Political Protest in Contemporary Kenya: Change and Continuities by Jacob Mwathi Mati, New York, Routledge, 2020, 207pp, ISBN: 978-0-429-31657-9


By Njuki Githethwa

The title of this book attracts at first glance. It inspires the excitement of providing a lucid and deep analysis of the major waves of political protests in Kenya since independence, a terrain that is often overlooked by scholars of social movements in the region. The half title of the book excites even further scholarship on social movements in the statement on page (ii): “It engages intersections of social movement and theories of democratisation to probe the production, operations, and outcomes of the disruptive yet creative power of the movements at the centre of the struggle to transform the Kenyan constitution”.

However, reading through the book, it comes out more as an analysis and documentation of a singular political movement, that of Ufungamano Initiative in the late 90s. The book is sub- divided into 9 chapters. The historiography of political protests in post – independence Kenya is mainly located in chapter one and two of the book. The rest of the chapters, especially chapters 3 – 8 are mainly focused on the struggles of Ufungamano Initiative. The author considers Ufungamano Initiative on page (2) as having “epitomised a social movement with extraordinary mass appeal and a multiplicity of actors that many social movements, especially predecessors like the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC), had failed to achieve.” The author extols Ufungamano Initiative as a “movement of movements and the peak of constitutional reform struggles in the 1990s.

Chapter 1 titled, The seeds of contemporary Kenyan constitutional reform struggles: An introduction, does well in the effort to theorise and locate post–colonial struggles for constitutional reforms in Kenya. The author gives the tempo of the constitutional reforms struggles as being reactions to social, political and economic malaise in post–colonial disappointments in the country as in many countries in Africa. The author however seems to contradict this analysis elsewhere in the book where he opines that, “This struggle is an exemplar of a constant dialectic in the postcolonial African state reform project which has been characterised on the one hand by vicious intra-elite competition and fragmentation, ethnic-based political mobilisation, and mass inter-ethnic conflict.”(page 2) This latter opinion subsumes the prevalent post – colonial grievances and yearnings of masses of people who are submerged in poverty and hopelessness even after the country attained independence.  These social, political and economic strains of the masses are exacerbated by continued consensus and fragmentation of the political elite who continue to use and abuse ethnicity to railroad and divide the masses. Ethnic rivalry was itself ingrained in colonialism whose pillars remained largely unchanged, and was indeed advanced and cemented, by the liberal and retrogressive political elite in the post – colony. Ideology was in effect a central pillar in political struggles in the early years of the country’s independence from British colonialism.

Nevertheless, the first chapter provides a fair, albeit sketchy, account of the deep–seated ideological struggles in the early years of Kenya’s independence with the neutering of the radical left leaning politicians, the labour movement and progressive political parties and activists. This analysis stretches from the 1960s up to what the author views as the “militancy of the 80s”(page 14)

The author views these struggles as converging in the 1990s in pro-democracy and constitutional reforms struggles. This convergence was against the background of a turn in global politics, especially the thawing of the cold war and the debilitating Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).  The author considers the struggles for constitutional reforms to have crystallized under the Ufungamano Initiative. However, in the parlance of mass street protests highlighted in the book, Ufungamano does not seem to generate much attention and gravitas as the protests led by pro – democracy politicians, activists or even by the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC). NCEC in itself was able to pull through massive and protracted constitutional reform protests on the streets across the country that “were met with raw state brutality and various activists died at the hands of the police.”(page 48)  The author admits that of all these mass protests led by NCEC, the one that fundamentally altered the rules of the game was the July 7 (Saba Saba) 1997 demonstration. Twenty-one people were killed. The July 7 massacre was a turning point in the struggle for constitutional reforms because the state capitulated after coming under increasing pressure and condemnation from the international media, diplomats, and donor countries that threatened to place further economic sanctions on the Moi regime unless he agreed to open dialogue with the opposition.”(page 48)

Ufungamano Initiative in itself does not come out clearly in the book as having marshaled equivalents of such massive and protracted streets protests across the country.  At best, Ufungamano Initiative comes out in the book as a platform for religious and civil society activists whose struggles were mainly waged in boardrooms, town halls and in the media. Whereas the intransigent Moi/KANU regime was driven to the wall by NCEC’s street protests and compromised in the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) deal, Ufungamano Initiative protests were compromised and fused into the lukewarm state –led constitutional reform process under the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC). What the book does best is to detail the behind the scenes canvassing of Ufungamano Initiative and the public postures of this constitutional reform movement. The book thus fits more as a chronicle of the constitutional reform struggles, more so of the Ufungamano Initiative. An impressive array of the clergy, activists and scholars were interviewed in the process, making this book a fitting archive in the documentation of constitutional reform struggles.

Even in his views of Ufungamano Initiative as a movement of movements, the author contradicts this in other sections in the book, such as on page 73, that the initiative “remained mainly urban-based and middle class-led. As such, it is probably most accurately defined as an intra-elite struggle rather than a mass movement.” What comes out more is the author’s singular admiration of the Ufungamano Initiative without casting it properly in the milieu of radical mass protests in the country. How for example can Ufungamano Initiative be argued to have succeeded where other similar attempts failed in the past whereas it ended in the grips of betrayals and compromises, finally fizzling out all together?

The author considers the 2007/2008 post –election violence in Kenya as providing “the necessary pressure from below to force elite fragmentations and the realignment of social forces, which in turn delivered a new constitution in 2010.” (page 148)The post – election violence forced the political elite to negotiate and make concessions.  The violence and its resolution, the author agues, created the “constitutional moment.” The “disruptive power” of the post-election violence ultimately made reform possible.”(page 148)

Chapter 8 of the book, titled, A turning point when history failed to turn?, is more forward looking, focused more on the processes towards the new constitution that was promulgated in August 2010. The chapter also deals with the aftermath of the 2013 and 2017 elections that were conducted on the backdrop of the new constitution. The new constitution was then not only about enabling a “wider range of elite actors to benefit from rent-seeking and -distribution activities’, as the author alludes   on page 170 in the book, it restructured the exercise of political powers and attempts to heal the uneven development in the country through devolution and the establishment of various institutions. There are also various progressive provisions in the 2010 constitution.

The concluding chapter of the book, chapter 9, looks at waves or cycles of constitutional reform struggles as being located in two core factors. The first one is agency, attributed in the form of leadership that mobilized conscious actions by citizens to change the material conditions of their lives. Second is the structure, in the form of the underlying socio- economic and political conditions in the country that fuelled these protests. These two factors however mask ideological differences that have been simmering since the country was mortgaged to neo – colonial interests by the comprador political elite in what is generally viewed as flag independence, in Kiswahili as uhuru wa bendera

The book is a commendable account of mainly Ufungamano Initiative and related constitutional reform struggles, but not deep enough on accounts on waves of contention and social movements in post – independence Kenya. In as much as the book is a detailed chronicle of the constitutional reform struggles, it misses several critical trajectories. For example, the patriotic exploits of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), popularly known as Mau Mau, which scholars such as Professor Maina wa Kinyatti refer to as the peak of African nationalism of anti – colonial resistance in Kenya, are not adequately analysed in the book as seeds of contemporary struggles in the country. Other crucial leftist activists, progressive parties, and movements such as Kenya People’s Union, December Twelve Movement, Mwakenya, are also not addressed in  the book. These leftist movements have undergirded the struggles for fundamental reforms of the country’s constitution based on social justice and a more equitable socio-economic order, but are not credited well in the book.  The author also fails to clearly set out a theoretical framework or concepts relating to mass mobilisations and social movements that could help to explain the changes and discontinuities referred to in the book’s title and thereby illuminate related studies and practices of social movements in the country and elsewhere in Africa.

Such oversights suggest that the title of the book, Political Protest in Contemporary Kenya: Change and Continuities, promises more than it delivers, as it is more of a detailed account of a singular political protest in contemporary Kenya. It would also have been useful to include the period which  the political protest that is detailed in the book took place. On the whole however, the book is an insightful read for those interested in accounts and analysis of constitutional reform struggles and movements in Kenya and in Africa at large.

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