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This article is taken from the September 2005 Phatlalatsa newsletter


After the 2002 transition in Kenya:

After the 2002 transition in Kenya: imageIn December 2002, voters in Kenya went to the polls and voted out the Kenya African National Union (KANU), Kenya’s ruling party since independence in 1963. Mainstream opposition political parties and pressure groups hurriedly cobbled together the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and won the Presidential, Parliamentary and Civic Elections. But the formation of the coalition and mobilization of support against KANU was not the result of efforts by political parties alone. Civil society had laid the foundation for opposition unity and put pressure on opposition politicians to form an alliance against KANU. Civil society founded the political organisation on which NARC was anchored.

Some commentators interpreted the triumph of opposition political parties (via NARC) as largely a victory for civil society in general and for human rights organisations in particular. In their view, the organic relationship between civil society and opposition political parties had one important consequence after the elections. The new government, NARC, became increasingly identified with civil society; the NARC government was synonymous with ‘a civil society government’. Furthermore, some argued that the tensions, suspicions and mistrust that characterised relations between government and civil society during the KANU regime would be a thing of the past.

Karuti Kanyinga is a Political Scientist and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) University of Nairobi, Kenya. He is a partner in South Consulting, a leading consulting and research firm on governance and development in Eastern Africa region. Karuti has written extensively on civil society in Kenya.

Two and half years later, relations between civil society and government appears to be deeply strained. This article analyses the current state of civil society in Kenya, the mood and the possible direction of the sector before the 2007 elections. Before discussing the current state of the sector, however, there is a need to outline the main features of civil society prior to the 2002 political transition.

Civil society before the 2002 elections in Kenya

Civil society contributed to the democratization process in two important ways before the 2002 elections. First, from the early 1990s, civil society organisations (CSOs) mobilized against the one party regime and demanded a return to multi-party democracy. In 1991, government gave in to these demands and repealed the relevant sections of the constitution to allow for political pluralism. However, there were no significant changes in the constitutional framework to allow for a deepening of the new democratic space. Consequently, the ruling party won both first and the second multi-party elections in December 1992 and 1997 respectively.

Second, CSOs continually monitored progress towards democratization after the introduction of multi-partyism. Civil society groups organized and articulated demands for comprehensive constitutional reforms and provided a framework around which opposition politics was organized. With respect to constitutional reforms, civil society identified ‘bloated presidential powers’ as a major obstacle to democratization in Kenya and demanded constitutional reform to spell out how presidential powers would be devolved to other institutions. From then on, a movement for constitutional reform began, and soon had a civil society identity. Through the Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change (4Cs), later the National Conventional Executive Council (NCEC) and several other groups, civil society convened National Conventions to debate reform. The movement to change the constitution grew rapidly and received support from both rural and urban areas including the urban lumpen, peasantry and middle classes.

The birth of the movement for constitutional reforms led organically to the second requirement: provision of a framework for the operation of opposition political parties. It is important to note that after their defeat in the 1992 elections, mainstream opposition parties fragmented along ethnic and personality lines. This fragmentation became a characteristic of political society throughout the period between 1992 and 1997 elections. The fragmentation deeply weakened the political parties and constrained their ability to articulate national issues.

In the absence of strong opposition parties, civil society rapidly filled the gap. Individual politicians had to turn to civil society to find a platform to address or articulate social-political issues. Civil society and opposition parties began to articulate similar demands using common platforms. Civil society became increasingly politicized; opposition political parties became increasingly weak.

Politicization of civil society on the one hand and weakening of opposition parties on the other had an important consequence: it established the basis for an organic relationship between civil and political society. This had another implication: it formed the basis for building alliances and coalitions among the various opposition political parties and pressure groups, many of which straddled the civil/political divide. How this gave rise to NARC is a subject we now turn to.

Civil society as a base for NARC

Immediately after the 1997 elections, civil society groups increased their demands both for comprehensive constitutional reforms and for unity among the mainstream opposition political parties. In their argument, a flawed constitutional framework had enabled KANU to win and to fragment the social basis of support for opposition political groups. What was required therefore was a review of the constitution in order to reconstruct the institutions of the state and enhance the space for democratic change. They also argued that divisions among opposition parties - particularly ethnic divisions - had become a crevice through which KANU won. They worried that failure to unite and form alliances would pave the way for another defeat by KANU and another five years of waste, corruption and bad governance.

The demands for unity and alliance building were given urgency by the marriage between KANU and one of the mainstream opposition political parties at the time - National Development Party (NDP) of Raila Odinga and whose ethnic base of support was among the Luo ethnic group. Immediately these two parties formed an alliance, opposition groups began to make attempts at unity. Civil society guided them to this end. Civil society identified the constitution review process as an issue that could create unity and provide the basis for merger. Opposition groups and CSOs took the demand a step further by establishing a reform process of their own, independent of the government. This led to the formation of the People’s Commission of Kenya or what came to be known as the Ufungamano Initiative.

The birth of the Ufungamano Initiative led to several attempts at unity among opposition parties which, through their MPs, joined to mobilise support for the Ufungamano Initiative. They formed ‘Muungano wa Mageuzi’ (Kiswahili for Movement for Change) to drum up support for reform. Because of the support they received – even in KANU’s heartland – government banned their activities. In March 2001, at the urging of CSOs, opposition parties made another attempt to work together. They formed a national unity group, Umoja wa Wakenya (Kiswahili for Unity among Kenyans). Ukenya was meant to counter the KANU/NDP merger by providing the basis for opposition unity. But the group failed to agree on which other parties to bring on board, and remained inactive.

CSOs continued to demand opposition unity. In response to these demands, leaders of the mainstream opposition political parties, with the support of human rights groups, formed the National Alliance for Change (NAC). NAC constituted a forum where opposition unity could be discussed. Again civil society provided leadership in the formulation of a vision and programmes. Under the leadership of civil society, NAC developed a Memorandum of Understanding which all participating parties had to sign. As a show of commitment to political change and with a view to demonstrating that it would not centralise power around the presidency, the ‘alliance’ developed a new structure with the position of a Prime Minister. They established a secretariat and formally joined the National Party of Kenya (NPK) after which they changed their name to the National Alliance (Party) of Kenya (NAK). The new party, NAK, became an umbrella group of 13 political parties and two civil society groups – NCEC and Progressive People’s Forum.

NCEC’s CSO networks in the countryside became key entry points for mobilisation of citizens. Religious organisations also became channels for communicating the agenda of the new political force. Civil society groups continued to provide intellectual and other inputs to bolster opposition unity. Civil society became the intelligentsia of the opposition.
On 14 October 2002, divisions within KANU splintered the party into two factions. One faction, the Rainbow Alliance, walked out of KANU to join NAK. Together they became the National Rainbow Coalition operating under a Memorandum of Understanding crafted with the help of civil society groups.

Clearly, civil society founded the coalition of political forces and contributed to the defeat of KANU. Civil society achieved this by providing ‘knowledge’ to opposition parties. It was within civil society that thinking about opposition unity took shape, later transmitted to the political arena through meetings convened by parties and/or civil society groups. Secondly, opposition unity was achieved through concerted efforts by civil society groups. Civil society provided ‘shuttle diplomacy’ by carrying ‘messages of dialogue’ from party to party and by providing a programmatic vision to all the parties that formed the Alliance.

NARC won the December 2002 elections and formed a new government. Relations between what was seen as a civil society government and civil society itself is a debate that is still running.

The NARC government and civil society

Civil society got into government through two main routes. Firstly, NARC formed a new government including some individuals from civil society, particularly those with whom they had collaborated while in opposition. Secondly, some individuals from civil society were parliament. This was in line with the pre-election visioning. Civil society had mobilized many individuals to engage the political space in a positive manner by fighting for parliamentary seats. This was meant to ensure that there were enough ‘reformers’ in parliament to champion reforms - if they won.

The organic relationship between civil society and the new government, ironically, became the basis for akening civil society, and for tensions between government and civil society. To begin with, the new ernment started to speak ‘civil society’ language, the language of rights and democracy. Government also designed programmes similar to those of human rights and good governance CSOs. Over time, these developments created a crisis of legitimacy and relevance among CSOs. With government engaging on issues such as corruption, past human rights abuses and correction of historical wrongs, civil society found itself ‘irrelevant’.

Added to this was the fact that few CSOs were ready to criticize government - or their friends in government – so they adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Personal relationships between CSO members and individuals in government accounted for this. It led to reduced vigilance of government by civil society. Few were critical of what was happening; others were waiting to be appointed to government positions. The result was silence from many CSOs, while others battled to identify and understand their roles and responsibilities in the new political dispensation.

While the organic relations between civil society and government weakened civil society, it produced similarly negative tendencies in government. Those in government became oblivious to the role of civil society and intolerant to the critical eye of civil society. Initial attempts by CSOs to point out wrongs were met with cynicism and contempt from those in government whose own origins lay in civil society. They claimed that civil society did not know how government works, and/or argued that it was too soon for civil society point fingers. Intolerance gradually grew to become open outbursts against civil society. Civil society was itself still too disorganized to develop a common front or collective strategies for dealing with government.

Membership of civil society structures

Survey respondents belonged to a wide range of civil society organisations (CSOs). Among the most popular are traditional – tribal or clan - structures alongside burial societies and women’s groups. Analysed by province, it is clear that CSOs are not evenly distributed across Kenya. Membership is also uneven. Men (29%) were more likely to belong to clan/tribal organisations than women (19%); they were also slightly more likely (24%) to belong to a burial society than women (20%). Men predominated among those belonging to youth groups, sports clubs, business groups, savings clubs, unions, neighbourhood watches and local development committees. As we see below, faith-based structures are key in reaching women in Kenya

Where are we now?

Civil society appears to be divided in two main factions: those opposed to working with the government, and those willing to do so. Those opposed have divisions particular to them: some are ethnic while others are ideological. The ethnic divisions, though obscured and hidden from easy observation, are fused to divisions around the constitution review process and the vexed question of how to deal with presidential powers in the constitution. Significant here is the realisation that pre-election ethnic deals have not been honoured by the ethnic elites. NARC evolved in haste after ethnic elites agreed to a establish a new structure of political power if they won the election. In the new structure there was to have been a President and an Executive Prime Minister and their respective deputies. These positions were meant for the various ethnic elites; they agreed to a coalition after ensuring that each ethnic elite would be at the centre of power. After the election, the agreed structure was not put in place. Some interpreted this as an attempt by one ethnic group to lock out others, and some civil society groups opposed to working with government are allied to the excluded elites.

Membership of political parties

Almost half (45%) of respondents told us they belonged to a political party, an extremely high proportion. Membership was unevenly distributed – men are considerably more likely than women to belong to a party. Importantly, however, rural respondents were more likely than their urban counterparts to belong to a party. Membership is uneven across the 8 provinces. Rift Valley respondents were most likely to belong to a party (61%), while those from Coastal province (27%) were least likely to do so. Overall, however, political parties have a significant membership base, and should be important partners in civic and voter education campaigns.

CSOs opposed to working with government argue that NARC came to power on a reform platform and promised to provide a new constitution that drastically reduced the powers of the president. In their criticism of government’s approach to the constitution-making process, they observe that there is no longer interest in providing a new constitution – other than a constitution that guards the interests of those in power. The implication is that the state has not changed; its institutions have remained the same and remain opposed to a reform agenda. For this faction of civil society, the struggle for democratic reform must remain embedded in the country’s social-political life regardless of the transition. Civil society, in this view, cannot be on the same side as government; civil society must lead the struggle and constantly keep government in check.
Those CSOs opposed to government for ideological reasons are relatively few and lack coherence in their approach to issues. An on-going theme in their oppositional discourse is the ‘watchdog’ approach – the need to keep the government on its toes to ensure delivery of services. Some are concerned about basic services, others seem critical of government for the sake of taking an oppositional stance.

Those CSOs willing to working with the government are relatively few, and do so based on the argument that you can only correct government if you know how it operates, and believe they can influence government from within. Within this group, there are also significant differences. On the one hand, there are groups with close ties to people in power. Because of personal relations, they have found it difficult to be critical of the government, and some have opted to sit on the fence. Others have opted to support government for ethnic reasons – they are aligned with the ethnic elites in power.

The small group of CSOs willing to work with government is un-coordinated in its approach to national issues. They have not openly taken strong pro-government positions, perhaps because civil society in Kenya has always been known to be anti-government; a pro-government position may easily erode the social basis of support.

On the whole, civil society is deeply divided along several lines. Its fractures have weakened it with regard to pursuing national issues. One manifestation of this weakness has been the inability of civil society leaders to address the question of internal governance within the National Council of NGOs, the umbrella body for registered NGOs. The Council has had an internal governance problem for some two years but CSOs, because of their divisions, have failed to bring new life to the Council, as they have failed to address the main challenges facing the sector. These divisions continue to erode the legitimacy of civil society. It is possible that by the time of the 2007 elections, civil society will not be in a position to put together a coalition similar to that which contributed to the foundation of NARC or to the birth of a constitution reform movement.

Religion and religiosity

Faith-based organisations are a key component of civil society. 88% of respondents were Christian, 9% Muslim, 1% traditionalist and 1% atheist. In 7 of the 8 provinces, Christians predominated among respondents; in North Eastern Province, however, just 3% of respondents were Christian, the remainder Muslim. Just less than one in ten (8%) respondents (excluding atheists) attend their place of worship every day, while three-quarters (74%) attend on a weekly basis. In other words, faith-based organisations are able to ‘reach’ 8 in 10 (82%) respondents every week. Clearly, they form a critical mechanism for communicating with the broad mass of the Kenyan population.

We saw that women were less likely to be found in CSOs than men; here we find that 78% of women attend their place of worship every week, true of 67% of men. Faith-based organisations can thus play a key role in reaching women, where most CSOs have low levels of female membership. Urban and rural respondents can both be reached via faith-based organisations: 80% of urban respondents attend a place of worship daily or weekly, as do 82% of rural respondents.

CSO outreach

Civil society includes a wide range of non-state and non-business bodies. NGOs, CBOs and the like have a limited membership. Tribal or clan structures are sizeable, but in terms of outreach capacity, faith-based organisations are enormously important. If we add all these together we find that just 3% of Kenyans belong to no CSO or attend no religious services. This is an extremely positive finding: if civil society acted in unison, it has the potential to communicate with 97% of the adult population.

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