Evolution of Kenya’s civil society

Civil society activists plant a tree at Freedom Corner, Uhuru Park in Nairobi to mark the 4th anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution.
on August 27, 2014. PHOTO | FILE |

What you need to know:

  • The trinity of change dissolved after NARC got into leadership.
  • Civil society groups have not changed their methods of engagement.
  • The response of the militia and Jeshi la Mzee to the activities of the activists, the Church, and the youthful politicians, the Young Turks, was violent and vicious.

The memory of events that contributed to the re-birth of multiparty politics in Kenya has faded away from many people. It serves right to recapitulate some of the scenes. On one hand were groups of urban and rural youth, young political activists or the Young Turks, and the Church. They comprised the trinity of change.

But not all religious groups, or churches, were part of this trinity. The Church, notably the Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian, were the first of a trinity of these three actors – the organised youth and activists, the Young Turks and the Church. They played a leading role in fostering change. Others such as the African Inland Church did not. This is a story for another day.

On the other side was the government and the then ruling party, Kanu. The government and the ruling party had a vicious group of youth militia, the Kanu youth wing, and later Jeshi la Mzee. The Jeshi la Mzee and the militia’s main role was to prevent the Young Turks and activists from organising rallies anywhere.

The response of the militia and Jeshi la Mzee to the activities of the activists, the Church, and the youthful politicians, the Young Turks, was violent and vicious. They often left scores wounded, if not a number dead.

Every violent event was a lesson learnt for the activists and the politicians. In the early meetings by the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD), these groups deflated the violent intervention by Jeshi la Mzee and Youth for Kanu.

Joke has it that one of the Young Turks devised a strategy that worked; he matched violence with violence. He promised five shillings for every stone aimed at Jeshi la Mzee and Sh10 for every stone that hit the target.

The Church gave spiritual and moral support to the emerging opposition groups. The Church gave the required platform for the Young Turks to articulate their views for change. The civil society represented by the activists rapidly transformed to be a training ground for politicians. Politicians in the opposition now straddled civil society and politics. Many became MPs and continued to work with the civil society.


This relationship gave birth to the partnership between opposition political parties, Kenya’s civil society (human rights and governance organisations), and the Church. The partnership remained in place for long. In fact, they ushered in the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC).

President Mwai Kibaki was himself a prominent panellist of discussions organised by the Church and the civil society. He was very comfortable in these spaces; he loved the debates. No one in government could match him.

This partnership continued way into the NARC government. Civil society got the space to even work with the government. This was at least the case in the early period of NARC.

The coalition government of President Kibaki and Raila Odinga was not different; the government had within its ranks elements from the civil society. The government also related comfortably with the Church.


The trinity of change dissolved after NARC got into leadership. The Church and the civil society went into different directions. Some were co-opted into government. Others stood and won elections. Others were waiting to be appointed into key posts in government. The Church stopped being vocal.

Both the Church and the civil society appeared to have arrived. From then on, things have never been the same. There are of course occasional rational voices. But there are groups that are a mirror image of the Kenyan society – they are ethnic, parochial and polarising.

It is this history that comprises the main lens through which many are making judgement about the state of the civil society and even opposition politics in Kenya today.

In the past two years of the Jubilee administration, some commentators on governance in Kenya have tended to examine the state of governance by simply looking at what is happening to the civil society; the opposition politics or what we now refer to as the minority as constituted in the two houses of parliament; and the place of the Church in politics.

There are those who are pointing out that the civil society and the government are not friends. They are not comfortable bedfellows. They note that the space for human rights and governance civil society groups is shrinking.

They cite the proposed amendments to the Public Benefits Organisations law and the possible restrictive environment to emerge from this law as an example. They also cite negative statements on human rights groups by political leaders in government as contributing to the shrinking space. The relationship is generally strained.

Why are things so? First, civil society and the government cannot be expected to be comfortable bedfellows when the traditional role of civil society groups is to keep the government in check and to defend the people against excesses of the government. This is a tradition in many societies. This simply explains why it is difficult to expect the government to entertain human rights groups.

The second reason is more fundamental. It is about the history of relations between leaders in Jubilee and those in civil society. Some trace this poor relationship to the role of the human rights groups in supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) intervention in the Kenyan situation. But with or without the ICC, the relations between Jubilee and the civil society groups would have been frosty because of history.

Notably, in the 1990s, none of Jubilee leaders was part of the opposition political parties. They were in Kanu. And civil society was organising against Kanu.

In the transition to the NARC regime, civil society and the alliance of opposition parties organised to defeat Kanu and the party’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. In 2007, many civil society groups were again supporting ODM against PNU. Uhuru was allied to PNU.

In other words, Jubilee and civil society have always stood on the opposite sides of the table. They have been standing in the opposite sides of politics. They cannot embrace each other at this point in history.

Civil society groups are also experiencing the problem of transition in leadership. There has been a shift from the first generation of civil society leaders who were increasingly engaged in political organising, to leaders who do work, and those who do not bother about activism.

In fact the third generation of CSO leaders are organising in social media than in physical spaces. This new group of leaders has come to place when most work has been accomplished by the first generation of civil society leaders.

Some of the new leaders in civil society are comfortable working with the government while others are not. Herein lies internal divisions; this is preventing coherence within civil society. Each group sees things differently.


Civil society is also facing a crisis of historical epochs. The 1990s and the first half of 2000s was a period of history considered remarkable and noteworthy for civil society across the globe.

It was a period that witnessed the rise of many groups to undertake different roles including to complement government services. The human rights groups grew in this period because the rights agenda was on top of the globe development discussions. Governments were also trampling on rights everywhere. The importance of human rights framework is waning in importance and in influence.

Few CSOs are ready to recognise this. But they need to look at the journey CSOs have travelled using different names to serve different purposes. In the 1960s they served as charitable and relief organisations.

They became voluntary organisations in the 1970s. They were associated with philanthropic work. In the 1980s, the term Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) became synonymous with groups that were doing development work to complement government efforts. In the 1990s, the term civil society emerged to describe and define groups between the state, family and the private sector.

It became increasingly associated with human rights and governance organisations. Today, the term ‘Public Benefits Organisations’ is increasingly used to define those groups whose work is of benefit to the public. This is a new epoch. The human rights framework may not find a place in the thinking of the public especially when the public is ignorant and concerned especially about social services delivery.

Civil society groups have not changed their methods of engagement. This is a problem everywhere in many parts of Africa today. The fourth generation of Africa leaders are different in character. They grip the society using social development. Their grip on the society is done so differently from those who preceded them. How to engage with governments under such circumstances requires change of tact. It requires new approaches to organising.

With this journey, one can see why CSOs and the government appear to be speaking in tongues to each other. It is possible that they will not be friends for a long time.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga teaches at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected]


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