• Irungu Houghton

Why we must keep associations vibrant at all times


Publishing the book Dialogue and Dissent last month opened a new set of possibilities for me to associate with other published authors of the Editors Guild for the first time. This and recent dramatic moments affecting important membership-based associations got me thinking, how healthy is the associational side of our nation and what more we could do to strengthen it.


Allow me to first disclose a bias. For four decades, I have volunteered in more student action clubs, resident associations, professional associations, boards, and committees than I can remember. When asked whether I will ever run for public office, I often quip, I have been voluntarily serving the public interest for over four decades. Like many, I attribute my sense of imagination, hard skills, and networks more to these experiences than my education and professional training.


Our constitution states we all have the right to freely associate. Protected by Article 36, Kenya has hundreds of thousands of associations. Many of us interact regularly in a myriad of occupational, religious, cultural, special purpose, geographical associations, and social media groups. These groups inform, train, and entertain us. They also enable us to regulate ourselves, create collective understanding and influence policies and laws that affect millions of lives. In this way, associations are the main arteries of all healthy societies. Block these arteries, and disaffection, division and unaccountable populist leaders are as likely as heart disease or a heart attack in the human body.


Recent incidents force us to ask why so many of our associations are being intentionally undermined or allowed to stray from their civic purpose? The Law Society of Kenya Council is currently in disarray, secretariat services have been disconnected and its members are now openly describing it as a house of cards. It took the resignation of former Secretary General Wilson Sossion to break the stalemate between Teachers Service Commission and the Kenya National Union of Teachers. The integrity of most political parties took a reputational hit when millions of citizens discovered that they had been registered as members without their consent. This week, the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union rejected the Health Amendment bill citing provisions that undermine their right to self-regulate the medical profession.


The freedom to self-regulate without external interference is key to our national democracy. Every time, state agencies withhold membership contributions, sponsor candidates, bypass or act punitively against the leadership, we take a step towards strife. When we cede our associations to demagogic individuals and the puppets of others, we destroy the potential of elective power. When we face hatred in our closed SMS groups, say nothing and do not exercise the option of reporting our groups, we allow the darkness to rise around us.


Elected leaders do not wake up one morning and lead well. Transformative leaders often have history of leading associations. These are ones that leave associations more unified without endless succession battles and corruption scandals and have something to say in the National Assembly.


Elective positions exist in all our communities. Stepping up and leading ultimately produces the nation we have. The path to becoming a transformative leader is the same for all of us. Find an issue that really matters to you, turn it into a cause and serve those most affected by the issue with others.


This opinion was also published in the Sunday Standard, 4 July 2021


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