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The relationship between civil society and the Kenyan state is an ambivalent and uneasy one. This is especially so due to competing visions (by government, critics, and civil society advocates) of what constitutes politics and its attendant governmentality. Undoubtedly, civil society in Gramscian terms is an arena between the state and the market where contestations for hegemonic control of society happen. Civil society is, therefore, essentially political. Yet, Kenya, like many other African states has over the years, created and reproduced a legal and policy environment that favours an ‘apolitical’ civil society concerned only with matters ‘development’ while disabling the former. How can civil society be ‘developmental’ yet ‘apolitical’ when ‘development’ itself is a political project?
Drawing on primary interviews, media reports and existing literature, this paper probes the ambiguities in attempts at separation of the ‘political’ and the ‘developmental’ civil society in Africa by focusing on Kenya. It is argued that the Kenyan civil society history, since the colonial period, is analogous to politics. The anticolonial struggles were deeply embedded in civic association initially manifesting as ethno-religious resistance movements, social movements and trade unions, later morphing into pro-independence political movements (Mati 2015). At the time, even the missionary inspired civil society offering education and health services to Africans played political roles by ameliorating the sharper dehumanising facets of colonial rule or by standing up against colonial injustices (Page and Sonnenburg 2003). The paper traces the attempt to separate civil society from politics to the colonial state’s enactment of laws to proscribe African associations deemed ‘political’ while facilitating the existence and operations of the ‘non-political’ ones, especially as they helped advance the colonial cause. Taking cue from the colonial state, the immediate post-colonial elites moved quickly to neuter the very social bases that had underwritten the struggle for independence (Fanon 1963), resulting to a mantra of separation of ‘politics’ from ‘development’ in the post-independence nation building project. The emergence of externally aided NGO, a category of managerial form of civic organising with an impoverished base of paper membership at the onset of multipartyism early 1990s added weight to critics uncomfortable with alternative power bases who have continued to advocate for separation of civil society from politics. The paper reflects on the implications of this false dichotomy to regulating civil society in Kenya as well as to the country’s unfinished social and political transformation project.
Fanon, F. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. London: New York: Grove Press.
Mati, J.M. 2015. “Constraining Political Transformation: The Two Faces of Activist Religious Organizations in the Search for a New Constitution in Kenya.” Journal of Civil Society, 11 (4): 348-365.
Page, M. and Sonnenburg, P., 2003, Colonialism: an international, social, cultural, and political encyclopaedia, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.