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Social Movements and The Democratization Process in Kenya 
By Ken Omolo 
Lecturer, Department of Government University of Nairobi

Conceptual and Theoretical Issues: Social Movements, Democracy and Civil Society 

The demand for democracy, whenever it arises, comes from people who believe that rulers are neglecting the needs and aspirations of their subjects, and that this state of affairs will continue for as long as they are not responsible to their subjects.  These persons who pursue democracy will oftentimes either seek to be leaders themselves or want to establish a system where the people have accountable and representable leadership. 

The history of Kenya, like that of any other modern state is a struggle for the establishment of meaningful representative democracy.  Right from the pre-independence period in the late 1950s to the post-multiparty era in late19 90s, Kenya’s political life has been an active engagement in the democratization process.  Among the chief internal actors in this regard have been the Kenyan masses, grouped in one form of association or another such as ethnic groupings, cross-ethnic groupings; women’s pressure groups; and civil society. 

The dynamism of the Kenyan masses in the democratization process has largely been expressed through social movements.  Social movements is seen in this context to imply a degree of self-generated and independent action, leadership and a minimal degree of organization and participation on the part of the members of a group (Blackwell, Encyclopedia of Political Science, 1991: 569). 

Three characteristics of social movements have been identified and these are: group consciousness; a sense of group identity; and solidarity.  These are further integrated by a specific pattern of normative commitments, ‘constitutive ideas’, or ideology (Heberle, Rudolf, 1951:2).  In the Kenyan socio-political set-up, it is possible to identify historically, Max Weber’s three-fold categorization of forms of normative commitment: the value-rational fellowship of believers; the emotional-effectual following of the charismatic leader; and the purposive-rational association for pursuing individual interests. 

There exists an overlap to a certain degree between the concepts of social movement, political party, pressure group and voluntary association.  The Kenyan experience exhibits this phenomenon.  In this paper therefore, social movements will be applied broadly and will thus refer to such political parties as have a movement dimension, that is, those parties that tend to be mass parties with well-defined policies and programmes, for example the Forum For the Restoration of Democracy, FORD.  Mention will also be made here of those movements that use political parties as the spearhead of their campaigns for political power and this is best illustrated by the National Convention Executive Committee (NCEC).  This category also encompasses the category of civil societies.  Herein also falls such pressure groups as the Release Political Prisoners, (RPP), and such ethnic affiliations as the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO); Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Association (GEMA) and the Akamba Union.  Some of the movements mentioned here will be seen as eventual extra-parliamentary campaigns, or as is so often the case, movements that resort to violence and subversion to overthrow the political system.

In this study, we take cognisance of the heightened role of civil society in Kenya, particularly in the period just preceding and after multipartism.  Historically, the expression civil society has been used in a number of senses and these include civil society as opposed to savagery or anarchy; to the church; and to the state (Gellner, 1991: 495).  Gellner defines civic spirit as the presence and authority of a moral conscientiousness, which binds a man to his contractual and other obligations without needing to be underwritten by a torrid network of virtually reinforced social links (Ibid: 501). 

This paper appreciates the fact that civil society as a social movement has been instrumental in not only precipitating multipartism but also in ensuring meaningful democratization.  Indeed it persists in its thinking that democracy is the best form of government only when certain conditions hold.  Alone, it is not legitimate. 

A political system is said to be democratic to the extent that it achieves certain goals.  Independence may usher in a new regime with new structures, but if the political machinery is unaccommodating of the participation of the masses, then independence remains null and void.  As Plamenatz holds, there is democracy where rulers are politically responsible to their subjects and he further notes that this is necessitated by two conditions: citizens must be free to criticize their rulers and to come together to make demands on them and to win support for the policies they favor and the beliefs they hold.  Secondly, supreme lawmakers must be elected to their offices at free and periodic elections (Plamenatz,  1973: 184-185).  Huntington reinforces this view when he acknowledges that a 20th century political system is democratic to the extent that its most powerful collective decision-makers are selected through fair, honest and periodic elections, in which candidates freely compete for votes, and in which the adult population is to vote (Huntington, 1991: 7). 

Huntington however qualifies this view of democracy to embrace civil and political freedoms to speak, publish, assemble and organize as is necessary to political debate and the conduct of electoral campaign.  To Huntington, therefore, true democracy means effective citizen control over policy, responsible government, honesty and openness in politics, informed and rational deliberation, equal participation and power and various other civic virtues. 

In a democracy therefore, citizens have the right to meet and to act together to further any purpose in mind so long as this falls within legal limits.  The Kenyan experience historically exhibits mass consciousness on government failure to democratize the socio-political system, or even promotion of such democratic virtues as popular participation and observance of human rights.  This has subsequently culminated in an active social movement that has sought to redress the democratization process in Kenya.

Post Independence Kenya: A Historical Exegesis 

Historically, the political struggles in Kenya  encompasses the struggle for Independence which was ultimately gained in 1963, and then the struggle to legitimize the government of the day.  It is within these two broad frameworks that the social movements in Kenya must be seen in their bid to establish a democratization process that is sustainable.  Indeed, social movements in Kenya succinctly illustrate the fact that the demand for democracy, even where it does not bring democracy, often has profound and significant political effects. 

Such was the case of the pre-independence social movements which were eventually ethnic-based and, these in the main included, the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO), GEMA and the Akamba Union.  The LUTATCO was founded in 1945 and was the first pre-independence social movement in Kenya,  Founded by Oginga Odinga, Adala Otuko, Okuto Balla and other.  It grew into a formidable organization which catered for the welfare not only of the Luo but also the African peoples.  Its co-founders believed in Independence through economic liberalization. 

While essentially a welfare association, the Union also played the role of a political vehicle which was used to mobilize the African peoples, especially the Luo.  They minced no words when it came to criticism of the government of the day.  Indeed it helped spread the Kenya African Union, KAU, which had been dubbed by the colonialists a Kikuyu Party, into Nyanza province.  The Union also spearheaded independence campaigns in the 1950s when most of the African political leaders were arrested.  The Union however began to waver in its role in the democratization process in 1960 with the registration of the Kenya African National Union.  It however remained a potential force in the 1960s though not as much as in the 1950s. 

Through its economic establishments, the Luo Union had been a force in liberating the peoples of Nyanza.  More so, at the grassroots level, it made the masses more politically conscious and instilled in them hope and courage especially during the years 1945-1959.  This was done through such publications as the Ramogi, Sauti ya Mwafrika and Munyereri.  After Independence, however, the Union reverted to its economic ideological inclination and for many years became a dormant welfare association.  It was ultimately overshadowed not only by the single party, KANU, established forcefully after 1964 but also by such ethnic groups as GEMA. 

Soon after independence, the government of Kenya became preoccupied with centralizing state machinery supposedly to effectively utilize the scarce economic resources.  It was also argued that the republic was very young and could therefore not afford disparate interests.  Rather, there was a need to centralize state operations and to rally around the one party, KANU.  After 1964, therefore, the hitherto established federal system of government although retained was reduced to mere state functionaries.  Provincial governors’ powers were subordinated to the state President.  This of necessity also called for a stronger party which in this case was KANU. 

Attempts by such opposition figures as Oginga Odinga to found new parties were thwarted, oftentimes ruthlessly.  Of great significance during this period too was the manipulation of the independence constitution to fit into these new-found aspirations. Constitutional provisions were amended or enacted to suit a more centralizing regime and this obliterated any political dissent. 

Nevertheless, political opinion can hardly be suppressed in any society.  There are always underlying tremors within the establishment, however oppressive a regime, and such was the case of the GEMA Movement.  GEMA had sprung up to fill the vacuum created by the proscription of the Kenya People’s Union, Odinga’s aborted party of 1967.  Bringing together four different ethnic groups, GEMA had the sympathy of a cross-section of Kenyans and in this respect played a vital role in mobilizing the community.  One significant dynamism of GEMA was witnessed during the change-the-Constitution movement of 1976. 

To many observers, GEMA was a party within KANU.  Drawing its membership from key KANU personalities, this movement had strong links within the single party establishment.  While this was its strength, it was also its undoing.  Indeed GEMA aspirations especially on economic and social advancement won favor with the government of the day.  This was however not to be so with the political ambitions of the group which had become very dominant to the point of  almost overshadowing  the national party. 

While in the 1970s GEMA was very strong, with the demise of the first President Jomo Kenyatta and the rise to power of Daniel Arap Moi, its political power-broking waned.  With the enactment of Section 2A of the Constitution of Kenya in 1982, the state became a ‘de jure’ one-party state thus blocked all avenues of political expression. Movements of ethnic affiliation were thrown into oblivion as the state machinery suppressed all forms of extra-governmental popular opinion. 

The 1980s saw Kenya reduced to an authoritarian system of government  and hence social mobilization of any sort was suppressed.  Indeed the ethnic movements of the pre-independence period and even those of the immediate post-independence period were proscribed.  Civil society was completely suppressed.  Pressure groups that raised voices or whispered were ruthlessly crushed.  Detention without trial became rife as the state consolidated its authority.  Such Non-Governmental Organizations and welfare groups as the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a women’s organization, while not proscribed, were duly incorporated into the ruling party.  Indeed, the latter has since operated as the Party’s Women’s Wing.  Any form of social mobilization was subsequently mitigated.  This kind of overt suppression and derailment of the democratic process was however not to last long and fissures soon began to show in the political fabric. 

Reintroduction of Multipartism 1990
The Political and Social Dynamics

The transformation of Kenya into a ‘de jure’ multi-party system following the repeal of Section 2A of the Constitution in 1990 brought a lot of euphoria to the masses who saw this as the right step towards a true democracy.  It could be said that most Kenyans envisaged a future democratic country with a political system that would encourage and make possible free and voluntary popular participation in the political system. 

What followed the repeal of Section 2A was a multiparty election that saw KANU return to power with majority seats in the National Assembly.  Although the multiparty elections had opened up the environment for political participation, especially in the legislative assembly, the freer society that had been envisaged by the majority of Kenyans was not to be realized.  In response to this disillusion, social mobilizations heightened to press for a more democratic plural system. 

It is hard to establish the point at which the road to pluralism began.  Several views abound with some people arguing that the massively rigged elections of 1988 served as an eye opener to many Kenyans about the excesses and abuses of power by the then single party KANU.  Others hold the opinion that the process had started even earlier, when in 1982, the late Oginga Odinga and one Mr. George Anyona attempted to form a political party, the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA), an attempt that was quickly repulsed by Parliament through the enactment of Section 2A of the Constitution, transforming Kenya into a de jure one-party state.  Throughout this period of the 1980s, political awareness continued to grow despite the attempts by the government to resist criticism and opposition through such draconian measures as detaining opponents without trial.