A reflection on activism and activists

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By Wafula Wakoko

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 recently had the misfortune of being in a forum where participants thought the Judiciary had too many activists – that it is a bane for law practice. In a different setting on legal reforms, constant reference to the principles of equality and non-discrimination was dubbed as populist and time-wasting activism. 

While the Oxford Dictionary defines an activist as a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change, the Urban Dictionary has a wealthier assortment of definitions – not a fair contrast given the modalities of assigning meanings by the two. In 2004, Urban Dictionary described an activist to include a person who cares about human rights. Fast forward to 2013, the description was expanded to include a busybody who thinks they are saving the world. 

At what point did activism become pejorative?

The anti-activism trajectory is a deliberate and structured response by those in power to avoid discourse on accountability. A case in point are the troubles of Africog and KHRC during the 2017 General Election period where the NGOs Coordination Board purported to deregister two organisations. The action of the Board was in the same transaction as the quest for a free and fair election by Africog and KHRC. Coincidences do not exist!

In the Kenyan experience, support for and against activists entirely depends on the time and subject of activism. Activists are only proper activists when certain beneficiaries benefit. If anything, history cautions us that Prof Wangari Maathai, Chelagat Mutai, and Rev Timothy Njoya were once deemed a nuisance by the Executive and its cronies. Yet, they are now venerated, almost too late – albeit aesthetically.


At what point did activism become pejorative? The anti-activism trajectory is a deliberate and structured response by those in power to avoid discourse on accountability.

In a country whose huge population is burdened with escalating poverty levels and theft of public resources by public officers, the populace needs a punching bag. The punching bag cannot be the government as it would be distracted from its duty of not doing its job. Therefore, the government provides an alternative; it engineers activists to be perceived as the cause of the erosion of African culture, dwindling foreign aid, etc. The sins of activists would be embarrassing the government at international fora for not implementing affirmative action even when the government is trying its best. The use of certain elements to mar the integrity of activists/CSOs is thus an ingenious tactic by powers that be. 

This is not to say that some activists have not fallen short of the glory of activism. There are organisations that unbothered about the intersectionality of discrimination – modern-day illustration of the poem ‘First They Came’ by Reverent Martin Niemöller. Even though, to mock activists across the board and ignore the work they have done for us is akin to besmirching all freedom fighters, dead and alive. Before the fashionability of the term activist thoughtlessly takes root as an insult, there is a need to interrogate who stands to benefit whenever activists are painted as rotten purveyors of the Western agenda.

On paper, it is not lost on most people that human rights accrue to every human being. However, activism, for preventing human rights violations, always involves advocacy that has to continually adapt the style of repetition. Activists do not have the luxury to get bored as circumstances require them to continually use the same set of data to convince masses that everyone has a right to be treated with dignity. They have to employ strategies that lack the grounding of human rights to persuade policymakers.  

Examples abound.

One would want to imagine that there should not be opposition to abortion on grounds of health as provided in the Constitution, treaties ratified by Kenya, and the Health Act. No, this would be too simple. Activists have to provide statistics on maternal mortality as a result of unsafe abortions to discuss safe abortion in a country where post-abortion care is supposedly provided by the government. Body autonomy is not even up for discussion as if some people are exempt from logic. 

In the advocacy for decriminalising homosexual acts, activism has taken the route of, among others, love. That homosexual sex should not be illegal since the persons involved are adults who love each other. This should never be the case but how else would the said activists seem acceptable? And although homosexual acts may involve love, the rights debate should not be confined to love. To paraphrase Keguro Macharia, the love-activism approach alienates other minorities namely sex workers and individuals who recognise sexual relationships outside the brackets of love. Adults who choose to have sex should have sex, the obsession as to whether said sex is based on love or the desire to procreate is and should remain the problem of the obsessor. 

Since the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, it is as if the two-thirds gender principle in elective and appointive public offices is not an explicit provision in the Constitution. It is a suggestion; from the Cabinet to some of the Constitutional Commissions. In some quotas, people are still adamant (and believe) that women should not be given free seats. Without fail, feminists including Marylyn Kamuru have reiterated what they and other people have been saying all along; they are not free seats, it is a provision of law, historical injustices, etc. Yet the question still comes up, why should women be given free seats? No one has been listening.

Save for primary school C.R.E’s “love thy neighbour as you love thyself”, I do not recall any other childhood lesson on love. Hate too was not part of the curriculum. Most of our school time concentrated on memorising thoraxes and abdomens if not answers to square roots. We were not taught how to love yet we do. That is why I am persuaded that hateful people are not in want of education; they have chosen to be vile. Attacks of any form against minorities are not a mistake, they are not a gap in the attacker’s education, they are not ‘banter’; they are deliberate acts of violence. And yet, these are the very people that activists and minority groups are forced to engage to create awareness. Sad!

In the Uganda on November 18, 2009, Professor Sylvia Tamale engaged in a discussion organised by HURIPEC on the then Anti-homosexuality Bill. The objectives of the Bill included protection of the traditional African family, protection of youth and children from sexual abuse through criminalising homosexual acts and related activities. The Professor unpacked the ambiguity of ‘a traditional African family’; while marriages between first cousins among Baganda were a taboo they were celebrated among the Bahima, woman to woman marriages among the Nandi community in Kenya, and the diminishing practice of wife inheritance. Prof Tamale explained how threats to family, culture, youth, and children include domestic violence, rape, defilement, and rising levels of poverty. Ignoring the substance of her views, the pronounced issue by the audience led by Hon David Bahati was whether she supported homosexuality. This was relevant to Bahati because subjectification is one of the easiest ways to shut down a speaker- responding in the affirmative would mean the Professor is against the good values of the Bill while a negative response would paint her as a homophobe- either way, he wins. 

Point is, I do not understand how activists in this country keep doing the same work over and over while being derided, even killed. How they keep showing up even when the audience is not paying attention. How they remain sane even when forced to adopt strategies that have nothing to do with the rights language. It is boring, exhausting, and heart-breaking. 

Dear activists, when and if a time comes when you need to take a minute and rest, rest. Power to you!

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