What you need to know:
- Essentially, civil society is a humongous lobby that seeks to keep government excesses in check through direct advocacy.
- That is one of the principal reasons why relationships between civil society and the powers-that-be are almost always highly adversarial.
Taking potshots at civil society has been a favourite pastime of many a commentator, especially when its views do not exactly align with the prevailing political correctness. However, it turns out that this knee-jerk opposition may be ill-advised, especially because it is - except in authoritarian states - an essential component of good governance and its views should be taken into consideration by both the Executive and the Legislature.
Essentially, civil society is a humongous lobby that seeks to keep government excesses in check through direct advocacy.
That is one of the principal reasons why relationships between civil society and the powers-that-be, which should be symbiotic, are almost always highly adversarial. These activists are regarded as trouble-makers, especially because their views almost always conflict directly with those held by people who benefit from the status quo.
Matters become even more roiled when some such organisations “stray” into politics or call out the government on issues of human rights abuse, observance of the rule of law, and adherence to the tenets and spirit of constitution.
The amazing thing is that those who benefit most from the activities of non-governmental organisations believe it when those in power label them as the enemy.
Now, a man who has been in the business of advocacy, both in local and international forums, for more than 30 years — practically his whole working life — has authored a book that should debunk many such misrepresentations, by setting out the choices we as a society have in the areas of “inclusion, equality and social justice”.
In his book published this year, Dialogue & Dissent, Mr Irungu Houghton is not trying to paint civil society activism as beyond reproach, but he does indeed depict its practitioners as ordinary men and women with extraordinary vision of how a model society should look like. They are mainly motivated by the ills afflicting society how to right them, and even if their antics may at times seem unorthodox – some activists merely seem to seek clout - they know that only shock tactics have any impact on rulers whose way of doing things are apparently set in stone.
The book’s sub-head, “A Constitution in Search of a Country Kenya”, is a pointer to his preoccupation — that though we acquired a model constitution in 2010, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga says in the Foreword, “elite-driven constitutional reform has contradicted the people’s demands for a comprehensive constitutional implementation”. This is probably in reference to the Building Bridges Initiative which was declared unconstitutional by two of Kenya’s highest courts, and the matter is still in abeyance.
Political and constitutional change
In his various capacities in advocacy, Mr Houghton should know what he is talking about. At the moment, he is the executive director, Amnesty International Kenya, which is involved in seeking an end to human rights abuse and advocating for strict adherence to the Constitution. He has also served in senior positions with ActionAid Kenya (which deals with poverty and all forms of injustice), Oxfam (which deals with the same issues with a bias for gender inequality), and the Society for International Development, among other international civil society organisations.
But beyond that, Mr Houghton has what I like to call side-hustles linked to his day-job, for he has been caught pushing down walls erected to alienate land grabbed from a school and spent a night in police cells for his trouble, and also inhaled a fair amount of teargas while protesting extra-judicial executions. However, he is concerned with even weightier matters to do with natural justice.
Nevertheless, he does not absolve from blame civil society organisations that proliferate during periods of relative tranquility but then go mute when the country is in a crisis.
For instance, he says, before the 2007-2008 post-election violence, there were at least 6,000 NGOs operating in the country, 100,000s of community-based organisations, thousands of international organisations, and a fairly vibrant media.
However, their collective silence on the first week of January (2008) when the PEV erupted, suggested they had all left Kenya. Such is the fickle nature of fair-weather advocacy groups.
Mr Houghton is all praise for a number of individuals who sacrificed a great deal in the search for political and constitutional change, but he has few kind things to say about those who were opposed to any change to the country’s governance, including the decade-long search for a new Constitution, and are now seeking the country’s leadership.
One would have to read the book to find out who the heroes were and who are the villains, but one thing is clear: he is a “card-carrying” member of the former group and won’t give in to complacency.
All in all, Dialogue & Dissent is an important book, for it maps out where we have come from, where we are, and where we ought to be as a country. For instance, the fact that in this day and age, 46 per cent of Kenyans do not have enough to eat while 60 per cent live in “overcrowded, insecure and under-serviced homes” is enough make him livid. Other statistics indicate that the richest 10 per cent own 40 per cent of the country’s wealth while the poorest 10 per cent survive on only 2 per cent of the leftover crumbs.
Reading between the lines, one gets the feeling that this inequality is not only obscene but extremely dangerous.
But who among our rulers really gives a hoot? If stark warnings like this won’t prompt them to change their way of doing things, nothing ever will. Treating the messenger (civil society) as the enemy is not the solution to anything. Nor is it possible for the State to get rid of civil society altogether.
As Mr Houghton explains, “the non-governmental sector spans at least 10,000 organisations, has an annual revenue base of Sh400 billion per year, and employs tens of thousands of Kenyans”. For those reasons alone, it will continue speaking truth to power and cannot be wished away. Nor should it be.
Dialogue& Dissent can be ordered from www.irunguhoughton.org/the book254.”