written by Julious Okoth

Although it remains one of the best known pro-poor social movements in Kenya, Bunge la Mwananchi faces serious internal challenges that hamper its effectiveness in mounting collective action. The problems need urgent attention.

There is nothing uniquely so human as the meeting of the ordinary minds whose membership base cuts across different social groups and classes and is plural, diversified by gender, ethnicity, cultures, generations and physical capacities. The people meet for friendly debates regularly in an open space to critically discuss political and socio-economic events. A time comes when ordinary citizens stop complaining and take upon themselves the responsibilities of identifying their problems, coming together for consultative meetings, discussing the problems and proposing solutions.

Bunge la Mwananchi, a pro-poor social movement historically related to popular social struggles for empowerment and participatory democracy in Kenya since early 1990s has remained focused on this core value of organizing the citizenry to demand social equality and participatory democracy as a prerequisite for sustainable development. The movement have engaged citizens in public discussions on pertinent issues which have become a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives.

The movement was started and fronted by people who felt deprived of social justice and decent living conditions: the unemployed, petty traders, squatters and low paid workers who through regular social interactions and transactions expressed resentment and resisted the adoption by former President Daniel arap Moi’s government of IMF and World Bank economic reforms which emphasized regulation of the state, privatization and liberalization of the economy together with the adoption of managerial approaches to governance which deepened the crisis in Kenya’s economy. The devaluation of the Kenya’s currency had eroded people’s purchasing power and fuelled inflation which placed the prices of most items, particularly food, beyond the rich of the vast majority. The deregulation of the Kenyan state also meant that subsidies for essential services including health, education, infrastructure and essential commodities such as food, fuel and electricity were drastically reduced or removed entirely, leading to social misery and pauperization.

The imports-dependent industries reeled under the impact of devaluation and the falling of prices of Kenya’s traditional exports in the international market undermined the amount of foreign exchange available to fund importation of raw materials. The result of this was exploitation of workers by multinationals who took advantage of deregulation of the economy to make more profit, unemployment, poor children dropping out of school, retrenchment and adoption of multiple survival or coping strategies by the impoverished middle class and the poorest of the poor.

It was in this context of sharp social contradictions and struggles for survival, partly as a result of structural adjustments programmes by IMF and the World Bank, coupled with the KANU dictatorship, corruption and misrule, that the unemployed, petty traders, squatters and low paid workers came together to call themselves ‘parliament of the ordinary people’, or Bunge la Mwananachi in Swahili. It is a non-economic and non-state platform which gives visibility and voice to the disadvantaged, dispossessed and deprived citizens. The platform enables them to protest their exclusion, stake claims and defend the rights to gain access to basic needs.

The movement was among the visible and invisible, formal and informal networks that were doing collective mobilization for satisfaction of basic needs and respect for basic rights as well as greater democracy in early 1990s. Nobody could contest the fact that the movement has grown organically through the concept of organizing communities in terms of here-and-now accomplishments and not rhetoric. The movement introduced the concept of ‘organizing practices’ to capture both the diversity of forms that collective action can take and the argument that a socially equitable society can be contested in many ways and many public spheres.

Currently Bunge la Mwananchi is prominent in the national stage and has remained an important player in popular contestation nationwide because of its impact on pertinent issues: social justice, equality, poverty elimination, greater participatory democracy, access to water, housing, food, land, health, sanitation, employment and education. The movement is now crowded with an assortment of diverse social forces, actors and agencies, with multiple and sometimes contradictory agendas but united in operational techniques. The movement is non-confessional, non-governmental and non-partisan and interrelates non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, trade unions, sports clubs and non-governmental individuals who are engaged in concrete actions. The reason why the movement has survived is because it is home-grown and is fronted by the masses themselves whose concern is more oriented to the local and national levels than global. Nevertheless the movement also acts at the global level through formal and informal networks that mobilize at the world and regional summits. There is no ‘personality cult’ or ‘messianic mentality’ within the movement. It was formed by the masses for the masses.

All social movements in Kenya of early 1980s and 1990s largely came to a halt in 2002. The coming of NARC government into power marked the end of vibrant social movements. The pioneers and actors of those social movements entered the political arena and transformed themselves into political actors, leaving a vacuum in social movements. Some actors demobilized social movements completely considering that they had achieved their personal objectives. They were actors who saw social movements primarily as organizational and political opportunities. Some of those movements disappeared like mist in the noon day sun because the nature and the directions of those movements was a one-person agenda and they were co-opted into the new NARC government, abandoning the vehicles, mechanisms, sets of values or agendas that they had pursued. Other social movements were being shaped and influenced at times by international processes and actors. Those processes and actors had a direct bearing on the nature and outcomes of those social movements beyond their immediate actions as they were being taken up by international agendas and not ordinary people’s agendas. When international agendas were achieved those movements died their natural deaths; and that is why Bunge La Mwananchi came from below and filled that void. It has become the only surviving and vibrant social movement in Kenya today.

Unlike other institutionalized movements which have norms, standards and doctrines Bunge la Mwananchi is complex and heterogeneous. This is shown by what members of the movement value, their expectations and demands. Some of them denounce economic globalization, free trading, privatization and the accentuation of poverty and social inequalities as the causes of their problems; while others focus on ecological and spiritual issues and disregard social-political causes. Some accept the movement as the basis for dialogue with the government and international multilateral institutions and see it as a platform from which to solve their problems, while others reject it on the basis of a substantive critique not only of the prevalent economic model but of the civilization mode as well and propose an alternative. This divergence of perspectives and the difficulties of reaching a consensual agenda is what has continued to sustain Bunge La Mwananchi.

Like any other pro-poor social movement, Bunge la Mwananchi is faced with numerous challenges that have hindered the movement from mounting forceful and sustainable actions to produce intended results for the greater benefit of the poor. Being a movement of community voluntarism and driven by selflessness and a civic spirit by the disadvantaged, dispossessed and deprived members of Kenyan society who are not able to satisfy their basic needs, the movement have come under increased financial pressure from its members which has made its social base to remain highly unstable. Due to acute economic and social crisis, poverty and unemployment, there is a belief within the movement and without that Bunge la Mwananchi has become a ‘gun for hire’ for ‘flashy’ NGOs in Kenya and other structural and formal institus that have enough economic resources which have permeated Bunge la Mwananchi in attempts to co-opt it. While Bunge la Mwananchi members are being used as ‘ammunition’ to push for these institutions’ agendas, this has continued to weaken and divide the movement and has made public perception of the movement at best vague and at worst negative.

The greatest challenge for Bunge la Mwananachi social movement is that within the it there are different views and perceptions in terms of the nature and scales of reforms to be pursued; critical internal divisions persist between the reformists, the radical forces and those who claim that they are the architects of the movement. As the movement takes a more reformist orientation by seeking to work with the system, various contradictions and tension always arise. First, the movement is highly heterogeneous. Second, its popular legitimacy has negatively affected the movement as it appears to foster its contacts with formal institutions while failing to bring social change in the latter. This has made the population concerned to feel deprived of social justice and decent living conditions. Social change spearheaded by the movement is slow and results are less than expected; As a result frustrations are rising among members and the public. Some of its social actors have decided to leave the movement and form their own formal organizations, while other members have sought to radicalize it.

Bunge la Mwananchi being an open platform, there are always open conflicts and disagreements on pertinent issues. The movement has numerous overlapping agendas and this has often brought a lot of open conflicts in its basic approaches, means and strategies in areas of activism which has not helped to put forward core claims and demands in a more coordinated manner. The movement has no physical office, documents ,reports, declarations or written expressions made by Bunge la Mwananchi when arguing in favour or against any issue. Its mode of operation, that is who should coordinate the associated projects and supervise funds, is always intertwined with conflicts of interests. Bunge la Mwananchi varies greatly with respect to sensitivity and purposes of actors, fluid actions and unpredictable reactions of opponents and authorities which has made Bunge la Mwananchi to remain vague in its range of goals. For a long time the movement has been wandering in the wilderness of fragmentation and competition. Some members who had formed their own institutionalized organizations are still clinging and retain their distinctiveness within Bunge la Mwananchi, while claiming to be the drivers of the movement, which puts their loyalties into question. At the same time the drivers of the movement are always immersed in a struggle between the moderates and radical elements within the movement. For its vehement critiques, the movement is no more than a gathering of ‘irresponsible left wingers’. Similarly, cracks among the drivers of the movement are exploited by institutionalised and formal organisations to divide and weaken the movement for their selfish ends. This has made Bunge la Mwananchi’s future prospects inexorably compromised.

The movement has sought to advance diverse propositions and assert itself to be ‘alternative’ rather than ‘anti’ everything which has made it gain influence among political leaders, political parties and the government. But certain forces that form part of the movement back combative views with a consistent claim for immediate rapture with capitalism, the logic of profit, wage economy and money. The militancy of this small percentage of radicals who include anarchists, extreme leftists, militant trade unionists and deep ecologists who would like the present Kenya capitalistic system to be destroyed and replaced with a Utopian or another form of political system is sometimes overhwhelming. While others have the views of non-violent struggles, democratic practices, social justice, peace, solidarity and so forth, hence not a total break with, or violent revolutions against, the present Kenya’s economic and political order, this divergence of perspectives is a great challenge for Bunge la Mwananchi.

While public influence of Bunge la Mwananchi has increased, taken as a whole, its activities remain highly spontaneous and informal. The movement has frequently been criticized as being weak in postulating concrete propositions. The movement has not been able to press forward and implement various specific propositions, or achieve in the end a certain degree of professionalism in the use of media and Internet and self-confidence in dealing with Kenya’s political forces, with political parties and institutions. A major paradox that Bunge la Mwananachi faces is that, while on one hand it chooses to follow the tradition of highly informal and at times spontaneous nature of social actions, on the other hand it is increasingly informed by the need for institutionalization. This contradiction has hindered enhancement of common links between coordination and grassroots elements as an efficient contact to mount joint actions.

Bunge la Mwananachi social movement lacks coherent organizational structure that would allow it to conceive and implement proposals in a systematic manner including negotiations with authorities for necessary resources. This is notable with variations in the pace of their actions. This situation makes it difficult to conduct and operationalize legal and political agreements and plan with the government and other formal institutions which usually function within a more structured management frameworks, timing and directions. As far as the rule of social movement is concerned, Bunge la Mwananchi is primarily incapable of negotiating because it does not have anything to offer in return for any concessions made to its demands.

Lack of institutionalization in part is linked to the general disorientation within Bunge la Mwananachi regarding the role the movement should play in the existing political system. Some social actors of the movement have deliberately distanced themselves from the political arena because they consider Bunge to be NGO-type grouping that is always in opposition to the Kenyan government and political parties. The lack of serious reflection on the issue of political participation has now become a theme of increased debate within Bunge la Mwananachi between those who desire to become a major ‘locus power’ in the form of a political party or a new ‘post-new Kenya constitution activism’ and others seeking to maintain it in the present form purely as a mechanism for exchanging, disseminating and debating ideas. Some would like the movement to be associated with anarchists and call for a clear rejection of capitalism and trade agreements and Kenya’s promotion of destructive globalization and propose localized actions. It is logical that these social actors would not want to collaborate with development or political institutions; their agenda is to abstain from political parties, electoral politics and state institutions.

This phenomenon of a deep-rooted opposition to centralized legal and formal social actions is by no means common within Bunge la Mwananachi social, but it does become more problematic when the movement moves away from protest actions to elaboration and implementation of concrete plans. The movement lacks a legally approved organizational base or entity to respect any formal deal, to formulate, sanction or implement relevant laws, treaties and agreements on pertinent issues. For this, the movement have often looked for support and collaboration from government and other formalised institutions, although some antagonism together with some hostility towards authority and established institutions persist within the movement.

The structure and functioning of Kenya’s political institutions represents numerous constraints in responding to the various claims emerging from Bunge la Mwananachi social movement. The Kenyan political system remains essentially hostile to the movement since collective action must be conducted in terms of social relations. As such there is the repressive apparatus of the Kenyan state and mechanisms of social control that strive to obstruct, contain and repress Bunge la Mwananachi’s collective actions. In a sense Bunge la Mwananachi is seen as trouble makers.

These are some of underlying ambiguities and strains that have made the movement to be abused, misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood. What is more, distorted or at best incomplete reporting has overtime invested the movement with sinister connotations such as a gun and ammunition for hire. Overcoming these challenges is intricate as Bunge needs to tackle not only the organizational structure and linkages between coordination and the grassroots at various levels but also many of the contradictions and tensions already inherent. Bunge la mwananachi therefore has an uphill task of convincing the Kenyan population that it has the potential to change their lives to the better.

The goal of Bunge La Mwananchi is to create larger networks from existing ones and establishment of a more coordinated and sustained movement resulting in ‘networks of networks’. To have in place regular open forums in all the villages in the country and in all the neighborhoods in the urban areas and the full participation of all adults, where members meet daily in equal terms to conduct good debates in impassionate and yet guided by respectful and rationale conversations on pertinent issues on the current political and social-economic affairs of Kenya,for reflective thinking,formulations of proposals free exchange of experiences and ideas which will act as a capacity building, civic education, empowerment, advocacy and interlinking for effective actions. In such forums ordinary citizens will be able to build a broad- based consensus for collective mobilization,identifying leaders at every level of the community,and if need be make them their representative. Bunge la Mwananchi need this cadre of leaders to access the instrument of power and to have the authority to transform the entire Kenyan state when the time is right.