The civil society ought to play a bigger role in promoting peace, reconciliation and implementation of the new constitution in Kenya. Mention of civil society in Kenya elicits images of the likes of Okiya Omtata, Boniface Mwangi, and maybe AFRICOG, the “professionals” who seem to have a lot of time to be always planning this or that protest or court injunction against “MPigs” or the police. Yet the World Bank defines civil society as “the wide array of non-governmental & not for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members/others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.” In other words, any voluntary collective activity in which people combine to achieve change on a particular issue is the civil society, as long as it is outside the government or the market.
Examples of civil society organizations include charities, neighbourhood self-help schemes, human rights campaigns, non-governmental organizations, labour unions, religious groups, and professional organizations. In Kenya this would include the Red Cross, KNUT, SUPKEM, AFRICOG, etc. it is clear from the above definitions and examples that almost every citizen interacts or is a member of civil society in one way or another.
Why is it that the “evil society” is so demonized and associated with opportunistic and tribalistic Kenyans, rather than organizations of patriotic Kenyans formed to push for good governance, self-reliance and socio-economic development? The civil society’s golden moments in Kenya are often said to be the push for multipartyism in early 1990’s when the clergy, NGOs, multilateral organizations, oppositionists to force the Moi government to repeal section 2a and make Kenya a multiparty state.
It seems to have all gone downhill from there, as opportunistic individuals in the civil society have used the platform to push for narrow tribal interests, political posts, donor funding and attention from the foreign media. Yet, the civil society, according to BBC world service, can provide a social structure in nations where the government is non-existent or rudimentary. Think of the controversial Kenyans for Kenya initiative, or the many bursaries offered by rotary foundation etc. The civil society, ever since the days of harambee have done much to promote socio-economic and political development in Kenya.
It only has to reclaim its space from the donor funded, opportunistic and professional organizations and return to the very centre of politics and society in Kenya.
In a new dispensation where there are many more devolved governments where politicians will rob and increase salaries and benefits at every turn, it is critical that the civil society finds its voice. the government seems less than legitimate to half of the population, due to a political culture that promotes ethnic competition and winner takes all mentality. In my opinion, the government of Kenya has served to divide Kenyans since independence, and it is the role of the civil society to unite all of us to fight for implementation of the new constitution, oversight of the government and fight for the justice of all who have been beaten, discriminated against and overtaxed among us by successive governments. This is even more crucial when political parties remain to be personality driven, tribalistic and election vehicles bereft of ideology or long term strategy. One only needs to look at the way the CORD coalition is stumbling in parliament, while the jubilee government is not expected to last past the next coalition cycle at the latest.
The civil society has the potential of pushing for reforms and a better Kenya by fighting for “non-tribal” interests such as better roads, higher wages, stronger judiciary, and fighting natural disasters and calamities. Yet the labour union movement is only good at fighting for salary increases, the student unions are akin to spoilt kids only good at throwing stones and looting shops every time they demonstrate, while the NGOs are seen to be as fleeting, tribalistic and opportunistic on donor money as the government and politicians, while pushing for “western” lifestyles and agenda.
It is time every citizen recognized that we are all members of the civil society, and the only way for us to achieve long term unity, peace and economic development is for more active involvement in the politics and economy of Kenya alongside the government, pushing the government and sometimes outside the government. The days of harambee may be long gone, but by recognizing avenues through which we can all improve our lot without serikali, we may just be able to slay the dragons of donor reliance and tribalism for good.