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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

The joys of active citizenship

First published Sunday Standard, January 22, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group 

Something phenomenal and transformative is happening in the country. In the last few weeks, a school management board, members of parliament and county government executives have found themselves on the receiving end of effective public civic action.

The primary school management board willingly approved the offer of a church to level their parking area without informing or involving the local community. In the process of leveling the parking area, a tree fell, blocking an adjacent road, cutting power lines and plunging fifty neighbors into darkness. Furious neighbors were forced to remove the debris and have their electricity reconnected by themselves.  Then it got more interesting. Tweets, face-book posts and then media articles alleged the public school was being grabbed by the church. As their concerns went unanswered, storm grew. Mobilized by genuinely concerned neighboring residents, lawyers, Officials from County of Nairobi, Ministry of Education and Office of the President were demanding answers from the school management board.

Faced with the persistence of noisy clubs in residential areas, forty neighbors entered a club, persuaded patrons to leave, closed the club and took the club’s business license. Within 24 hours, the Association demonstrated Nairobi County procedures had been flouted. The business license was revoked. The Association returned the picture frame to the Club with the revocation notice now in it. The club remains closed while the owners walk court corridors.

Not far away, community members confronted the Kiambu County Forest Officer and demanded that a wealthy businessman’s attempt to hive off forest land for a car showroom be reversed. Beacons were uprooted, trees replanted and area leaders compelled to support the continued public use of the forest.

Four years ago, I found myself exploring the challenge of active citizenship our constitution generated. How would Kenyan citizens be distinguished in these early years of Wanjiku’s katiba? Would they be remembered for their persistent complaints and passive engagement? Or for their dismissiveness and ability to cause crises? It would seem the answers to these questions are becoming clearer.

Across the country, residents, tax-payers, students, women and doctors are organizing themselves into civic organisations. Their voice and power is growing daily. Armed with the Constitution, laws and twitter hashtags like #ICantSleep and #SchoolsAtRisk, the right to public participation, collective expression and action is being exercised. It is testing public officials fundamentally.

Public participation and information is not yet institutionalized in the day to day routines of our Government offices. If we looked closer, we might find that it is not embedded in our companies and NGO offices either. Too many of our Government offices are still not designed to be open and inclusive. The more senior the State Official, the thicker the padding on their office walls and the more body-guards, administrative secretaries and electric doors we have to go through to reach them.

This is less about interior decoration and more about how we can cultivate access, trust and responsiveness in the way they interact with the public. There are four principles for this. Embrace independent issue-based leadership, look for and address the commitment behind their concerns, follow up decisively, repeat.

Today, government offices are no longer the sole source of information or news to the public. Citizens out there are no longer waiting for us to explain what we are doing. They watch, speak and act. And they may just want that explained in 140 characters on social media. Even blogger spinning doesn’t work. They only irritate a public that is hungry for credible news.

A former Tunisian Planning Minister when challenged on how the 2011 revolution could have happened when all the political and economic data indicated the economy was growing had this to say; “Perhaps they didn’t read our annual Economy Survey reports”. We all have to adapt.

The School Management Board, the Forest officer and County Executive could be excused for feeling besieged by the public. To do so, would be to miss the bigger lesson. The board now have neighbors who will stand with them against grabbers. The officer has a community who cares for public forests. The County Official has allies to enforce environmental laws.

Look carefully. Something is changing around us. For those that seek to serve us, ignore it at your peril. This week’s Obama’s farewell letter speaks powerfully of the joys of “daily acts of citizenship”.

Cultivate this, our maturing democracy depends on it.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in a personal capacity. He is Society for International Development Associate Director. You can engage him at or @irunguhoughton


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