Vistas of the emerging social movement in Kenya


Is there an emerging broad based social movement in Kenya that is coalescing around a single and urgent issue? Which is this issue that is uniting the social movement in Kenya at this time?

Will it emerge?
Will it hold?
Will it give?

These questions among others on the opportunities for a broad based social movement in Kenya are animating the hearts and minds of many social movement activists and scholars in the country. It’s a historical opportunity, some claim, like what Agikuyu people call Ituika, generational breakaway, for lack of a better English equivalent.

But, pray, opportunity for what? Breakaway from what to what? By who? For whom? Is this breakaway centred on youth or class or tribal or dynasty, such, or everything?

Reflections on some of these questions would need a journey back and forth from the past to the present, and an exploration on the varied meanings of a broad social movement. Let’s us start by exploring meanings of social movements for as it were, was and would be, meanings provide clarity, identity and mission.

Meanings of social movements

Scholars and activists interpret social movements in various ways. Going back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, they described social movement as an entire space of political and social contestation involving trade unionism, labour politics, national independence, and ‘localized’ forms of oppression. Some social movements have sought political and social emancipation and gains. Others have created formal organizations. Others have relied on informal networks, and still others have engaged in spontaneous actions such as riots and protests. Actually, social movements are largely viewed as forms of protests. Looking it this way, protests as a major source of pressure are viewed as differentiating social movements from other types of networks and organisations.

Does this mean that without the ability to mobilize protests as in masses of people on the streets, social movements cannot qualify as such?

Seems so, but there is no straight answer. What seems agreeable among activists and scholars alike is that organisations may support or be allied to social movements, or events, but they are not social movements. Social movements are viewed as representing something larger and broader than organisations.

See how Willy Mutunga in agreement with Yash Tandon in a paper published in the previous issue of Ukombozi Review views social movements:

“I have always liked Yash Tandon’s metaphor for a social movements. He states that “A movement is a complex phenomenon, it is dynamic, and it grows and grows as more and more people join the ‘project’ (if it makes sense to them, and involves them in its deepening and broadening). A movement is like small rivers joining to form a massive torrent.” If you extend this metaphor to small rivers that become big rivers that subsequently drain their water into oceans you can capture the regional and global dynamics of social movements, their solidarities, their contradictions, their ideologies, politics, and leaderships. “

Social movements are largely viewed as dense networks of groups, movements and individuals with the connection between them being a shared collective identity towards radical social change.

What’s then is the role and place of individuals in social movements?

Individuals are viewed as making up social movements. These individuals may be affiliated individually to the movement or through their groups, organisations or movements supporting the social movement. Social movements are given meaning, scope and vibrancy by their members. There would be no social movement without members. But wait, social movements do not have members per se but participants. The participation of individuals detached from specific organizational allegiances is better developed within committees or working groups, or events or public meetings of the social movements. Individuals align and support a social movement by promoting its ideals and points of view among institutions, other political formations and actors, in everyday conversations, social media and other forms of media.

What of political parties? Are they part of a social movement?

Let’s start by quoting again from the paper by Willy Mutunga:

“Social movements are not homogeneous and have their class struggles. Indeed, social movements have class content. Some serve the status quo. Others resist the status quo. Their ideologies could be conservative, reformist liberal, social democratic, transformative (all these could be said to entrench while mitigating the status quo), radical and revolutionary (meaning they could push for social reforms as a basis of fundamental and revolutionary reforms toward a society that their ideologies see as part of a liberatory paradigm.”

This is the case of social movement politics that are grounded on the basis that society is a social construct that is possible to change and transform to desired ideological outcomes. The extent and capacity to which social movements are able to imagine, develop and construct emancipatory alternatives depends much on the radical and clear positions taken by progressive members (participants) of the working classes forces supporting the social movement.

Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig, two scholar activists on social movements, say this better in their book, African Struggles Today: Social Movements since Independence, published in 2012:

“An essential, but by no means determining, factor in the capacity of social movements to envisage and develop emancipatory alternatives is the agency and intention of the classes operating inside these movements. Social movements have the potential in such circumstances to construct, from their struggles, new institutions and democratic practices that can become the basis for alternative forms of power. Their capacity to do this, however, depends on the extent to which popular and working class forces are able to challenge elites, who will generally seek a more limited level of social transformation.”

On the question of the involvement of political parties in a radical and revolutionary social movement, Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani, writing in the 2nd edition of their book, Social Movements: An introduction, puts it this way:

“By saying that political parties may be part of social movements we do not mean to suggest that “social movements” is a broader theoretical category in which several types of organizations (interest groups, community groups, political parties, and so forth) are represented as many subtypes. Rather, we suggest that under certain and specific conditions some political party may feel itself to be part of a movement and be recognized as such both by other actors in the movement and by the general public. This is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, and to be largely restricted to parties whose origins lie in social movements, such as the Green parties.”

Before we end the discussion on the meanings of social movements, let us reflect on an important contribution by Charles Tilly. In his book, Social Movements, 1768 – 2004, first published in 2004, Tilly takes social movements as ‘historically specific clusters of political performances’. According to Tilly, these political performances involve displays of a combination of four factors: Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment (‘WUNC’). The enactment of WUNC displays, says Tilly, is a ‘repertoire’ which also includes campaigns and the formation of special-purpose organisations.

Having explored the various meanings of social movements, let us now turn our gaze to social movements in Kenya.

Uprisings of social movements in Kenya

Let us start by exploring the various trajectories of social movements as uprisings or waves or epochs or phases or cycles of protests, resistance, rebellions, among other varieties of movement of movements; images of big rivers draining their waters into oceans. The predominant view seems to agree on social movements as waves of protests. However, images of waves bring ideas of masses being immersed in the waves, not making them, neither being able to change them, of waves forming, growing and rising; then breaking, receding and diffusing. Social movement as phases or epochs or cycles on the other hand suggest strategic and tactical processes of mass mobilization geared towards social transformation; an inter-generational struggle based on continuities and discontinuities paradigms. Phases or epochs or cycles have spaces for the agency of the people to drive social change and to make their own history.

In a book titled, African Awakenings: The Emerging Revolutions, edited by Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine and published by Pambazuka Press in 2012, there are allusions of uprisings, strikes, protests and revolts of the so- called Arab Springs and in other countries in 2011 as emerging revolutions, manifestations of an underlying mood of discontent and disenchantment with the social and political order. The authors however caution that revolutions don’t happen overnight. They are the product of long struggles over decades that are characterized by upswings and downswings. The term ‘uprising’ is viewed as sustained, organized series of protests, such as witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania and Libya which could also be described as revolutions. The term ‘protests’ is used to describe, in this context, those events which are sporadic and/or short lived, at an embryonic stage of development and consists of demonstrations, campaigns, strikes and riots.

I would settle on the view of social movements as uprisings. In post – independence contexts such as Kenya, grievances in a preceding uprising of social movements are carried on into subsequent uprisings. However, we are cautioned by Lisa Mueller in her book, Political Protest in Contemporary Africa, published in 2018 that harboring grievances does not necessarily lead to political action, neither is “money, time and charisma” enough for protest leaders to sustain collective action.” Mueller says that objective measures of deprivation, such as poverty, unemployment and perceived inequalities have no measurable relationship with the propensity of protests. Harboring grievances does not necessarily lead to political action.” Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary originates this by saying that, “the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would always be in revolt.” Mueller therefore contends “that people are more likely to protest, on average, if they anticipate decline in their living standards.”

Bearing in mind the widely held view of social movements as dense informal networks giving to waves of uprisings and protests, social movements in Kenya are seen as rising in four waves. First wave, 1945 to 1960, anti – colonial resistance and independence wave. Second wave, between 1963 to 1990, post – colonial discontents and against one party dictatorships. Third wave, 1990 – 2002, pro‐democracy and regime change. Fourth wave, 2002 – 2010, climax of the waves for a new constitution. 2010 onwards, there is an emerging fifth wave that is being viewed as the social movement for constitutionalism and disenchantment with the existing social and political order. This wave is premised on the full implementation of the character and spirit of the new constitution by alternative political leadership.

Willy Mutunga in the speech referred earlier that was published in the previous issue of Ukombozi Review views these waves of social movements in Kenya in analogies of liberation:

“Independence was our first liberation; multi-partism the second liberation; the third liberation was the promulgation of the Constitution; the fourth liberation is the implementation of the Constitution; the fifth liberation is using the basis of consolidating the pillars of the Constitution and rescuing its weakness and thereby creating a basis for a liberation to the society that we all want: One that is just, humane, equitable, peaceful, non-violent, non-militaristic, ecologically safe, free, emancipated, where people are put before profits, and prosperous. Such society is subject to debate, but it clearly is not capitalistic and neoliberal. The resurrection of the thinking and imagining socialist society as the only alternative to neoliberalism is gaining ground.”

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born’

Let us use this popular saying by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist Philosopher who saw organic intellectuals as indispensable auxiliaries to revolutionary movements and parties, , to enquire on the conjuncture of crisis of the emerging social movement in Kenya. “The old is dying and the new cannot be born’

This crisis can be summarized in a few words and phrases bedeviling social movement activists: Disunited. Isolated struggles. Suspicion. Celebrity activism. Ideological puritanism. We shall fight this struggle on our own. Our struggle is the most genuine. We are the grassroots. It’s time for the youth. The older generation should hand over to the youth. Feminist warriors. Misogyny. Homophobic. NGO-nization. Many more. “Will the emerging United Front cure this crisis since we have no doubts who the enemies of the people are?” Asks Willy Mutunga in an email conversation.

True to Antonio Gramsci, the new cannot be born in these circumstances even if the old is dying. In this context Gramsci cautions that a dialectical revolutionary should possess both the “pessimism of the intellect” and the “optimism of the will.” “Revolutionaries should not be romantic idealists playing out their own fantasies in a social vacuum, nor should they succumb to defeatism and apathy.”

I will end this reflection with an observation I had written previously in Awaaz Magazine and in Review of African Political Economy journal titled, When Radical Scholars and Activists Converge: Inward Conversations: –

“Each generation creates new languages, new paradigms, new terrains, new forms of organizing in the struggle, only being captive of class and ideology, not age-sets, neither identities nor gender…. There is nothing like handing over the struggle. The idea of “handing over the struggle” is retrogressive to political process. It is a neoliberal “marketization of the struggle.” The struggle for a just social order displaces no age. The youth usually take over the struggle with their vibrant and boundless energies, new songs, new means of communication, new ways of organizing, new languages of the struggle that the older generation cannot keep up with, neither fathom. The older generation thus steps aside, still as partakers in the struggle, to caution, advise and support whenever necessary based on the realities of the times, devoid of the biases of their times. The older generation of freedom fighters should take seriously the struggle of the young generation of freedom fighters, learn and engage with them within their limits. On the other hand, the younger generation of freedom fighters needs to learn from past struggles and listen to the caution and advice of the older generation, forging new paths and forms of struggle without being bogged by past analysis and ways of organizing. …. The language of the revolution is the language of anger that is captured clearly in contradictions such as toilers versus exploiters, oppressors versus the oppressed or in the Rastafari parlance, Them versus Us – Them belly full, We hungry.”

Or as Bob Marley would sing:

“Them belly full, but we hungry
A hungry mob is an angry mob
A rain a-fall, but the dirt it tough
A pot a-cook, but the food no ‘nough.”

We conclude this reflection the way it begun on the dilemma of the unfolding social movement in Kenya.

Will it emerge?
Will it hold?
Will it give?


By Njuki Githethwa

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