Kamau Ngugi: We have professionalised activism

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Kamau Ngugi
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By NLM Writer

In commemoration of the National Coalition on Human Rights Defenders 10th anniversary, the Nairobi Law Monthly spoke with its National Coordinator, Kamau Ngugi. The following is an excerpt of that interview.

Perhaps we should begin by you telling us what the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders is, and how is it relevant to Kenya today.

The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders was established in 2007 with the objective of taking care of the welfare of and supporting the work of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). As the name suggests, HRDs are persons or organisations that are engaged in fighting for the rights of others, at all levels (national or local).

Among others, we identify, train and encourage solidarity among HRDs. We also ensure that HRDs are well protected by providing legal and technical support, as well as enhancing their profile through a host of opportunities and platforms provided by our partners and other relevant agencies and constitutional offices. In a nutshell, our main role is to connect HRDs with the resources and experience they need to carry out their work effectively. That is how we contribute to the human rights discourse in this country.

What is your membership and how does one become a member?

Our members are human rights defenders, both individuals at the lowest level and organizations and NGOs. We have people at the county level who identify these people, map them out and, with their consent, add them to our network. We conduct thorough vetting that includes making inquiries about them from their communities and require that they sign our code of conduct before proceeding to registration.  We do not charge any fees or levy but encourage members to make donations, according to their ability.

Since 2012 we have registered close to two thousand individuals and thirty-five organizations as members. We issue organization identity cards to all our members, which come in handy especially when dealing with the authorities.

You mark your 10-year anniversary this year. How successful have you been in achieving your objectives? What have been your biggest successes?

In terms of good governance, the country is definitely far away from where it was in 2007 when we started. And we have played a significant role. Thanks to our contribution, HRDs are no longer viewed as mere activists or career agitators but as professional, civic-minded citizens dealing with genuine grievances, and who are only interested in the general well being of the country. We have succeeded in professionalising the work of HRDs. Through our engagement, HRDs at the community level have better advocacy skills, a better appreciation of human rights law and procedure in particular, as well as critical skills in research, lobbying, resource mobilisation and personal safety. With the networks that we have established, HRDs under our banner now enjoy a greater national and international audience. These allow them to be able to prosecute their cases more effectively.

To government, we continue to portray HRDs as vocal agents and not criminals. Under our watch, we have seen a significant reduction in extra judicial killings, police brutality, forced disappearances, false imprisonment and prolonged sentences. We have also seen cases touching on human rights, consumer protection and other public interest issues prosecuted to the very end by otherwise limited citizens. I am not saying that Kenya is great today but surely it’s a significant improvement from the Philip Alston days.

Finally, in enhancing the profile of HRDs and giving them national visibility, we have established a yearly award recognising the most noble and courageous acts of human rights defence. Ours is now a mature Human Rights Defence engagement in which defenders are concerned with the general good of the country and not just their specific areas of focus through various methods such as litigation, lobbying and monitoring laws and legislation.

What of the challenges you have faced?

(Long sigh) This is a slippery slope.  In truth, there are quite a number, but let me start with the most obvious one. For starters, we are seeing a government that is increasingly hostile towards HRDs, particularly NGOs. And although our calling demands that we soldier on, as an organisation we are aware that Government could one day turn to us with vengeance. So far nothing has happened but we are not afraid.

Secondly, Kenyans also suffer what I would call a “philanthropy deficiency syndrome”. They are not exactly fond of donating towards noble causes, perhaps sceptical that their money will be misused (laughter all round). I want to remind them, however, that as a trust, we depend on their goodwill for sustenance.

Thirdly, Kenyans also have a habit of trivialising important issues. A person will risk his life to break a story on bad governance, for instance, and people will create funny memes from it before abandoning it altogether. In particular, I blame the younger generation for this trend, although I also recognise that politics has divided the older generation to the extent that most issues are viewed with political lenses. It’s a sad thing. I would urge Kenyans, particularly the young, to be more proactive. Only then can our work have meaning.

How does the coalition offer effective protection when it is equally vulnerable to attacks by the State and other hostile entities? Isn’t it plausible that you will shy away from that would put it into direct confrontation with the State thus jeopardizing its existence?

The answer to that is quite simple. It is inconceivable that we would shy away for our duties in fear of a government purge.

Amongst the biggest obstacles the coalition faces, as you have correctly alluded to, is government’s push to have national interests and national security be considered during registration of NGOs. In fact, one might argue, these fears have been already domesticated under Section 14 of the NGO Act. However, don’t you think that this push by government is well meaning, considering that NGOs, especially those with foreign origins or support, have been known to push the selfish interests of their benefactors at the expense of public good?

One would also say that you don’t need registration to defend human rights. Let’s be clear, however. We are not only defending human rights NGOs but also, and in fact in a big way, dealing with individuals. A big part of our work entails mobilisation. That the Constitution contemplates freedom of association renders the provisions of Section 14 rather obsolete. Be that as it may, there is a Public Benefits Act that has been passed but yet to be effective because government is not very happy with its provisions. The provisions of this Act attempt a cure to the mischief in the Section you just quoted.

Most importantly, our members have to subscribe to our code of good conduct. The Code is very specific that members shall not engage in any activities that may subvert the rule of law or undermine peace.

Still on the same, how does the coalition balance between safeguarding individual autonomy and public good? I ask this because amongst your members, for instance, are NGOs and individuals who push interests that would be said to be against the general public morality – interests that the public would frown against, like the protection of atheism and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex rights (LGDBTIQ)

Again, when we defend HRDs, we are in fact looking at public good because their work is in the best interest of the public. On rights and morality, our position is that all rights are human rights and we are willing to sacrifice everything for their protection. We are not concerned with popularity.

The coalition seems to be engaged in quite a number of noble causes, which demand resources. Are the donations you receive sufficient?

I must confess that our international partners have been quite generous too. What is most important though is that our accounts are open for scrutiny whenever there is demand. We manage because, apart from the secretariat, most of our workers are volunteers.

As we conclude, what are your plans going forward?

Our aim is to further consolidate the position of and improve the profile of HRDs in the eyes of Kenyans. Among others, there is the award that I have already spoken about. This year marks its second anniversary. We have also come up with measures to protect HRDs through a Memorandum of Understanding with leading media houses where they agree to have human rights protection as guiding principle of their work – I am sure you noticed how practitioners joined hands in condemning the recent attacks on a journalist from Citizen Television. We want media houses and generally society, to move away from protecting their own interests to caring for the welfare other people as well.

However, I must decry the fact that some media managers haven’t been too willing. I believe that there are afraid of losing government business or risking government’s wrath by standing up to government when it is the perpetrator. We want to remind these managers that media-government relationship is a symbiotic one. Just as the media needs government goodwill, government can’t survive without the media. They should take advantage of this strength they enjoy by demanding certain standards from government, perhaps as precondition for any broadcast.

We also have a project through which we inspect elections through our one hundred and two well-trained election monitors. These monitors, as well as members of the public who may have important information, report to us through our mobile application Mtetezi app. We have gathered findings and released two reports so far on the just concluded elections. We will be formally launching these findings in various counties in the coming weeks. Our aim is to stir a candid conversation about them and seek changes for better elections and human rights protection in future. We want to contribute towards finding a lasting solution to this problem. ^

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