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Organized grassroots movements and Kenyan elections

Should social movements take part in national elections they are unlikely to win due to the fierce competition, shameless manipulation of voters by clever politicians and the heavy finances required? Patrick Schukalla sought the views of a Kenyan social justice activist

This interview aimed to get an insight into the role of grassroots-level organizations in the electoral process in Kenya. Gacheke Gachihi's views are very informed and therefore enriching as he is associated with Bunge la Mwananchi (Peoples' Parliament) [1] and the Unga Revolution [2]. Bunge la Mwananchi is a grassroots based social movement in Kenya, which aims to create organic chapters across the country. Gachihi is also involved in establishing community-based resource centres. Such centres act as another wheel to locate the social movement in the diverse communities in Kenya in order to bring social transformation. His main arena of struggle is the Mathare neighbourhood of Nairobi City where he was a candidate for a parliamentary seat on a Safina Party [3] ticket in the just concluded general elections.


Following Gacheke's explanations, the strength of movements like Bunge la Mwananchi is their direct attachment to the ‘ground’. While the agenda of mainstream political parties is to grab power in order to maintain a system in which the existing elite can go on withdrawing benefits and exercise economic and political influence, social movements have an issue-based agenda that addresses basic needs. Talking about his local context in Mathare, Gacheke says grassroots organisations were addressing a lack of access to healthcare, sufficient food and education and building on the local population from a ‘lower class background’. While campaigns, discussions and advocacy on these and related topics tackling social realities of a vast majority are received with intense attention throughout time and in different localities, they seem to be pushed to a back seat when it comes to the election period.
‘There is an agenda for basic needs – [and"> that is Bunge la Mwananinchi along other civil society organizations, but if it is coming to the electoral process or the process of institutionalized political engagement in general, we have not developed the needed tools yet,’ Gacheke says.

Relating to his experiences in movements and the programmes he has had an active role in, he remembers working on the question of how to build effective social justice movements in Kenya reflecting on political theory. The discussions centred on how to participate in the various grassroots organizations the different attendants came from. Therefore the questions of engagement in existing movements and their broadening were well addressed. But he sees a shortcoming in movements' practicability under circumstances of elections. ‘Being a human rights activist or a social justice activist, when it comes to elections, what do you do? (...) People will ask you: Will you wait for the elections to pass and then come back to the ground and continue human rights campaigns? That is contradictory!’ In Gacheke's view social movements should participate in political elections ‘not only to win’, as it is very challenging, but ‘as an opportunity to build the movement’ and to use the attention that is drawn to political issues during the time of electoral campaigns as a chance for political education and to advocate for alternative visions that challenge the established parties. Furthermore he considers it problematic that social movements are continuously campaigning for justice but stay in a position of a petitioner. However, to participate in the elections with own candidates could broaden the space for social movements. ‘This is an opportunity to take the agenda of social justice to our people and to expose ourselves and our alternative visions to them. It is an opportunity to graft grassroot, alternative political structures.’

Moving to the current time after the election, which was won by the Jubilee coalition of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, Gacheke states that an effective challenge to the contradictions their agenda is trapped in relies on political education. ‘Their coalition is ethnic’ while ‘our coalition is based on an agenda of healthcare, education, shelter and housing – that is a coalition of ideas. That is the agenda that competes with their agenda led by ethnicity.’

Considering the fact that the Jubilee coalition, despite all criticism won the elections, Gacheke alludes to a lack of any programmatic or ideological foundation of the electoral campaigns of the main coalitions in Kenya. According to him their support was based on ethnic lines and on ‘fear of the unknown’.

‘As the fog of this election goes down people will see the reality is this: there is no access to healthcare, no access to shelter, there is no education, there is hunger.’ Therefore he sees a major contradiction in the electoral process between the actual choice led by ethnic affiliation and the promoted agendas.

‘The contradiction is that we have voted for these people en mass and they are not delivering anything.’ At the same time the major coalitions rhetorically addressed issues of basic needs by ‘grabbing the language of social movements’ which is not at all reflected in the Jubilee candidates' history.

On the contrary social movements have a history of engagement in issues of social justice. Yet the historical context of civil society organizations since the 1990s, the emergence of multi-party politics and the changes brought to the country in 2002 when the Moi regime ended is also a history of limited direct political engagement. Gacheke notes that the context of structural adjustment programs and the neo-liberal approach to the role of civil society must be taken into account when talking about social movements. Bunge la Mwananchi, like other civil society organizations emerged in this era of neo-liberal globalization after the defeat of nationalist movements in Africa and Pan-Africanist inspirations in the early 1960s, and 1970s. After two decades of despotic and paranoid political leadership of corruption and ethnic politics, rule and patronage, Kenya was subjected to the structural adjustment programs in the early 1990s through the World Bank and the IMF. That came with the withdrawal of budget allocation to social services like healthcare and education in the name of cost-sharing and retrenchment of public service workers. These structural adjustment programs formented extreme social unrest.

Gacheke points out that neo-liberal reforms did not only have devastating impacts on the economy, but also influenced the way emerging civil society organizations regarded themselves. Since this era mainstream civil society organizations and NGOs fit into a dictated role of being non-political, non-ideological and non-interventionist. ‘Bunge la Mwananchi departed from that point. We are political – and we shall be!’

Therefore Gacheke considers it an enlargement of the sphere of influence for social movements to directly participate in elections with associated candidates. Furthermore it tackles the neo-liberal stet-up by calming the right to break out of the supposed role of civil society as a petitioner on the receiving end of political power. ‘Even-though we might not have enough base and support in many constituencies, at least in some places candidates coming from social movements made it through the elections and that might not have been the case if they had not created an entry point due to their engagement in 2007 by participating in that election.’


Referring to renowned Kenyan constitutional expert Yash Ghai on his bolg, Gacheke agrees that ‘the constitution can't achieve anything by itself: like Marx’s commodities, it does not have arms and legs; it must be mobilized, acted upon and used.’ (Ghai 2009; Gachihi 2013). The contested question is therefore who is able to mobilize what the new constitution offers and by what means? ‘Now that we have this new liberal constitution – we have seen its outcome: (...) it has helped first of all to divide the country, and second to bring human rights violators into power. This contains a very huge contradiction which can bring hopelessness to the country. In order to mitigate this situation we are in need of very strong grassroots social movements.’ To effectively implement their agendas, Gacheke states, the movements shall not limit themselves by not engaging in the elections. However ‘they shall participate in that space for their messages to compete.’

The new constitutional framework offers wider access to the ‘political space,’ aims to enhance social justice and guarantees fundamental rights of political organization. Especially the structure of devolving political power to the 47 county assemblies with 15 percent of the national budget has created a ‘political space for the right to organize and democratize development on the local level, which progressive forces and organic social movements can utilize to advance the cause of national democratic revolution.’ (Gacheke, 2013)

Therefore Gacheke fundamentally welcomes the new constitution but mentions its discontent as it fails to effectively address the economic environment that democratisation starts from. He emphasizes that the new constitution created an ‘illusion of a social democratic state with a progressive bill of rights and economic social rights’ which are finally ‘only a token of legalism language’ and can not ‘solve the problem of historical exploitation, marginalization and social inequalities, that manifest in crime, homelessness, unemployment, environmental destruction and poverty linked diseases’ (ibid.).

Referring to Issa Shivji (2009:61) Gachihi points to ‘the question of an irreconcilable contradiction between the rhetoric of constitutionalism and human rights based on a open, transparent, accountable government, responsible to provide basics needs to its people, which is contradicted by neo-liberal capitalism based on marketization and privatization of basic needs and withdrawal of state from economic sphere, that undermine the role of a developmental state’ (ibid.).

Therefore he says that the current economic and political set-up, being controlled by a small elite that was approved in the last elections, frustrates and undermines a realistic chance for the full realisation of the values incorporated in the constitution.


As mentioned before, Gacheke emphasizes that in contrast to what he calls ‘mainstream civil society organizations’, movements like Bunge la Mwananchi are contesting for political power. But even though they ‘offer a non-discriminatory and progressive platform’, they ‘have not developed tools to answer the political question. Members of social movements that participated in the elections had an agenda that challenged the positions of the established political powers but it had not a basis strong enough and not the needed tools’ to compete with the highly financed campaigns. ‘The lesson learnt is that we have not built a viable political vehicle for grassroots level activists so they can advocate for social change and real democratization. (…) Social movements have been asking the government to implement the rights that are listed in the new constitution but during elections they lack possibilities to anchor their agenda.’

Therefore Gacheke urges political interventions by grassroots movements. He characterizes the current debate over the ‘political question’ held within Bunge la Mwananchi as the fundamental discussion for the coming years. In the latest elections, members of Bunge were competing for various positions within different parties. To enhance the connection between their original movements and the candidates, Gacheke considers it as essential to figure out if the foundation of a new party would be the sufficient way to bring an ‘agenda of ideas’ to the institutionalized political-democratic space. Another position represented in Bunge calls for the sponsoring of independent candidates from movements to contest on their behalf and with their support. Especially after reflecting the outcome of this year’s elections, Gacheke sees a need to develop either of these options to effectively engage in the future.

The fundamental question arising from this conclusion is therefore how to ensure that movement associated candidates and their agenda are ‘enslaved’, as Gacheke puts it, by the movement and are reflective of their ideas. In other words the challenge is nothing less than to dissolve or at least mitigate the contradiction between a grassroots approach and representative democratic structures. However, Gacheke is confident that the set up of organizations like Bunge la mwananchi is capable of building an ‘organic relation between a party or independent candidates and the movement.’ ‘The way to deliver an agenda of change in this country is by having formidable grassroots movements which occupy the same space that is occupied by the state and the space that is occupied by civil society.’

* Gacheke Gachihi, a member of Bunge la Mwananchi and a human rights activist in Nairobi is a 2010-11 Fahamu Fellow. Patrick Schukalla has been an intern at Pambazuka News, January-March 2013.





Ghai, Yash (2009): Challenges facing Kenya: decreeing and establishing a constitutional order

Gachihi, Gacheke (2013): Bunge la Mwananchi (Peoples Parliament) – Movement in the era of neo-liberal globalization.


Shivji, Issa (2007): Silences In NGOS discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa. Fahamu Books, Pambazuka Press.

Shivji, Issa (2009): Where is Uhuru? Reflections on the Struggle for Democracy in Africa Fahamu Books, Pambazuka Press.


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