Why civil society’s future in Kenya is looking bleak

Police lob teargas ganisters along Uhuru Highway which University of Nairobi students had blocked for the better part of the day on December 15, 2013, protesting the death of a comrade who was held by Nairobi central police. 

Civil society’s future in Kenya is bleak and largely because public universities — erstwhile nurseries of civil rights agitation — are on their deathbed.

Gone is the era of Siaya Governor James Orengo and former Eldoret North legislator Philomena Chelagat Mutai, who as students led ‘comrades’ in University of Nairobi protests through turbulent times following Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki’s murder.

That was in the 1970s. Yours truly fondly recalls three square meals a day with four o’clock tea to boot, not to mention the famous ‘boom’ — the student allowance that was part of the higher education package covering tuition and lodging. Then the International Monetary Fund and World Bank came to spoil the party, reducing students to penury and bereft of the luxury of thinking beyond their next meal.

University professor of law and former Makueni governor Kivutha Kibwana says “both the academia and university student population are experiencing hard times. Universities are afflicted with financial woes. Some are on the brink of collapse.”

The human rights activist calls for rethinking higher learning since currently, “both teachers and students prioritise day-to-day survival.”

The implications for civil society organisations (CSOs) are dire. Alongside faith-based organisations (FBOs) and disgruntled politicians in a de facto one-party state, the sector, Prof Kibwana says, was instrumental in scrapping Section 2(A) of the Constitution to restore multiparty democracy. CSOs, he adds, survived on the intellectual input of university lecturers and researchers.

In this regard, the don, who believes that new ideas are needed to secure civil society’s future, sees the new diaspora as capable of playing this critical role. Revival ideas have to come from thinkers of civil society supplemented by grassroots practice of organising. “One may still have to count on the remnant public-spirited core of university researchers, which still support civil society work,” he states.

Mr Elkanah Odembo, former National Council of Non-governmental Organisations chairperson and one-time ambassador of Kenya to France and the United States of America, concurs with Prof Kibwana’s sentiments. In an almost two-hour telephone conversation that dwelt on a host of issues bedeviling Kenya in general and the CSO sector in particular, Mr Odembo had some sad comments on just how low student welfare had sunk and with it civil rights activism.

Non-payment of salaries for months has disillusioned lecturers to a point where they now focus on consultancies for survival. The university, “where rigorous intellectual discussions [and] arguments should happen... is not a space where that happens anymore because who is going to organise that?” Mr Odembo poses. Professors, he notes, are struggling for their own rights, their own space and livelihoods. And because students see what’s going on, they’re also preoccupied with their own things.

“A situation where things are not right in terms of learning and infrastructure demands that students make noise,” the former diplomat says. “The university must be an enabling environment for our kids to study,” he asserts. It has to be an environment for students to “explore and grow mentally, intellectually and ideologically.”

While acknowledging that, “every so often, you hear about public lectures [and] debates” at universities, this should be the order of the day. Every week, there should be public lectures on serious public interest issues like debt, cost of living, or competency-based curriculum. “I’m not hearing about them, and if I’m not hearing about them and they’re happening, then they’re not doing it right. They must be seen, be heard, and be felt,” he says.

Mr Odembo says “the professors will tell you that they put more energy on private students, private universities, and the parallel students” — a cadre whose existence is in doubt as their contribution to universities’ growth comes under scrutiny. In the circumstances, university lecturers have been forced to prioritise consultancies over their core duty of nurturing young minds. This spells doom for the NGO sector, more so that most of their sponsors, who are foreign donors, put it plainly to the lecturers that their funds may be used for political activism.

Mr Cyprian Nyamwamu, Future of Kenya Foundation Director, paints a grim picture of CSOs, which include non-governmental organisations (NGOs). By 2017, the CSO sector had become deserted, he says. “Its former ideological and intellectual clarity had vanished. It had become largely a donor contractors sector [and] abandoned strong advocacy and advancement of any particular agenda. Organisations now mainly exist to deliver the donor contracted projects and programmes. The sector has no clear agenda to pursue away from the defined donor priorities through the call for proposals.”

Which is to be expected, for according to Dr Joyce Nyairo, a Research Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. mentioned in the first part of this article yesterday, 27 members of the 1990s civil society joined the Kibaki administration that ended Daniel Moi’s 24-year rule. It’s noteworthy that most of those CSO activists, including current Kisumu governor, Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, came from academia.

Under these dire circumstances, is there hope for universities, the bedrock of civil society activism? Perhaps. Prof Kibwana is banking on CSO unity, which is currently divided between so-called “sellouts” that were sucked into the Kibaki administration and the diehards. And Mr Odembo insists that the financial morass that defines public universities stems from the government’s insatiable appetite for loans.

Inasmuch as he knows the Ruto administration won’t stop borrowing — because of pledges it made to its voter base — that’s the only way out of Kenya’s debt quagmire. CSOs and academia have the formula to expand Kenya’s tax base, and they must push for a halt to reckless borrowing. “Stop borrowing” is his clarion call to government—and academia and CSOs should rally Kenyans around the campaign to put people’s voice and aspirations at the core of the national agenda.

Both dons and civil rights activists are banking on a future where academia, NGOs and FBOs are united for a just society that calls government to account. They did before and they can do it again, they believe.

- Ms Kweyu is a consulting editor and contributor to Daily Nation. [email protected]