Backlash to ICC trial? How Kenyan bill could clamp down on 'foreign influences'

Only a handful of Kenya's NGOs pushed for a trial of those thought to be behind the 2008 election violence. But their actions have boosted public support for putting limits on NGOs, something a proposed bill would do.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (l.) talked to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as they arrived for a summit at the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi late last month. Many Kenyans have been upset that their president was called before the International Criminal Court in relation to post-election violence in Kenya in 2008.

As a case centered on post-election violence in Kenya comes to a head at the International Criminal Court, the role Kenyan NGOs played in pushing for politicians – including President Uhuru Kenyatta – to be tried there is casting a chill over their future work.

Only a handful of Kenya's 8,500 registered NGOs pushed for a trial of those thought to be behind the 2008 election violence. But the actions of a few, combined with the sweeping tirades by Kenyatta supporters against this "evil society," is increasing public support for putting limits on NGOs. Now, a bill has been introduced that would require all Kenyan NGOs receiving more than 15 percent of their budget from non-Kenyan interests to register as foreign agents.

It's a worrying development for many here – and in the region. Kenya is often viewed as East Africa's most robust democracy, but with little public outcry against the government's efforts to put a squeeze on civil society, some fear that stature may be slipping.

The message of the proposed law is clear, says Regina Opondo, co-chair of the Civil Society Organization Reference Group, an umbrella consortium: “All efforts are going to be used to limit this democratic space we’ve worked so hard to secure.”

'Drawn the lines'

The amendments to the law governing NGOs in Kenya were first broached in 2013. But they were revived as Mr. Kenyatta appeared before the ICC in October, putting more pressure on NGOs. 

“Yes, [civil society groups] were involved in the ICC cases and pushing for proper investigation into them, but the current [effort to limit them] isn’t really about these cases,” says Patrick Gathara, a prominent political commentator.

“It’s more about stopping or restricting civil society,” Mr. Gathara says. “The cases ... have made more stark the differences, drawn the lines. People have a side to take,” between supporting the ICC trials or rallying against them, and blaming Kenyan NGOs..

In addition, growing insecurity has fueled suspicion that some NGOs in the country, particularly those grounded in the Muslim community, are providing support to militant groups under the guise of social services. Accusations of harboring and assisting terrorists resonate amid frequent attacks by Al Shabab from neighboring Somalia.

A 'foreign agenda'?

NGO “accountability” has been a tenet of the Kenyatta government since its inception, appearing in the Jubilee coalition’s manifesto in 2013 and again in the president’s Mashujaa (Heroes) Day speech on Oct. 20.

“To this day, there are those abroad that seek to advance their economic and geopolitical goals to our disadvantage. They fund and nurture various outfits whose actions and visions seem set to create cleavages between Kenyans," Kenyatta said in his speech.

“Our democratic space with its right to free speech and association gives them the opportunity to use exaggerated, dishonest claims of victimhood to radicalize and recruit Kenyan youth. Their funding and activities must be uncovered at all times to put a stop to their campaign to kill innocent Kenyan civilians and the brave members of our security forces.”

Moses Kuria, the MP who sponsored the bill, the timing of which is uncertain, says it's merely an effort to ensure NGOs are properly spending donors’ money after years of misuse of funds.

“People who receive money to do things they’re not supposed to do, they’re the ones affected,” Mr. Kuria says.

He says most of the NGOs in Kenya will have to register as foreign agents if the bill succeeds.

The registration – if the bill passes – should not have a practical impact on NGO operations, but the classification is damaging in the eyes of Kenyans who resent the sight of their president sitting in an international court.  

“These organizations aren’t foreign organizations. They are organizations led by Kenyans, staffed by Kenyans. Yes, they do get foreign funding, but that is not the equivalent of following a foreign agenda,” Mr. Gathara says.

Not just a challenge for Kenya

The freedom afforded to civil society in Kenya has waxed and waned. The 1980s and 1990s were bad years under the repressive government of President Daniel arap Moi, but in the early 2000s, with the election of President Mwai Kibaki, restrictions began to lift.

Today, Kenya stands out among its neighbors for its tolerance of organizations that pressure the government or citizens who criticize it.

When civil society representatives visit from countries like Tanzania and Uganda, they call what we do here “crazy,” says Ms. Opondo, referring to public criticism of the government, and the space for dissent. 

“You don’t think ‘I’m doing this for the whole region’,” she says, but neighboring nations see Kenya as the hope for East Africa. “These charges are worrying for them, too.”

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