Analysis | July 2021
Activism in Kenya is vibrant and powerful. Local human rights defenders and the organizations supporting them have grown increasingly effective, mobilizing their communities to take on inequality and injustice.
But when people stand up for their rights and freedoms, they threaten the power of local authorities, the national government, and corporations. In response, anti-rights actors are exploiting their authority to restrict the efforts of local activists and inhibit their ability to push for positive social change.
“Human rights defenders speak for that oppressed person,” says Gloria Madegwa of Defenders Coalition. “So when human rights defenders are not given the freedom to say what is really happening, the person who suffers the most is the Kenyan citizen.”
Activists are facing mounting regulatory and legal restrictions to their work as well as increased threats to their personal security. In July 2021, a prominent land and environment defender, Joannah Stutchbury, was gunned down outside her home after receiving death threats. Misinformation and toxic narratives are also spreading like wildfire, making it difficult for local activists to build a widespread base of public support. The space in which activists operate is under attack.
While mounting restrictions impact human rights defenders across the country, activists in Kenya’s coastal region face especially heightened challenges.
The Kenyan government is pushing to industrialize a number of coastal communities and surrounding areas, threatening the land, culture, and livelihoods of residents. When local communities push back against overdevelopment, they are met with increased threats to their safety and constraints on their work. Now, local authorities are also exploiting legislation in place to prevent terrorism to restrict the vital work of grassroots activists.
Patrick Ochieng is the coordinator of the Coast Civil Society Organizations Network Forum, an informal network of more than 250 human rights and other civil society organizations.
This region has been extremely affected by what the world has called the war against terrorism,”
Because of the large Muslim population, Kenyan security forces arbitrarily target local activists. They misuse anti-terror legislation, which requires community organizers to seek government permission for activities, to harass local civil society and prohibit their ability to meet in groups and organize.
“For civil society to operate,” says Patrick Ochieng, “you need to organize.”
To support activists along Kenya’s coast, the Fund for Global Human Rights has been working in partnership with Muslims for Human Rights, Defenders Coalition, and the Civil Society Reference Group to build and strengthen local activist networks in six coastal counties. These networks bring together activists and organizers working on diverse—though often related—issues and from different backgrounds, offering solidarity and strength in numbers.
“Organisations are stronger when they come together,” says Suba Churchill, former presiding convenor of the Civil Society Reference Group.
Through support from the Fund for Global Human Rights and its partners, network members receive training on digital and physical security, how to navigate their increasingly regulated environment, and developing and deploying protection strategies.
Collective protection … has had a very big impact,”
Instead of activists working as individuals, she says, “they are speaking as a network and on behalf of a community.”
Swaleh Elbusaidy of the Lamu County network—one of six coastal networks being supported by the Fund—explains how it works in practice: “If someone has been arrested, we find out what they’ve been arrested about … and we work together to get them out. We all go there as a team.”
With civic space under sustained pressure in Kenya, collective protection and security is increasingly necessary. To preserve Kenya’s vibrant civil society, working collectively across issues and identities will be critical.
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