Regina Opondo (Kenya)

November 20, 2018

Creating a Dialogue of Accountability and Understanding

Three words that describe Kenya’s citizens Movement:

Diverse: The reform movement brought together various segments of the Kenyan society, who used their different strengths to achieve change. It included the student movement, women’s movement, environmental conservation movement, academia, registered and unregistered civil society organizations, politicians, professionals, the faith-based community (Ufungamano – Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus), artists (cartoonists, playwrights, writers, musicians, theatre – giving rise to groups such as the 5Cs theatre group), the media, etc.

Powerful: The movement was able to rally most Kenyans, most of the time. It was unstoppable and led to the return of multi-party democracy in 1992, a change of government in 2002, and a new constitution in 2010.

People-centered: While there were few in positions of power that provided thought leadership and technical and strategic planning, the core of the movement was Wanjiku– the ordinary Kenyan citizen who were unhappy with the state of affairs.

Critical institutions in Kenya’s movement:

In addition to civil society, students, faith based organizations, and various professional associations, the following institutions played important roles.

  • Academia: Professors and students provided thought leadership through research and writing. For example, the Centre for Law and Research International (CLARION), under Professor Kivutha Kibwana, produced books including the first ever book on corruption in Kenya. “Constitution Making from the Middle” by Willy Mutunga documented the struggle. Professors like Yah Pal Ghai were key players in developing the content of the new constitution.
  • The Kenya National Commission of Human Rights: The Commission mainstreamed the discourse of human rights within government and later worked closely with civil society on various human rights issues including civic education. Most significantly, it documented the post-election violence of 2017-2018. Their report, “The Brink of the Precipice,” created a foundation for investigation into human rights violations and policies that were included in reform processes.
  • Parliament: The repeal of section 2A in 1992 wouldn’t have happened without parliament.
  • The Judiciary: Post-2010, some independent commissions like the KNCHR, IPOA, CAJ (ombudsman) and others have been critical in consolidating the objects of the movement. The judiciary generally has improved from being a captive of the state to giving solid and pro-human rights rulings and advisories which would never have been imagined in the 80s and 90s.
  • Diplomatic corps: In the 80s and 90s Kenya was lucky to have diplomats who were not afraid to criticize the regime, provide funding for the movement in creative ways, and provide asylum and protection for HRDs who were in danger.

Advice for citizens, civil society, and political actors involved in a democratic transition:

Eternal vigilance is required to ensure the gains realized in Kenya are not rolled back. The work doesn’t end with one mini victory, as evidenced in the Kenyan struggle for a new constitutional dispensation. There must be continuous engagement to ensure all objectives are met and implemented in the spirit of the movement.

There is need for a multi-pronged strategy that has short-term, mid-term, and long-term objectives. It is critical to keep reflecting on what we want and whether we have achieved it the way we wanted.  Kenyans wanted a better quality of life, they were tired of tyranny and all that came with it. This aspiration was captured as reform. However, we as a country are still struggling with electoral justice and other political challenges.

A movement must maximize its diversity and the strengths of various actors including within government. Having more people under the tent enriches the movement. Part of the widening of the tent includes solidarity with the sub-movements within the movement. The women’s struggle cannot be a battle for women alone to carry; the labour justice struggle cannot be for workers to carry alone; etc. Learn from the other side, adapt, and form alliances where possible.

Lessons from South Korea’s Candlelight Movement:

  • Continued engagement: The Candlelight Movement doesn’t end until ALL objectives are achieved. One win is not enough for us to rest on our laurels.
  • Accountability is a continuum: The Candlelight Movement still exists, because not all of its objectives were met. The movement continues to hold the new government accountable, while pushing for labour rights, women’s rights, unemployment etc.
  • Importance of national values: A movement must be built on a foundation of value(s) that are irrefutable, commonly accepted, and practiced. Activists in Korea all said that President Park’s behaviour was unacceptable because she was dishonest. This became a rallying point, because Korean’s value of honesty and integrity of leaders.

The future of citizen movements in Kenya:

Kenya’s problems continue despite several attempts to reform the political system. It was expected that the constitution of 2010 would be the magic bullet for improving governance, especially by providing a comprehensive Bill of Rights, devolution, and checks on executive powers. However, the leaders entrusted with implementing this constitution have weakened it in ways that were not anticipated. The following conditions and events will remain pertinent in the coming years:

  • Inconclusive elections in 2017 will continue to divide the country
  • Corruption, wastage and debt are at an all-time high affecting service delivery and cost of living
  • Impunity will remain a threat constitution, court orders, and the rule of law
  • Stalled security sector reforms will perpetuate a rise in extra judicial killings, brutal force used by the police, corruption, disregard for human rights, and lack of accountability
  • Ethnic divisions will threaten stability, especially during elections
  • Barriers to the participation of women, youth, and persons with disabilities will persist
  • Civic space will continue to shrink

Leadership of the social movement in Kenya is diverse and includes civil society leaders, grassroots human rights defenders, trade unionists, faith-based leaders, and politicians. Currently, efforts are being made to:

  • Revive existing sub-movements.
  • Continue building coalitions and developing advocacy strategies
  • Formally and informally mobilize citizens through dialogue in public and private platforms such as: “We The People,” The Dialogue Reference Group (Multi-Sectoral Forum), The National Mediation Forum, 2/3rd Gender Rule formations, the Women’s Movement, grassroots social movements, social accountability movements, a multi-sector anti-corruption platform, and even private sector initiatives
  • Engage with allies including the Kenya Parliamentarians for Human Rights (KEPHRA).

Advocacy approaches are varied, but all agree that there must be a focus on mwananchi – the citizen. Meeting citizens at their point of need and responding to their lived realities is crucial.

There is still opportunity for these groups to converge, but what is clear is that the goals and the issues to be tackled are the same. The issues are also not new: they can be found in the Agenda No.4 of the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Accord of 2008, as well as in conversations about Kenya Tuitakayo (Kenya We Want) in the 90s amongst several other documents.

The next liberation is the struggle to protect, promote, and defend the constitution – for constitutionalism. I agree with a comrade who posits: “the first liberation (independence) was achieved by a dialogue of information, the second liberation was achieved by a dialogue of negotiation, and the third liberation should be via a dialogue of understanding.”

About Regina: 

Regina Opondo is the Executive Secretary of Constitution and Reform Education Consortium, a consortium of 23 civil society organisations in Kenya. She has served as Co-Convener for the ‘Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu movement, a platform for political dialogue around Kenyan elections, and as the Deputy Convener for the Civil Society reference group in Kenya.