Civil Society Wishlist for Obama [opinion]

This week, the Head of the free world, USA President Barack Obama is in the land of his father for the first time in his capacity as President of the United States (POTUS). He is visiting Kenya to among other things, attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. As a matter of fact, this is the maiden visit by a sitting USA head of state since independence.

Five years ago, Kenyans promulgated what is said to be one of world’s most progressive constitutions, an act that demonstrated Kenyans’ commitment to democracy, accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. It is a matter of general consensus that the constitution of Kenya 2010, is a product of blood and sweat that was mostly stewarded by professionals, students, human rights defenders and religious leaders under the umbrella of Kenyan civil society organisations over the last two and a half decades.

The United States’ role in impressing upon successive Kenyan governments to adopt pro-democracy policies and reforms in the country is well documented. Back in 1990, it was the then United States Ambassador to Kenya, Mr Smith Hempstone, who bolstered Matiba and Rubia’s call for the repeal of Section 2 (a) of the constitution that had rendered Kenya a one-party state. Ambassador Hempstone informed the regime there was a strong tide flowing in the United States Congress to concentrate America’s economic assistance on nations that nourished democratic institutions, defended human rights, and practiced multiparty politics.

Call to democracy

The 1990s call to democracy triggered the dominos that culminated in the promulgation of the new constitution. It is, therefore, accurate to say the new constitution is a product of advocacy and pressure from the opposition, the media, civil society organisations and foreign missions led by the United States and the United Kingdom.

Kenyan civil society groups have been integral to securing respect for the rule of law and human rights, and to date remain a critical voice in defending the rights of all Kenyans. However, increasingly, NGOs, human rights defenders (HRDs) and members of the media working on a range of issues, including security force abuses and corruption face increasing obstacles and harassment.

Following increased terror attacks in Nairobi, the coastal region and northern Kenya, there have been unsubstantiated allegations that NGOs, with the support of foreign donors have been supporting terror activities. At the same time, the Kenyan government has been attempting to amend the Public Benefits Organisations (PBO) Act, which despite being enacted with broad stakeholder consensus back in 2013, has never been brought into force by the Cabinet Secretary in charge of Devolution and Planning. CSOs have expressed concern that the real intention of prematurely amending the law is to undermine the Act’s original purpose of creating an enabling environment for civil society, while enhancing transparency and accountability and strengthening collaboration between the government and CSOs.

It is for this reason that CSOs have repeatedly urged the Government of Kenya to implement the current PBO Act as passed in 2013. They believe the PBO Act contains self-regulating mechanism provisions capable of checking issues such as CSOs being operated as fronts for embezzlement, money laundering and financing terror activities.

Around the world, efforts by various governments to restrict the space in which civil society operates have grown at an alarming rate. In the UK, Ethiopia, Tanzania and indeed Kenya, governments are using laws, policies, and practices to limit the ability of people to come together to improve everyday lives through CSOs, human rights activism and a vibrant media. It is, therefore, no surprise that Kenya government has been keen to steer the amendments to the Public Benefits Organisations Act, the Media Council Act, the Kenya Information and Communication Act and the infamous Security Laws Amendment Act.

On the contrary, counter-terrorism, national security issues, the war on corruption and indeed the war on ‘second-generation’ alcohol can only be effective when government, the media, human rights defenders and civil society work together and complement each other. When these stakeholders work together towards one goal as partners, nothing can stand in the way of justice, due process and accountability in Kenya.

I would therefore be imagining that part of CSOs’ wish list is urging President Obama to use his upcoming visit to encourage the Government of Kenya and the National Assembly to respect the constitution in its efforts to address national security, and to ensure no legislation violates Kenya’s commitments under international law.

In his May 2015 visit, USA Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry announced America would provide $45 million in new funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees meant for assisting some 600,000 refugees in Kenya. This support is intended to make a substantial contribution to improving the lives of Kenya’s refugees who have been recent targets for harassment by security forces. CSOs serving refugees would, therefore, impress on President Obama to urge the government of Kenya to tone down on the public rhetoric against refugees by Kenyan leaders calling for their forced return. The Kenyan people should not forget Uganda hosted thousands of Kenyan refugees who fled from western Kenya during the 2007-08 post-election violence. Some of whom returned to Kenya as recently as this year.

Corruption and accountability

Endemic corruption and lack of accountability has paralysed the ability of the Kenyan government to provide basic services and ensure security to Kenyans. In March, President Uhuru Kenyatta initiated an all-out war on corruption that began high up in the Cabinet level leading to the suspension of several senior government officials. However, it seems the momentum has faded and the body mandated to fight corruption has mysteriously been rendered moribund. All the three commissioners and top management of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission have been shown the door thus leaving the investigation and prosecution prerogative at the doorstep of the Director of Public Prosecutions. CSOs would, therefore, be keen that President Obama expands support to NGOs and other institutions working on governance, democracy and transparency, including investigation and prosecution of corruption cases, in Kenya.

Obama should stress to attendees of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that the Government of Kenya must, as it has promised, tackle corruption and hold corrupt officials at all levels to account in order to encourage entrepreneurship and effectively attract foreign investment. He should encourage the Government of Kenya to safeguard the independence of institutions such as the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions in order to enhance accountability.

As one of Kenya’s closest allies and a key partner in the fight against terrorism, President Obama has a unique role to urge President Kenyatta to reach out and work together with civil society, independent offices and the media because only a meaningful coalition of the government, NGOs, independent offices and the media will steer Kenya to the direction of accountability, rule of law, human rights and sustainable development.