• Irũngũ Houghton

Legal empowerment has a new future in our social justice centers

First published Saturday Standard, August 25, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

The opening of the Dandora Social Justice Centre was well attended this week. 100 or so community members, the area County Assembly Member and representatives of the Nairobi County Government, National Police Service and civic organisations showed up to the launch. Behind the launch is at least fifty years of bottom up community organizing for dignity and social justice.

There are now at least ten such social justice centers in various stages of formation across the country. The other more established ones can be found in places like Mathare, Kaloleni, Kamkunji, Kiambiu, Langata and others. Youthful leadership, a love for the country’s constitution and community development and advocacy programs characterize them. Blinded by inequality, violent crime and essential services neglect, their history and current challenges are not well known by the middle class.

In the early 1970s, three prominent legal firms Kaplan and Stratton, Daly and Figgis Advocates (now known as Daly & Inamdar) and Hamilton Harrison & Mathews established a legal advice program in Shauri Moyo. The firms operated under the Law Society of Kenya and the patronage of former Attorney General Charles Njonjo. Through programs like these, a diverse set of young law university students and lawyers like Shadrack Gutto, Murtaza Jaffer, Willy Mutunga, Jane Weru, Christine Bodewes and Greg Darr would increasingly find themselves in Korogocho and other neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s.

Another legend entered our urban history in 2001. Italian and an Catholic missionary, he had already spent a decade challenging aid corruption, protecting the Nuba people of South Sudan and advocating for African traditional religions to be accepted by the Vatican. For many years Camboni Father Alex Zanotelli lived, ministered and coached leaders from St Johns church in Korogocho, Kariobani North.

Neglect, corruption and the fight to control public spaces characterized the slums. Local chiefs determined who could build kiosks, toilets or even repair their homes. With no title-deed in sight, bloody confrontations often ensued between landlords, tenants and sub-tenants. The use of arson to forcefully evict families from their homes and businesses didn’t start in the last few years. Cats would be doused in kerosene, their tails lit and the fire they created as they tried to escape, would destroy tens of houses.

Legal assistance for the poor turned into community empowerment, court litigation and policy advocacy by urban poor movements like Muungano wa Wanavijiji. Over the last two decades, they have mapped and trained communities, built savings groups and urban funds and engaged slum upgrading Government programs to create Special Planning Areas.

The new generation of Social Justice Centers grows from this history. Old issues such as sex trafficking, violence against women, unlawful police killings, the lack of jobs and hopeless and anger pre-occupy their attention. Growing trees along the Mathare river, establishing business cooperatives and breaking down ethnic divisions are new pre-occupations. Last year alone, over 250 young men and women in these neighborhoods lost their lives at the hands of police-officers and criminals. In a disturbingly high number of cases, the deaths are open executions by police officers, known in the communities and acting with impunity.

If the middle class wants to shake off the unfortunate perception that they are a “fairly useless demographic”, they must look beyond the Raila-Uhuru handshake. They must demand that the Building Bridges Secretariat, County and National Governments get practical. Perhaps the collapsed National Youth Services buildings and programs that lie decaying in these communities could be made available to these organisations.

Instead of criticizing that indefatigable public interest litigator Okiya Omtatah, the LSK lawyers could return to their roots and unleash a series of Article 43 and dignity class action suits. NGOs could give up the temptation to parachute in for selfies and news headlines and really place their human and financial resources at the disposal of the centers. Police reforms are also urgently needed. Our Officers in Charge of Stations must strictly manage their subordinates, yield to oversight by the Internal Affairs Unit and Independent Policing Oversight Authority and actively seek community policing programs with the centers and other community initiatives.

Toi trader and Muungano national leader Joe Muturi puts it this way. “Things have changed. We have moved from the streets and gone to the negotiating table. For me it doesn’t always have
to be a fight. If you look at what we have achieved for all these years by sitting down, negotiating and collecting information, it’s more than just moving in the streets saying, ‘We don’t have’.” The question is, is the rest of the country willing to meet them halfway?

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Willy Mutunga and Joe Muturi for advice and materials in writing this opinion.


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