Civil Society Vs the Kenyan State

Kenyan civil society may be the locus through which the state can be countered.

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A remark by William Ruto, one of the six senior Kenyan politicians summoned to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer charges of ‘bearing the greatest responsibility for the 2007-2008 post election violence’,  may have missed the headlines of local and international media but could not escape any keen observer of the relationship between civil society and government.

At a ‘prayer rally’ to seek divine intervention in the face of ICC indictment, Ruto said, “NGO’s should stop interfering with government matters; writing letters to their donors abroad [to support the ICC intervention] and compiling reports about post-election violence. It is none of their business”. 

In a direct attack on civil society, Ruto condemned NGOs as being agents of foreign forces keen on destabilizing the country. These remarks were in response to the agitated campaigns by the organisations to counter government attempts to scuttle the ICC process. Soon after the ICC issued summons to the ‘Ocampo Six’, the government engaged in frantic efforts to seek deferral, then referral, of the case with the vice president embarking on a shuttle diplomacy campaign to lobby the African Union and members of the United Nations Security Council. Civil society groups on the other hand, collected more than 1 million signatures opposing the government’s move and forwarded them to the Security Council, accompanied by a strongly worded letter condemning the government’s actions. They held numerous protests and press conferences criticizing the government for its lack of commitment to fight impunity in the country. Although the ICC indictment was bound to elicit heated emotions in various sections of the Kenyan society, it highlights the nature of the relationship between the political class and civil society, which is often fraught with tension and acrimony.

“Potential battle ground”

Antonio Gramsci identified civil society as a “potential battle ground” through which the dominant class seeks to and can impose ‘hegemony’ over the masses. Both the state and civil society can constitute members of the same social class, the fast growing middle class and the elites, who try in their own different ways to co-opt the public into supporting their own visions for society. Both sides claim to speak on behalf of the popular classes.

In Kenya, politicians depend on public goodwill to fulfil their ambitions of controlling state power. Civil society associations also depend on mass support to have their opinions taken into account on matters of national interest. While politicians dominate the public space through political rallies and state functions, civil associations employ tactics to get public attention, especially through the media. Therefore, struggles between the state and the civil society often appear as media wars orchestrated by pundits on both sides of the divide. This is why Ruto’s remarks depict a much deeper and more subtle phenomenon than a mere attempt to whip up patriotic fervour. Indeed, they herald the rise of civil society into a potent force of opposition in a country that is literally without an official opposition political party.


Although the current coalition government lacks an official opposition party, the country can hardly claim a period in history when opposition parties played a significant role in checking the exigences of government. The coalition was formed as a compromise move to end bloodshed after the  contested presidential elections in 2007-2008. Prior to that, practically the same political kingpins in the current government had converged in 2002 under the umbrella opposition movement the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to oust incumbent President Daniel Moi from his 24-year grip on power. After the introduction of multi-party politics in 1992, Moi’s regime had perfected the art of dividing opposition parties along ethnic fault lines to ensure that no group obtained a majority following in the country. He managed to win the 1997 General election with a mere majority of 37% of the national vote. Before Moi, and going all the way back to independence era, the Kenyatta regime established Kenya as single-party state, and entrenched this provision into the national constitution. Attempts by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga to register an opposition party in 1969 landed him in jail. He was subsequently released then re-detained by Moi until the popular Saba Saba (July 7) Movement forced the repeal of Section 2(A) of the constitution, which banned all other political parties besides KANU.

Civil society organizations played a crucial role in the struggle for multi-party democracy, supplementing the efforts of opposition leaders such as Kenneth Matiba and Koigi Wa Mwere. However, severe censorship of the media denied them any platform to voice their opinions, leaving the battle to those willing to face government forces in street battles and detention centres.

This situation changed after the 2002 elections when the opposition coalition NARC took over power buoyed by the popular wave of a media revolution. It is around this period that independent FM radio stations made their debut in the country, pioneered by Royal Media Services Company with its flagship stations, Citizen Radio and Television. These played a crucial role in providing the opposition with a platform to air its campaign, after the government-controlled KBC denied them airtime. This media revolution subsequently empowered civil society, which could now reach a wider audience beyond the middle class neighbourhoods in Nairobi.

Civil society leads the way

During the campaigns for the  failed 2005 referendum on a new constitution, civil society remained largely neutral, although it condemned the ethnic politicization of the entire constitutional review process. It was the events of the 2007-2008 that jolted civil associations, led by those in human rights and governance, to get more confrontational with the ruling class. Besides condemning the violence, organizations such as the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, the Centre for Multiparty Democracy, the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists and the African Centre for Open Governance took it upon themselves to press for the prosecution of masterminds of the violence amidst open reluctance by politicians. After the government failed to establish a local Special Tribunal to try suspects, the matter was taken up by the ICC in accordance with the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-election Violence. In making his case, ICC Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo heavily relied on reports by KNHCR and other civil society organizations raising the stakes in the struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Kenyans. This explains the unusually bitter retort by William Ruto who is better known for his combative stance against erstwhile ally Prime Minister Raila Odinga. He was most recently quoted demanding that the ICC reprimand Mr. Ocampo for presenting to the court a document “based on baseless assertions and allegations made by the media and NGOs.”

The unnofficial ‘opposition’

The rise of civil society as the unofficial opposition in Kenya may appear as a temporary stop gap measure following the events of 2007-2008, but it in fact highlights the country’s maturing democracy. Civil society forms a crucial role in a democratic society, being the potential vanguard of public good against a burgeoning political class. To return to Gramsci, while the political state maintains a monopoly of the instruments of coercion, demanding the public’s submission to its authority, civil society when not hegemonised by the ruling class can offer the space for a counter-hegemonic project. Nevertheless, in order for this to happen public access to information is a crucial requisite.

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