This opinion was first published in the Kenyan Saturday Standard, 27 February 2021.

2021 is significantly historic in several ways. Exactly three decades ago, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became central to protecting the right to association and Kenyan political economy. Given their influential role in constitution-making and governance reform historically, why have they been relatively so absent from this Building Bridges Initiative moment?

Perhaps it is time to reimagine their civic leadership role nationally and internationally. The NGO Coordination Act was passed on January 14, 1991. For 30 years, it has been the legal tool for controlling activities of an emerging sector of well-resourced, professional and activist organisations.

Under this law, successive state administrations systemically curtailed freedoms of assembly, association, and expression. NGO leaders were harassed, tortured and even killed for attempting to exercise the rights now enshrined in our current Constitution.

They included the International Commission of Jurists, Greenbelt Movement, KENGO, Centre for Law and Research International (CLARION) and Kenya Human Rights Commission who directly challenged corruption, human rights and environmental violations in the late 1980s and 1990s.

They also include Oxfam, World Neighbours and Undugu Society who openly addressed regional, ethnic marginalisation and impoverishment. Even for some of us who were there, it is still difficult to believe that poverty eradication, civic education and protecting Uhuru Park and other green spaces was so dangerous in 1991, but it was. Repeated de-registrations, punitive freezing of bank accounts and arrests of NGO leaders shattered NGO-State partnerships between 1993-1999 and 2014-2017.

NGOs managed by the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and current Makueni County Governor Kivutha Kibwana were among those designated “threats to the security of the state” and deregistered. Infiltrated and overwhelmed by state bribery and patronage, the NGO Council lost capacity to hold its membership together a decade ago. Between 2014-2017, NGOs fought and successfully and defeated at least five legislative and procedural attempts to control NGO leadership, assets and stop 85 percent of foreign funding. Led by then Devolution CS Anne Waiguru, former NGO Coordination Bureau chief Fazul Mohammed and supported by the Interior Ministry, the first Jubilee Administration would have crippled 8,260 organisations.

Overnight, the nation would have lost Sh80 billion in annual development assistance and hundreds of thousands of clinics, schools, housing, water projects, civic education and legal aid programmes would have closed.

Thankfully, new NGO Coordination Bureau leadership over the last four years has restored partnership and an enabling environment for NGOs. However, the one-party legislation remains in force and the superior Public Benefits Organisations Act (2012) remains non-operationalised despite public promises by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i. The significance of this year and a new global study by the Re-imagining International NGOs (RINGO) collective releasing this week, gives us a moment to pause and reflect. Is it time for a new model for civic leadership and financial resilience for Kenya and the world? Interviewing 600 NGO leaders primarily from Africa, the RINGO study is another bold demand for international funders and INGOs to incorporate local realities in their relationship with African civic organisations.

Top down planning, sub-contracting and short funding cycles are killing local ownership and proactive leadership. New national and global civic leadership is required based on a financial model rooted in domestic leadership, local financing and asset building. Thirty-nine County Assemblies have now passed the Constitutional Amendment Bill. Among other proposals, this Bill seeks to fundamentally transform our governance to a parliamentary system, make gender parity a requirement for political parties, tighten anti-corruption measures and expand devolution funding.

Apart from elevating data privacy rights to a constitutional standard, the Bill thankfully leaves Chapter Four on Bill of Rights intact. NGOs must now do what they have always done best. They must help wananchi distinguish the opportunities and threats in the Bill and make an informed choice at the referendum.

Fortunately, for the Treasury and Exchequer, this sector has never needed car loans or other goodies to act. It just needs an enabling environment to exercise the right to association in the public interest. As the NGO Coordination Bureau prepares for the Annual NGO Week and National NGO Survey release, allow me to also wish a happy thirtieth birthday to all fellow NGO leaders out there!


The writer is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and RINGO Advisory Board member. He writes in his personal capacity.


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Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash