It was the last day of a two-day conference and we had just finished having lunch. The embers of conversations from the conference lingered on. I was brimming with thoughts yet could not shake off the nagging feeling of how to unravel my exasperation. “There’s so much I have to say!” I sighed. I was with comrade Kingwa Kamencu whom I had met at a national civil society conference that took place in November 2022. The convening brought together an array of civil society actors as well as state officials and representatives from independent commissions. It sought to ‘chart pathways for constitutionalism, good governance and social justice in Kenya’. This was against the backdrop of the political dispensation following the highly contested August 2022 elections.
Kingwa Kamencu lent me her ear that afternoon while fervently typing on her laptop and interspersing my monologue with questions. Later that evening, Kingwa sent me a transcript of our conversation. The document sat silently in a folder for months as I occasionally considered where to re-direct those thoughts, which now form part of this reflection. At the time, I was exasperated that Kenya was reliving the neoliberal era of the 1990s when multilateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank retrogressively contoured the future of our country. The Kenyan economy is still embedded in the ‘neo-colonialist trap’ that Kwame Nkrumah referred to in which oppressive conditions of multilateral aid were used to foist national policies upon recipient countries. The more things have ostensibly changed with the wave of electoral politics in Kenya since independence, the less they have changed on the front of externally driven neoliberal policies. Acquisition of foreign aid with conditions of government austerity, diversion of state funding from public services, hyper privatization of these services (while removing them from the reach of the majority working class) and accumulation of more debt to keep the economy afloat is the trap that doggedly subsists – in a country laden with extreme inequality.
The yoke of neoliberalism and the rhetoric of freedom
Neoliberalism is first and foremost an ideology. It is the idea that having more of the market and less of the government is good. It values the pursuit of economic liberalisation – allowing the free market to be, the orientation towards minimal state interference and increased privatization, driven by an underlying logic that competition increases efficiency. Despite the pervasiveness of neoliberalism it is hardly considered as an ideology. The infamous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s that resulted in adverse socio-economic impacts were rooted in this ideology. Whereas the imposition of these policies was packaged as a remedy to the perceived failures of the post-independence era in Africa, not only did the market solutions fail to deliver their promise, SAPs became a gateway for ‘political and economic capture by the powerful states and corporations of the global North.’ This neoliberal turn reinforced by economic concepts such as free market, privatisation and liberalisation can be understood as an extension of the ‘moral rehabilitation of imperialism’ in the aftermath of the cold war. Neoliberalism is beholden to the demands of foreign capital; political elites operate as its lackeys, notwithstanding democratic approval. It makes a mockery of democracy. As Kenyans prepared to go to the polls in August 2022, the IMF imposed new conditions on a 2021 loan agreement – the die was already cast on fiscal policy, apparently irrespective of the outcome of the elections and amidst a protracted cost of living crisis exacerbated by recurrent debt.
Resistance to neoliberalism must be waged on the ideological front. How could we possibly disentangle ourselves from the yoke of neoliberalism without dismantling its ideological bedrock? (Cue from Bob Marley… emancipate ourselves from mental slavery…) The 2022 electoral campaigns were emblematic of the distortions that neoliberalism creates in its reinvention. The clarion call of “freedom is coming!” reverberated electoral campaigns by the Kenya Kwanza Alliance. The President in his inauguration speech declared that freedom had arrived while hailing mama mboga and boda boda riders as the heroes of the electoral triumph. A cornerstone of this campaign was the Bottom-up Economic Transformation Agenda, which was widely popularized as a remedy for the economic empowerment of ‘hustlers’ and a counter offensive to state capture.
What is transformative about a ‘bottom-up’ model embedded within a neoliberal economic blueprint? What is the meaning of ‘freedom’ in this context? What kind of freedom and for whom? These are some of the questions that were tagging at my soul as I had the lunch conversation with Kingwa. I was exasperated by the co-optation of concepts such as freedom and liberation; the mutation of these concepts by upending them from the historical context of the liberation struggle which at its core embodied resistance against (neo)colonialism. What does freedom look like for mama mboga in this context? Was there political education to unpack the ideological underpinning of the freedom espoused by the hustler narrative that carried the day in the elections?
What we have witnessed on the economic front in recent months is nothing short of neoliberalism on steroids. As Sungu Oyoo highlighted in an incisive critique; there has been a raft of measures to increase tax revenues through scrapping of fuel and food subsidies leading to spiraling costs of electricity, transport and food, defunding of higher education institutions as well as a wholesale move towards privatization of parastatals. Even as these stringent measures were rolled out, the thirst for foreign debt remained unquenched. The caricature of freedom has been laid bare.
It would be remiss not to mention the recent cost of living protests (predominantly comprising of the working class) and the police brutality that resulted in the death of more than 30 people. There isn’t enough room to delve deeper into this here. Nonetheless, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the bravado of state violence that was unleashed to quell these protests is an integral part of the neoliberal architecture. It is a feature of a political economy at the behest of foreign capital.
What are the implications for social justice and civil society?
There was a lot of soul searching about the future of civil society at the November conference. I pose the question about the implications for social justice, not as an attempt to answer this fully here (which in any case would not be feasible) but to share some observations on what the current predicament might require.
One of the pernicious effects of neoliberalism is the depoliticisation of human rights, essentially stripping rights and freedoms of their radical content. As Issa Shivji says, “Human rights, NGOs, good governance, multiparty democracy, and rule of law were all rolled together with privatisation and liberalisation, never mind that they were utterly incompatible.” This suggests that there has to be a continuous interrogation of how these concepts conspire with neoliberal advances as well as their association to global hierarchies of power.
What is the ideological pillar around which human rights organizing is anchored? To what extent is the agitation for social justice situated in the historical trajectory of the African liberation struggle? Is the endeavor to uproot the trees of injustice or to merely prune their branches? What are the limits of the Constitution as a site of struggle? The evolution of the social justice movement in Kenya has some lessons to offer.
Social Justice Centers established by grassroots activists in informal settlements emerged from the endeavor to make meaning out of human rights in a context where the criminalization of poverty, endemic extrajudicial killings and forced evictions were normalized. Political education is the lifeblood of the social justice movement; the aim is to deconstruct the root cause of the material living condition in informal settlements by questioning the history of these settlements as well as their relationship with the police and the state. Human rights are a matter of life and death in this context. There is simply no luxury to articulate a depoliticized language of human rights that perpetually fails to deliver tangible changes. Radical political education by the movement according to Gathanga Ndung’u is a crucial organizing tool to raise consciousness and agitate against the prevailing political system.
The intellectual heavy lifting by the social justice movement is done as a collective. The Ukombozi Library organizes reading groups bringing together social justice activists and students from different academic institutions to discuss radical theory. The Matigari Book Club at the Mathare Social Justice Center is a learning space to educate the youth about liberation struggles. The movement is also tapping into the arts to educate the masses; the Social Justice Centers Travelling Theatre creatively uses theatre for political education. The arts, as the late Cicely Tyson says in her memoir, have unique transformative power in protests against injustice – artistic mediums ‘can touch corners of the soul otherwise unreachable’. The Crises of Capitalism in Nairobi is an example of an initiative that illuminates the ravages of capitalism from lived experiences in the margins of the city. The social justice movement is asking critical questions about why capitalism is absent in public discourse on poverty, unemployment, corruption and state violence. They are interrogating the capitalistic roots of the crises we are facing. These approaches are a glimpse of the imperative to politicize human rights if the pursuit for social justice will be a truly emancipatory one. The social justice movement’s radical thinking, approach and spirit, is a timely infusion in human rights discourse in Kenya.
*Lily Mburu is an independent scholar and a social justice advocate
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