Monday, May 13, 2013

Seize space, don't beg for it.

There is a feeling among the chatteratti and the punditocracy that Kenyan civil society is under assault by agents of the State. This may be true. But the solutions being proposed will do nothing to restore civil society to its rightful place. In the 1980s and 1990s, civil society, especially in the political and human rights arenas, was the moral champion of the nation. Its members suffered brutal depredations at the hands of agents of the State. No one questioned their moral authority to say what they said and to do what they did, other than the agents of the State who kept muttering darkly about "foreign interference" in the affairs of the State. The fruits of their labour are plain to see: a liberal Constitution and the institutionalisation of the business of governance.

Sadly, today civil society is a pale shadow of its former self. To be sure, in key areas it continues to do what must be done and to say what must be said so that Kenyans can have what they need. In the field of education or healthcare, civil society soldiers on where the State has decided to take a more laid back approach to things. But in the fields of human rights and politics it is hard not feel a little ashamed that active civil society organisations have not a clue as to what must be done to restore their moral leadership. Begging for scraps from the State is not the way to go about it.

Today, cant and sophistry define civil society. They have, since 2003 at least, become handmaidens of political interests out to sow unrest in the nation. If there be unrest, it should come from the unfettered, undirected hands of civil society warriors, not from the diktat of this or that political champion with an axe to grind. A recent example will suffice to demonstrate how low civil society has sunk. March 2013 marked a watershed in Kenya's political evolution. A massive electoral exercise was conducted to elect Kenya's next government, its newest under the three-years' old Constitution. As is common in Kenya, the results of the election were disputed and the aggrieved went to court.

It was their right to do so. But it is in the behaviour of civil society - NGOs, CSOs, faith-based organisations and the media - that we must admit that civil society is dead. Instead of keeping the interests of all Kenyans at the front of their minds, they picked sides and chose winners and losers. Some went so far as to attempt to intervene in the choice of the men and women who would be on the ballot. Some called on the international community to ostracise the government if their bete noirs were elected. When the presidential petition was heard in the Supreme Court, they did not have a logical, credible case to present other than arrant sloganeering that failed to persuade the six judges who heard the petition. Now they wish to persuade us that because they opposed two elected officials, these officials pose a threat to their survival because they opposed their candidature every step of the way.

In politics or human rights, civil society has not covered itself in glory. It has become petty and partisan, choosing battles with an eye to winning a popularity contest against the State. Instead of speaking the truth to power, and pointing fingers in every sordid corner of our land, they pick which politician is cleaner than the rest and appoint him our Messiah. Regardless of what is done elsewhere, Kenyan civil society must break free from the thrall of acting as king-makers. When they see injustice, even from their heroes and heroines, it must point it out. When it sees corruption and theft, it must point it out. When its political champions stand idly by as innocent Kenyans are murdered and maimed, it must carpet them for their lack of spine. It must do so even when the funds disappear or when its men and women are arrested in the dead of night, unlawfully detained or murdered in cold blood. It must regain its independence if it is to regain the support of the huddled masses. When we see the doyens of civil society hob-nobbing with the high and mighty from this or that political side, we know that they do not have our interests at heart, but they are looking out for the next Big Cheque. And the State is not going to give an inch. They must seize the space they have lost, not beg for it. That is not the civil society we knew.

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