Re-awakening of citizen agency in governance in Kiambu County

On February 13, 2024, there was a face-off between the Kiambu County Assembly and its citizens as they submitted the petition related to the Kiambu County Valuation and Rating Act of 2016. Earlier on the day, the citizens with the support of Bunge Mashinani (a grassroots CSO) had demonstrated within Kiambu Town to express outrage over the implementation of the Act.

In a nutshell, the Act poses risks of land loss for residents, with key provisions including the removal of land zoning, and universal application of land rates and penalties. The running call for the day was #FreeOurlands through two interrelated demands: (1) Kiambu County sets 1% of its annual budget for civic engagement and (2) That the Kiambu County Valuation and Rating Act, 2016 be repealed.

This petition, symbolizing the collective will of the citizens, was handed over to the County Assembly Speaker amid the watchful eyes of the general public and the media. The Speaker praised the citizens’ motivation. He further conveyed the Assembly’s commitment to scrutinizing the Act and taking appropriate actions in response to citizens’ petitions. However, he urged the citizens to replicate a similar engagement at the National Assembly, seeking a review of the ‘mother’ National Law.

As we await the Kiambu County Assembly to act, important lessons emerge from this Bunge Mashinani-led engagement:

Firstly, on Civil Society’s connectedness and involvement with issues at a grassroots level. Civil societies often face criticism for not effectively representing the core issues affecting citizens. However, in the case of Kiambu, a different narrative unfolds. Bunge Mashinani, a civil society dedicated to consolidating citizens’ voices for collective action, stands out. Their work inherently connects them with the citizenry, enabling them to note issues that demand attention. Based in Kiambu, addressing the matter of the Act was inevitable for them. Through a thorough examination of existing legislation, they crafted an advocacy strategy to actively engage with the citizens.

When the citizenry is informed, they take action. Bunge Mashinani took proactive steps to engage citizens through civic education, employing community round tables and caravans as avenues for advocacy. Their efforts included sharing the provisions of the Act. During one community meeting, a citizen boldly proposed the abolition of the Act, a sentiment resonating with many others who expressed eagerness to sign a petition if presented. Another citizen pledged to mobilize fellow villagers to join the march to the County Assembly.

The power of social media in amplifying community citizen-centered issues cannot be overstated.  Social media played a pivotal role in spreading awareness about the advocacy surrounding the Act, reaching individuals both within and beyond Kiambu. The active social media presence proved instrumental in rallying more citizens to the cause. A simple online search for Bunge Mashinani or a visit to their Facebook and other accounts reveals numerous posts showcasing community meetings, vibrant caravans and citizens passionately endorsing the petition.

Now, more than ever, the impact is achieved through intentional organizing. Evidence has shown that people prefer having public meetings on weekends. Leveraging this insight, community meetings were intentionally scheduled on Saturdays at central public venues. Another key element in their intentional organizing was the use of vernacular language during public engagements. The strategic incorporation of storytelling further enhanced their approach, creating a resonance with citizens and fostering a deeper connection to the issues at hand.

If the citizenry is not convicted of a course, it will hamper mobilization. The diverse combination of these tactics played a pivotal role in disseminating information about this advocacy effort. Citizens wholeheartedly embraced the cause, and even national civil society organizations lent their support. On the day of the march to the County Assembly, the turnout was monumental. Friends and partners, some from as far as Makueni County, joined the cause, illustrating the compelling power of conviction.

Speaking truth to power is inevitable in citizen-centered causes. In a display of unwavering commitment, the leadership of Bunge Mashinani directly addressed the County Assembly, articulating the significance of delivering the citizen petition in person. The address was characterized by its bold and straightforward nature, emphasizing the urgency of the matter at hand. Notably, a deadline was set, signaling a decisive moment: if no action was taken concerning the two requests, Article 192 of the constitution would be activated.

As we eagerly await the Assembly’s reaction to this petition, there arises a pressing need for an enhanced appreciation of the strength of an informed citizenry. The Kiambu County advocacy work around the Act underscores the reality that, if citizens refrain from taking action to rectify injustices and hold those in power accountable, their constitutionally elected leaders might not take the initiative.

This collective action signals a wake-up call for politicians. The unity displayed by citizens in this advocacy effort should instill a sense of heightened accountability. Politicians must recognize that citizens are no longer passive observers. Citizens are prepared to stand up and act. The message is clear: citizens will assert their rights and speak truth to power through all constitutionally provided means. This paradigm shift should serve as a reminder to those in authority that the era of passive citizenry is over, and a vigilant, engaged populace is demanding responsiveness and accountability.

Sarah Mwangi is an Assistant Program Officer at Twaweza East Africa (smwangi@twaweza.org)

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