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This article is taken from the December 2002 Phatlalatsa newsletter


Transition to democracy - The role of civic education in Kenya

Transition to democracy - The role of civic education in Kenya imageKaruti Kanyinga and Carl Wesselink of South Consulting in Nairobi describe the evolution and impact of civic education in Kenya, and argue that the imminent election will be the true test of how effective civic education has been.


The National Civic Education Programme (NCEP) in Kenya provides a very good case study for improving our understanding of civic education in the context of political change. The NCEP is a large-scale programme supported by 10 donors, which delivered civic education directly to about 4 million Kenyans, mostly via face-to-face workshop methodologies. The authors are directors of South Consulting, which was contracted to provide technical assistance to the programme.

Political change and civic education

In Africa, countries that experienced different forms of dictatorship in the past are slowly gravitating to multi-party democracy. In countries such as Kenya, political space has expanded; there are many new political actors in the field. Governments are no longer the autocratic gatekeepers to the political space; they are checked both by groups of well informed and organised citizens as well as organised political groups. Equipping citizens with skills to effectively participate in public life and to engage with the 'new political space' is thus important. Civic education has become a key component of donor support to human rights, democracy and governance (HRDG) programmes.

The goal of civic education has generally been to inform and empower citizens to enable them make informed choices on issues that affect them in their everyday lives. However, the impact of civic education activities has not been closely explored. Civic education is little understood as a subject or as a tool for facilitating social-political and economic change in countries undergoing transition.

Political development in Kenya

Multi-party democracy was reintroduced in Kenya in December1991 after several decades of one-party authoritarianism. Before then, government had stifled civil society and gagged progressive groups. Open dissent was punishable. Citizens could not question. Patronage ruled the day. In order to secure a share, local leaders and whole communities prostrated themselves to please those in power.

The steep and steady decline of the economy demanded even greater sycophantic behaviour in order to access crumbs from the ever-shrinking pie. Culture was turned political; social-cultural activities were turned into a medium of expressing and demonstrating loyalty to the ruling elite and the President in particular. Tunes from religious songs were introduced into songs hummed in praise of the President. Those around the President declared him a Life-President; his authority could not be challenged on earth. Civic education could not be provided under these circumstances. Even development programmes by churches and NGOs were regarded with suspicion and mistrust by the government. Those critical of the government did not have it easy; they were under regular police harassment; watched from morning to evening; followed from place to place.

During the eighties, pressure for change built steadily. After over 100 people were killed in 1990 when attending a public rally in support of multi-partyism, major donors froze all aid. Moi was forced to announce reforms or risk massive instability. When multi-party politics was re-introduced in late 1991, the political context changed dramatically. Suddenly, people could discuss their political aspirations and the value of good governance. The social space was inundated with new actors. The printed press started speaking with an increasingly independent voice. Civil society, initially gagged, became the training ground for a new group of political actors interested in promoting change.

Growing role of civil society

This change, however, could not be sustained without the support of ordinary citizens. People were required to participate in an effective way in order to sustain the movement and shape its direction. To enable citizens to do so, civic education increasingly became important. There evolved many civil society organisations concerned with providing civic education in both rural and urban areas. The number of such groups rapidly increased as the country moved towards its first multi-party election in 1992. From fewer than 10 organisations, the number grew to over 30 by December 1992 when the election was held. Between then and December 1997 when the second election was held, the number increased again to over 70, and is almost triple this figure at the moment. Civic education in Kenya has grown hand in hand with the gradual expansion of political space and in particular growing freedom of expression and participation that the country has witnessed in the last decade.

Civic education in the past

In spite of the growth in numbers of civic education providers in the 1990s, delivery remained uncoordinated. Providers used eclectic approaches and delivered civic education in response to particular geographical, social or political issues, in an ad hoc manner. Coverage of regions, target groups, and issues was partial. Resources were not used optimally. Donors supported these initiatives without reference to a common focus. In most cases, partly because of the absence of a common framework and curriculum, there was no clear distinction between civic education and political advocacy. There was a limited number of people trained to deliver civic education in non-partisan ways. The focus was on voter education; civic education was not mainstreamed in the language or programming for development or governance - it was regarded as a political function.

This resulted in increased opposition to civic education by the government and the ruling party. The government criticised civic education providers, arguing that they were opposition agents who did not use neutral language but anti-government rhetoric.

At the same time, however, the dearth of credible government programmes and absence of political will regarding governance reform, forced donors to re-think their aid programmes. Increasingly, donors looked to support civil society in forwarding the good governance agenda. Thinking anew: a common approach to an integrated programme In 1999 civic education providers and donors reviewed their past efforts in civic education. They underlined the importance of collaboration in designing and implementing civic education projects. The providers specifically agreed to deliver non-partisan, non-advocacy and politically neutral civic education targeting the entire country. This strategy marked the birth of the National Civic Education Programme as an initiative of civil society groups in partnership with donors in Kenya. South and S&T played a key role in designing the NCEP.

The long-term objective of NCEP was to consolidate a mature social-economic and political culture in which citizens are aware of and exercise their rights and responsibilities and participate effectively in broadening democracy in the country.

Implementing Partners

NCEP is implemented by indigenous CSOs in Kenya. The CSOs organised themselves into four consortia based on shared interests, experience, focus and strategy. Each consortium comprised between 11 and 30 CSOs, including religious organisations, human rights CSOs, gender rights CSOs and organisations working with marginalised communities living in remote parts of the country.


A number of donors set up a basket fund to support the programme. Contributors include: the governments of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, Austria, the United States of America and the European Union.

The reach of NCEP: An overview

Phased delivery of civic education under the programme began in July 2001. Over 70 civil society organisations were contracted to carry out civic education using a variety of strategies including workshops, theatre, song and dance, and camel caravans in arid areas among other strategies. During the period, over 40 000 different activities were carried out reaching about 4 million adults or 30% of total adult population. These activities were carried out in over 87% of the country's administrative divisions; the activities were widely spread in rural and urban Kenya. Although radio usage is widespread in Kenya, using radio as a delivery mechanism was impossible given government's monopoly control and its refusal to license independent radio outside Nairobi.

Delivery was therefore largely through face to face workshops. A cadre of 3 700 facilitators was trained and deployed in the area where they are normally resident. This ensured local acceptability and sensitivity to local customs and languages (there are over 40 in Kenya). It also ensured the availability of a sustainable resource of credible information at the local level. A common curriculum, handbook and training manual were produced to ensure a common and credible content. Flip charts and other IEC materials were produced to promote effective workshop facilitation and highlighting of key messages.

Government reaction

In the past, the police were always at hand to disrupt civic education activities, arguing that they were not licensed, or were illegal, or were going to cause a breach of peace. Government was clearly opposed to the delivery of civic education and was ready to stop it even through forceful measures; on a number of occasions this resulted in violent confrontations between the citizens and the police.

In the time of the NCEP, despite heavy rhetoric from President Moi including scathing personal attacks by him on senior diplomats supporting the programme, there were no such incidents. Out of 40 000+ activities, the police disrupted just 10; and none on the grounds of advocacy or partisanship.

The NCEP principles of objectivity, non-partisanship and political neutrality, the strategy of using local elders and chiefs as entry points and local residents as facilitators, helped in creating a firm base of trust between communities and civic education providers. In this context the police and provincial administration were constrained from acting and for the government the political price of interfering became one risk too many in the lead up the elections in December 2002. Kenyans, starved of credible sources of information, actively engaged in civic education sessions, turning out in large numbers and exercising their right to freedom of information. Future governments may have little alternative but to focus on the positive and see civic education as a discourse to better its relations with society.

What of impact?

A unique feature of NCEP is the amount of effort and resources that have gone into assessing the impact of the programme. Firstly, a detailed baseline survey was commissioned which provided the basis for defining content, entry strategy and target groups as well as the mapping of service providers and resources. The baseline, designed and analysed by S&T, helped define benchmarks and informed indicators for the high-end objectives. During the course of the programme, reports on each activity were captured on a database, allowing analysis of performance by CSO, by region, by delivery methodology and so on. As with the baseline survey, a GIS application permits spatial analysis of results.

An extensive impact evaluation has been commissioned which will provide a detailed assessment of NCEP using the following tools:

  • A general survey comparing political attitudes, participation and other governance indicators with the baseline study.
  • A pre and post NCEP survey and control group to assess levels of awareness of those participating in NCEP activities as against those who have not.
  • Analysis of the activity report database to compare regions, methodologies, and target groups.

A final report is due in August 2003.

Impressions of impact and the imminent election

At the time that civic education activities were taking place, the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) was carrying out public consultations. The programme assisted in preparing members of the public to make informed presentations to the Commission. Additionally, the Commission did not have funds to carry out its own planned programme of civic education; it had to depend on NCEP infrastructure including civic education materials. Indeed there was increased collaboration between NCEP partners and the CKRC co-ordinators. NCEP therefore made a significant contribution to public participation in and ownership of the Constitutional Review Process. This has raised the stakes for the political establishment should it fail to enact the new Constitution once the review process is complete. An encouraging sign for sustainable delivery has been the continued use of community-based facilitators, trained under the programme, even after funding has ended. Local CBOs, particularly women's groups, have been mobilising their own resources and inviting facilitators to continue workshops.

Of particular promise is anecdotal evidence from implementing agencies indicating that beneficiaries have taken the principles of constitutionalism and good governance and applied them to their immediate environment. For example, a number of "mini-revolutions" have been reported where members of co-operative societies and agricultural co-ops have demanded transparency and democratic process within their structures. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the demand from the congregation of a Catholic Church (the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission was a major implementing agency) to overhaul the "hierarchical, undemocratic and secretive" decision-making structure in their church.

If media reports are anything to go by, ordinary Kenyans have been increasingly informed through the programme. In the current pre-election fervour, civil society groups have pointed to an improvement in the quality of debate in both rural and urban areas. It also seems that bad habits are dying out: expecting sycophantic respect merely because of political office has gone, and President Moi has had to endure open defiance and even booing by the public. This has occurred as Moi has travelled the country trying to drum up support for his chosen successor whom he plucked from obscurity - the son of his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, first post-independence President of Kenya.

Whether Kenyans will accept the imposition of a dynasty may be the true measure of the success of civic education.


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