When people talk about activism in Kenya, it mostly sounds as if it is a bad thing. The reason is that activism (especially political activism) has acquired a negative image. The actual meaning and intention of activism has become obscure.
We can attribute the negative connotation of activism in Kenya to the violence often associated with some protests. Clashes happen between the police and the protesters or rioters. The images and videos depicting violence make the situation worse. This makes people question whether activism is necessary or even worth the effort.
Yet, we cannot downplay the significance of activism in Kenya, especially political activism. It proved important in the era of dictatorship by Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. Their authoritarian rule and brutality led Kenyans to demand change eventually through activism.
Many Kenyans lost their lives in the clamour for the second liberation. The brutal governments detained, tortured, and imprisoned others illegally. The former Nyayo House torture chambers are infamous for this acute violence. It reminds Kenyans of the dark days of authoritarian rule.
The only power tyrants have is the power relinquished to them by the victims.
Etienne de la Boetie
Thanks to political activism, Kenyans achieved the second liberation with the adoption of multiparty democracy. Kenya transitioned from a one-party state to a multi-party system. In 2002, the activism in Kenya eventually paid off when Kenyans voted out the primitive KANU regime.
No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.
Thus, activism in Kenya was about reforms until some time after 2002. Nowadays, people view activism as a ‘nuisance’ and the civil society termed as ‘evil’ society.
Nevertheless, why the sudden change on the views about activism in Kenya?
The problem with the activism in Kenya after the infamous Moi era is that most people view it as a preserve of the civil society. They say that the ‘evil’ society propagates the activism and ‘donor-funded’ NGOs that are out to destabilize the country. This false narrative facilitates the government’s propagandist fights against civil society.
This monopoly has made the government and detractors undermine civil society. This also reinforces the false narrative that NGOs use activism to compete for foreign donor money.
Some crooks do exist within the civil society and they severely taint its name. They demonstrate, protest or riot for materialistic ends.
They will take a battering from the ever-rowdy anti-riot police and make an entire hullabaloo about it. The crooks will take photos of the beatings and upload them on social media claiming how ‘brutal’ the Kenyan Police is. However, we all know what these ‘commercial activists’ intend to achieve.
We also have radical elements in the civil society who will take a beating believing that they face brutality in the name of change. Well, it is not actually worth it. It might sound good at that time but it is not steady.
The beatings are not similar to the physical violence meted out to activists during the brutish Moi era. Many citizens are usually not sympathetic with such people as they were with the activists during the Moi era.
The activism in Kenya should be a bridge between the people and the government. The activism in Kenya should be akin to a market where the government and the public discuss and share ideas. It should allow Kenyans to pressure or lobby the government to listen to them.
Therefore, activism or activists should not antagonize the government from the people without giving them a valid reason to do so.
Yet, Kenyans should be sceptical when it comes to trusting the government by itself. That does not imply that they should not know who governs them. It is always right to criticize or comment on the government. However, one cannot achieve change by not understanding what motivates the government to do what it does.
I have seen some ‘activists’ insulting supporters of the ruling administration sycophants and fools. Ironically, these activists also claim that awakening the masses is their prime agenda. It beats logic to claim that agenda while pulling others down. One should not become an activist by insulting people with a ‘weaker’ opinion or understanding.
Activism in Kenya seems to have lost touch with the public and advocacy has taken root in its place. Activism largely works ‘outside’ the system. That is people using anti-government means to demand change.
On the contrary, advocacy works ‘within’ the system. It often involves issues like lobbying, round-table discussions, and legislation. Advocacy works with the current system while activism works without the system.
In fact, many civil society organizations have changed tack and adopted advocacy over activism. The constant activism-based protests only involve very small groups of people. Their impact is often minor and their follow-up of issues is minimal and unverifiable.
Not to say that activism in Kenya has lost its place in the current setting. Activism in Kenya is a boost for advocacy. When it fails to work within the system, then it has to go outside the system.
It is sad when a few individuals use activism for other selfish agendas.
With this era of social media, another form of ‘activism’ arises. It involves trolling the government and politicians, or posting innuendos about them.
Despite all that, how can activism in Kenya recover its space in the hearts and minds of Kenyans?
First, the activists themselves need to change the image that activism in Kenya is about bitterness. They appear to be bitter about everything, especially the government.
Second, they need to stop being (seen as) bigots and accommodate different opinions.
Third, they need to stop alienating themselves from the government, thereby creating more rift between the civil society and the government.
Fourth, it is necessary to weed out the rogue elements among them who have commercialized activism in Kenya.
Fifth, the activists should be willing to accommodate other alternatives beyond activism, like advocacy.
They also need to present a different image to the public contrary to being perceived as a nuisance and hecklers. Most people see protests as a nuisance to themselves and their business.
Lastly, they need to consolidate their viewpoints and efforts. Some contemporary activists compete with each other and are even suspicious of each other.