Crackdown on NGOs echoes past repressive State conduct

The vindictive attempts to de-register two leading civil society organisations by the NGOs Coordination Board (which has proved to be more of a body that stifles rather than coordinates them) suggests that the Jubilee administration will be as —if not more —antagonistic towards these organisations in its second term as it was when it first took office.

During and after the 2013 election campaigns, Jubilee maligned Western donors and the NGOs that they funded.

At that time, the Economist note: “Those who want to hold the new government to account fear this could be a prelude to a crackdown on dissent.”

This fear was realised when there were attempts by the government later that year to muzzle the media through repressive laws. (Unfortunately, attacks on NGOs and the media have become a global phenomenon, from Donald Trump’s US to Recep Erdogan’s Turkey.)

In November of 2013, the cartoonist Gado paraphrased Martin Niemöller’s famous poem on the cowardice of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazis with the following text: “First they came for the opposition and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t the opposition.


Then they came for the media and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a journalist.

Then they came for the NGOs and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t from an NGO. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The government’s hostile attitude towards NGOs, particularly those that deal with human rights, is reminiscent of the Nyayo era in the 1980s, when a number of underground organisations and advocacy groups emerged to oppose President Daniel arap Moi’s leadership.

This led to the growth of clandestine movements and pro-reform groups that operated in hushed tones and coded language.

It was a period when reformist politicians, intellectuals and activists began demanding greater freedoms and more democratic space under an increasingly repressive regime, which fought back these demands by instituting draconian laws, arresting and torturing activists and making Kenya a de jure one-party State.


The opening up of the political space in 1992 saw a surge in the number of NGOs that dealt with issues related to human rights and good governance.

While some argue that a large number of NGOs reflects a dysfunctional State (as NGOs provide services such as health and civic education that the State should ideally be providing), others believe that the presence of vibrant civil society organisations is a reflection of a healthy democracy.

My personal view is that given the hostile attitude of the government towards the media, NGOs, and even the Judiciary, their role as watchdogs has becomes even more critical.

Open and democratic governments are not afraid of NGOs and the media, but repressive governments are.


What repressive governments do not seem to understand is that having legally registered NGOs is preferable to having clandestine movements such as the ones that were prevalent during the Moi days, as it is easier to monitor their activities. As an editorial in this newspaper underscored last week: “Jubilee may have no use for democracy—and all the noisy institutions that make it work—but totalitarianism is not what the rest of Kenyans want to bequeath their children.”


* * *

In just the past week, three people I knew have died, not because they succumbed to illnesses, but because the hospitals in which they were admitted did not take good care of them.

One of them got infected with cholera while in hospital, while another developed complications that could have been avoided if a medic had bothered to make a proper diagnosis.


These are not horror stories from the country’s ailing under-staffed and under-funded public hospitals but from private hospitals that are normally used by people who have money or good health insurance.

Apparently, these are not isolated cases. I have since heard of patients being given drugs that have been discontinued in other countries and nurses and doctors treating patients as if they are cash cows or commodities, not human beings with brains and emotions.

The government recently announced its intention to turn Kenya into a leading medical tourism destination like India.

Given the state of both private and public health care in this country, I would suggest that it halt such ambitions for now.

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