Election observers should treat civil society some caution

One of the remarkable things about Kenyan elections is that there is always huge global attention paid to them. This year’s General Election is no different. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has already accredited thousands of observers.

It was the same in 2013. Then, there were 21,554 domestic and 1,834 international observers and 6,327 local and international journalists. In many countries, among the first segments of society that observers reach out to for the assessment of the situation on the ground is civil society. However, observers coming should be cautious about this. Kenyan civil society is far from being a neutral player, as it is already politically aligned in the August 8 elections.


That is not necessarily wrong. But it is a vital piece of information for the observers because the civil society they will engage with will seek to present what purports to be an even-handed analysis while they, indeed, are committed to seeing an opposition victory. The observer missions will be sending over their big guns. For the African Union, it is former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The Commonwealth has considered sending former Ghanaian President John Mahama. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry will lead the Carter Centre delegation. Their presence will largely be a positive development. They can act as a restraining influence on any of the political groups that might try to instigate violence. However, they need to note that civil society is almost entirely led by opposition supporters.

The Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu (My Vote, My Voice) initiative, whose key founders include the Kenya Human Rights Commission, has positioned itself as a coalition that seeks “to proactively support preparations for the 2017 elections.” The leaders of the KHRC are Prof Makau Mutua and Mr George Kegoro. Both are columnists in national newspapers and do not hide their support for the opposition.

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Another prominent civil society figure, Mr Maina Kiai, has engaged in litigation on election preparations supported in court by the National Super Alliance. Mr John Githongo, a darling of the Western media, led the extremely well-funded Ni Sisi civil society campaign before and after the 2013 elections and, his political stand is well known. This is all perfectly legal, of course. However, it is only fair that civil society does what their counterparts in the West do and avoid hiding behind a false sheen of impartiality. There is nothing wrong with taking a political position. In America, the Centre for American Progress openly supports liberal and progressive positions and makes no secret of its backing for Democratic Party candidates and administrations. Conservative organisations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute are open about their support for the Republican Party, which shares their ideological standpoint. Kenyan civil society should display some greater maturity and stop feigning political neutrality. If they openly identified with the opposition, it would be easier for those engaging with them to understand where they are coming from.


Many civil society figures led the litigation before the 2013 election that sought to rob Kenyans of a choice at the ballot box by barring some candidates from running. Remember, too, their intense expression of displeasure with the outcome of that election, which they clearly had not prepared their donors to expect.

Reading the statement of the launch of Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu, one senses the ground being prepared to reject any outcome that does not favour the political position civil society holds. As observers come in, they should appreciate that local civil society actors are politically aligned, and they should engage them bearing this fact in mind.

Dr Obuya Bagaka is a public administration scholar and practitioner.

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