Political and Social Change Slow to Take Hold in Modern-Day Kenya

Human Rights Activist Muthoni Wanyeki Delivers Annual McGill Lecture

​HARTFORD, CT, April 6, 2011 – The past several years in Kenya have been marked by political turmoil, violence, and corruption, according to human rights activist L. Muthoni Wanyeki, but progress recently has been made and she is hopeful that Kenya is headed in the right direction.

“We take two steps forward and one step back,” said Wanyeki, executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. “Progress has not been easy and it’s not been sufficient, but we are moving forward.”

Political upheaval and the reform movement in Kenya was the subject of Wanyeki’s talk Monday in McCook Auditorium where she delivered the Patricia C. and Charles H. McGill III ’63 Distinguished Lecture in International Studies. The McGill Fund supports the appointment of visiting humanities scholars, primarily international scholars, in the areas of international studies that include African, Asian, Latin American, Middle-Eastern, Global and Russian and Eurasian studies.

The 2002 election ended Kenya’s longtime one-party rule, and there was a lot of optimism when the National Rainbow Coalition took control. However, Wanyeki said “things started going downhill pretty fast” because although the new leaders promised a series of reforms, their administration was rife with corruption and a new constitution was defeated in a referendum.

Fast forward to 2007 when Kenya endured another political campaign, one that was polarizing, and dominated by hate speech, violence against women, distrust, rumors and suspicion.

“Violence ensued,” said Wanyeki, “and the country essentially emptied out.” More than 1,000 people were killed and roughly 500,000 were displaced. “Property was destroyed and the economy was in shambles.”

The presidential election was so flawed that only four African nations acknowledged the results.

In order to resolve the crisis, negotiations began under the auspices of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and the Panel of Eminent African Persons. In February 2008, a power-sharing agreement was signed which provided for the establishment of a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. A short time later, a new coalition cabinet was sworn in and the Annan-led political settlement laid out a reform agenda to address the underlying causes of the post-election violence. The focus was on constitutional, electoral, land and institutional reform, as well as on increased accountability.

Wanyeki explained that the mediation process in Kenya was more successful than in other countries because of the technical support provided by the UN and the support of Kenya’s middle class and numerous peace organizations. “There was a great desire for Kenya not to become a rogue state,” she said.

So where is Kenya today? Much of the violence has ended and the humanitarian crisis has mostly been resolved through resettlement, except that some Kenyans are still in transit camps. There is a new constitution with an expanded Bill of Rights and more local control and investment. Law enforcement and judicial reforms have been instituted and there is a renewed emphasis on human rights.

However, Wanyeki said, change has been “slow and incremental” and full accountability is still absent.

“Five years from now, we’ll see more clearly what the constitution has meant,” she said, adding that the 2017 election will be a pivotal moment in Kenya’s modern history.

Before heading the human rights commission, Wanyeki was executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network and deputy president of the World Association of Community Broadcasters.  She serves on the boards of the African Leadership Centre and African Women’s Fellowship Programme of the Conflict, Security and Development Group of King’s College London; the Afrimap Project and the Justice Initiative-Africa of the Open Society Initiative in Johannesburg and Abuja; Akina mama wa Afrika in Kampala; the Forum International de Montreal; and the Institute of Economic Affairs in Nairobi.