, and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated . . . civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, gnus, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.”
A simpler definition by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is, “the arena, outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.
Going by these definitions, then civil society is very wide, and pervasive in all societies, Kenya included. In Kenya, the civil society has played a big role in the fight for a new constitution, democracy, the accountability of the government and fight against corruption. The line between civil society and government has often become blurred, and sometimes the civil society bigwigs have ventured into politics. This has led to the credibility of the civil society being eroded, as these organizations have at times become too cozy with the politicians, promoted foreign interests, alienated the people from the political process, spread half truths and propaganda (case in point the evangelicals during no campaign for the 2010 referendum), and been used by unscrupulous individuals purely to canvas for support from donors while the ultimate use of these funds is not clear to Kenyans.
Yet, looking at the new constitution and its provisions on gender, the minority tribes and devolution of power, it is clear that the civil society is a force to be reckoned with. In the era of internet, they can easily educate, some would say indoctrinate Kenyans on their ideologies and world view, sometimes in competition against the government, the traditional media(radio, television and print), and advance their agenda in politics. It would be foolhardy to assume that all civil society groups work for the interests of Kenya all the time, for example many faith based organizations were against the appointment of Dr Wily Mutunga as the chief justice, despite; he being a member of the civil society, and most Kenyans approving of his appointment.
Before we accept what the civil society groups have to say, we need to interrogate them. Some of the questions we should ask an activist or civil society hack before we swallow what he has to say include:
• Where do you get your backing (financial, moral or ideological) from?
• Whose interests are you promoting in your advocacy?
• What methods do you use to achieve your interests and aims?(whether lobbying, sending emails, use of the traditional and new media)
• What role, if any, do Kenyans play in the formation of your visions and goals?
• Whose support are you focused on acquiring, the politicians, the diplomatic corps or the Kenyans?
In my view, with the democratization of the country, privatization of the media, achievement of the new constitution and enshrinement of freedom of expression and association, the aims of the first wave of civil society has been achieved. The days of unity and solidarity in the civil society ended with the Moi regime in 2002. Expect to see much more disagreements, plurality of opinions, difference of opinions, pursuing of selfish interests from the civil society. The civil society will start working against each other, in terms of their goals and ideologies. Our view of civil society has to change. The days where Kenyans seek the truth from NGOs are behind us. We have to analyze every civil society organization as a single entity, loosely affiliated to other bodies from the same background.
In conclusion, the role of civil society in Kenya, in my view will change under the new constitutional dispensation to a more vibrant, diverse and multifaceted affair. There will be “fake” civil society groups, those with interests that are downright selfish and contrary to the expectations of Kenyans, much more opinions will be thrown to us, and the rights and freedoms we enjoy under the new constitution will be used both for us, and against us.
Will this lead to a better Kenya? Hopefully it will, but the challenges are rife.