The Daily Nation appears to suggest in its editorial titled “NGOâ€™s role in Africa Vitalâ€ (November 27) that repressing non-governmental organisations across the world is a good thing, simply for speaking out and dissenting.
The commentary was obviously prompted by the fact that NGOs disagree with the regimes of the day, and because they implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the same regimes have ratified, and national constitutions.
The editorial stated that â€œif some NGOs behave as if they are acting at the behest of foreigners, then they cannot expect easy accommodation by governments.â€
Yet it failed to specify what â€œactsâ€ are being performed at the behest of foreigners. But the overtones are quite clear.
Rather than leave this debate in the shadows of innuendo, let me shed some light by using language that is more precise.
Democracy, human rights, accountability and a host of other issues advocated by â€œsome NGOsâ€ are not â€œforeignâ€ values. These are universal rights, accepted by the vast majority of states in the world.
To suggest that it is somehow â€œun-Africanâ€ to promote these rights is an insult to every citizen of this country.
It is belittling Africans to suggest that justice and accountability are not for them. It is abusive to suggest that impunity, dictatorship and killings are somehow â€œAfricanâ€ and should not be challenged.
Is it â€œforeignâ€ to form an association working to promote democratic values and human rights? If so, then letâ€™s chuck out our Constitution which gives every citizen the right to â€œfreedom of association, which includes the right to form, join or participate in the activities of an association of any kindâ€ (emphasis added).
Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights â€“ which Kenya has ratified, along with 166 other countries, and explicitly incorporated into its Constitution â€“ also protects this right.
And as part of this right, people have the ability, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilise resources.
It doesnâ€™t matter whether the money comes from home or abroad. What matters is whether the issue being advocated is within the mandate of international law.
Why is it all right to get foreign investment and invite foreign corporations but not foreign funding for NGOs? Why is it all right that our elections, our Judiciary, and government can get foreign funding, but not NGOs?
The essence of civil society is that it is a vehicle for ordinary people â€“ often voiceless â€“ independent from government, to advance their views and interests â€“ even if these views are political.
Any attempt to cripple civil society is also a full frontal attack on democracy, and should be treated with the most vigilant suspicion.
And speaking out on these issues is not a matter for â€œelected representativesâ€ only. The media does that often, when it is a proper and reasonable media.
And associations do it too and are mandated by the Constitution and international law to do so.
The Daily Nation knows better. After all, the paper built its reputation starting in 1960 by speaking truth to power and challenging repressive regimes.
Should we silence the Nation when it veers towards politics, challenging the powerful and making them unhappy?
Should we silence the Nation for pointing out corruption by the powerful?
Should we silence the Nation for supporting accountability for victims of violence by the powerful? Or should we silence the Nation because it is majority owned by a foreigner?
Kenya is at a crossroads, yet again, where the powerful seek to shrink the space for dissent, and independent views. And the media itself is in the crosshairs, as much as civil society.
And it has been clamouring against this, as it should and with the support of the same civil society that some in the Nation now want to silence.
This newspaper should be careful not to cut off its nose to spite its face, for media and human rights groups are tied together.
By Maina Kiai
This article first appeared in the Daily Nation here.Â Mr Kiai is the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.