A Conversation With Maina Kiai on Local Empowerment and the Evolving Human Rights Landscape
from Africa Program, Africa in Transition, and Preparing for Leadership Transitions in Africa

A Conversation With Maina Kiai on Local Empowerment and the Evolving Human Rights Landscape

CFR Senior Fellow for Africa Michelle Gavin interviews founding leader of the Alliances and Partnerships Program at Human Rights Watch Maina Kiai.
People move a cart, after the government announced a lockdown of Nairobi's storied Eastleigh district and the Old Town of Mombasa for two weeks following a jump in confirmed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases there, Nairobi, Kenya May 7, 2020
People move a cart, after the government announced a lockdown of Nairobi's storied Eastleigh district and the Old Town of Mombasa for two weeks following a jump in confirmed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases there, Nairobi, Kenya May 7, 2020 Baz Ratner / REUTERS

Too often, foreign policy conversations that aim to be global in scope lack sufficient attention to African opinions and equities. By 2050, one in four people in the world will be African. From questions of war and peace, the future of capitalism, the viability of democratic governance, and the fate of the climate to the institutional architecture that facilitates international cooperation, the future should be informed by Africans.

In an effort to bring a broad range of perspectives to the CFR community, Senior Fellow for Africa Michelle Gavin spoke with a number of prominent Africans in different fields about their work and priorities. No one person can speak to the incredible diversity of the continent’s opinions and ideas, but our hope is that these dynamic individuals can help enrich readers’ awareness of and sensitivity to African dynamics, and perhaps encourage readers to learn more about their work.

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In recent years, Africa has been experiencing a dramatic increase in popular demonstrations in which citizens aim to influence or change their governments. At the same time, Freedom House has found that, overall, civil and political rights have become more constrained in the region over the past year. CFR Senior Fellow for Africa Michelle Gavin interviewed Maina Kiai to get perspective on what some grassroots organizing entails, and how it relates to human rights work at the international level.

Maina Kiai is an internationally renowned Kenyan human rights activist and the founding leader of the Alliances and Partnerships Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW). From 2011 to 2017, he was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The role that you are playing at HRW intrigues me, because I’ve given some thought to the idea of a “human rights community.” For a long time in my career, I’ve thought of these people as allies, and key contacts in any country. Then I started to ask myself, “wouldn’t the human rights community be all of humanity?” While professionalization is important, I was struck that it is a strange idea that this is a specialized field, and struck by how excluding that can be. When I heard about your position at HRW, it made me think about that line of inquiry. So tell me how you think about what you’re doing.

You know, it’s linked to what you’re talking about. And it comes from the fact that when I was the [UN] special rapporteur, one of the things that kept hammering at me was seeing human rights groups and civil society generally under assault, and in retreat, and very defensive. And then I met environmental people and labor people, I met all these kinds of people, and everybody had the same story, but there was no working together. So those silos that have been created by professionalism have begun to hurt us.

When it was possible to work and influence policymakers to change, many of the silos didn’t matter so much. As the world has changed and as people have got less and less shame—so you can name but there is no shame—then we need to think about adopting different approaches.

In that context, I began to think that the most effective work seems to be coming from the bottom up, whether it’s protests, mass gatherings, mass nonviolent actions. It’s the way that change within this environment seems possible, as opposed to the old ways where you lobbied the UN. And of course, without the United States, and without Europe as well—all of them are consumed by their own issues—that whole approach is ineffective. With the rise of China, even countries that are smaller and weaker just don’t care anymore about what America or the EU says.

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So maybe then, what we perhaps need to do at the international level is to do what locals have been doing, which is getting together, organizing, coming together and pushing from the bottom up, and then maybe within their own countries forcing change. So it’s also a reflection of an old phrase we used to use many years ago, that “human rights are best defended by the people themselves.” We kept saying that internationally, which is how human rights defenders’ work emerged, but we never really did shift from working at the international level to working with locals in the way that facilitated their work, their ability to defend human rights from the bottom up. So that’s where it comes from.

Maybe I should take the name from Alliances and Partnerships to something like Mobilization and Alliances, because really what it’s about is we mobilize people. We have taken three countries as our pilots—Georgia, Kenya, and the United States. I’m taking off from my rapporteur work and trying to put it all into practice now. Rather than just monitoring and criticizing and observing and studying, let me try to see if I can put it into operation directly.

I have tremendous respect for you, because it’s hard work. One of the reasons why that kind of mobilization hasn’t happened yet is because it’s so hard to figure out how to get at it. . . so what does this agenda look like in Kenya?

In Kenya we are working on Mombasa, we’re using Mombasa County as our pilot, and we’re calling it Save Mombasa, otherwise known as Okoa Mombasa. Because a number of things are happening in Mombasa. The port has essentially been transferred from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi now. So the sea is still there, but all the work in terms of clearing, forwarding, all that stuff that creates a whole economy on its own, has moved to Nairobi, simply to facilitate the repayment of debts to China. So the state has legally forced all transportation, all importation of cargo to go on the Chinese-built trains, we call it the SGR [Standard Gauge Railway], and then [it] lands in Nairobi, so importers have to pay for the train and pay for the containers to go back to Mombasa.

It’s killed off the truckers who used to do transportation. The impact of moving the port is that the economy of Mombasa has struggled. It is poor. As you know from your work in different parts of the U.S. government, this is a sure recipe to encourage radicalization, to encourage people going off into other things because they have no jobs. So the whole microeconomic system that has existed has gone. You will be surprised, how it used to be so tough to get through the Mombasa traffic just about a year ago. Now it takes you ten minutes to go from Nyali to the airport because it’s so quick. There are no cars, there’s nobody on the streets. The economic system around the port, like spare part dealers for the trucks, the kiosks selling food, the hotels hosting the truck drivers—gone.

At the same time there is a new container terminal built at the port by the Japanese, using Japanese aid. They’re trying to privatize that. It’s a very profitable terminal right now, and they’re trying to privatize that and give it to an Italian company that has got some other ownership, which is unclear. Now, privatization will reduce jobs, furthering weakening Mombasa.

The third thing we’re doing is a very symbolic thing. There is a new waterfront park, it used to be called Mama Ngina Drive in the old days, it is a public place where we used to go and take walks along a road by the sea. It has been upgraded and made into a waterfront park, so it is really fancy and nice. But it retains the name Mama Ngina, which is [President] Uhuru Kenyatta’s mother’s name. So there is a whole push now to say “why should something on the coast be named after the president’s mother? Maybe it’s time that we have a local hero who this is named after”. . . it seems like a small thing, but it’s a very powerful empowerment tool. People will feel like they own it. The idea in Mombasa is to get locals to start claiming their rights so that they feel stronger. If we can reverse that train thing, if we can reverse the privatization, if we can reverse the naming, then people on the coast can feel strong enough to say “we are going to stand on our own, and we will resist encroachment.” That may be useful in terms of counterterrorism as well.

Absolutely, because it allows for people to map out their own proactive agenda, not just have somebody impose another idea on how things are going to get better. I realize it’s not a hierarchical vision, but every community organization has some kind of leadership, their own voices of authority. How do you go about identifying those people?

Well, in Mombasa it was a little easy, because we got in with a local nongovermental organization called Muhuri, Muslims for Human rights, which I’m on the board of. There’s also been some pushback, with some trying to form a competing coalition. But there are talks about how we shouldn’t be having two entities. But human rights work, as it became professionalized, also became competitive, in terms of people seeking glory, prominence, and seeking funding. Funding has really, really been reduced in Kenya for this kind of work. And the U.S. government is not a factor for positive changes anymore, especially after 2015. In fact, after the Obama visit in 2015, the U.S. government became seen as a less than a neutral player, especially during and after the 2017 [presidential] elections, when it became known as a clear supporter of the status quo in a very divided and divisive society, rather than being seen as a beacon of democracy, justice, and human rights. It supports status quo in the name of stability.

That’s a myopic view of stability, right?

It is. It’s quite sad. It’s been there before—you remember the Cold War. But even then there was a sense that the Americans were a bit more open than the Brits were. But now, between America and the British, there is no difference.

So we’re not going to rely on those guys anymore. We have to figure out how to do it ourselves. It would be better for the United States to just show your cards the way that the Russians and the Chinese do. You have a right to do what you want to do, but don’t try to fool us.

I can understand a sense of betrayal if you’ve been working with a partner on an agenda and they’ve basically just abandoned it.

Yeah, without saying they’ve abandoned it.

So I’m curious, this work that you’re doing, what has the reaction been from the more traditional human rights community? Do they recognize that this is human rights work?

Oh yeah. It’s only new at the international level. It’s not new at the local and national level. In South Korea, the human rights groups are working very closely with the labor groups, environmental groups, women’s groups, the historical or traditional justice groups. Domestic organizations have been doing this work for decades. Even in Kenya, we would try to work with opposition politicians, with teachers, with whoever we could find to try and move an agenda. We’ve always done mobilization and coalitions. In Kenya, human rights groups have always been nervous about mobilizing on their own, because we’re not very good at it. So, we worked a lot with churches, and opposition politicians. That gave us the people, because we are not good at mobilizing. So a lot of people see this as human rights work. It’s at the international level where there is squirming and trying to figure out what to do.

I’ve gotten a very good reception at HRW. Really, really good. There’s been some uncertainties among some staff, because this is a new approach, but I think people are coming around. Our goal is to establish a new way of doing things, as an additional tool for researchers and other staff.

I’m not saying this is a silver bullet. I’m simply saying we’ve got to keep trying different approaches, to make sure we’re pursuing an agenda for change. I actually think as well, even from a selfish point of view, there are two things that struck me. In a lot of the social movements fighting for change, whether it’s in Chile or Hong Kong or other places, often the human rights issues are very understated in those social protest movements. Very understated. The second thing is that this model, that Amnesty [International] and HRW have led and have dominated for decades, is shaky at the moment, with so much information available via internet and social media. So it’s in everybody’s interest to figure out what we do to become more effective and more efficient and more useful in these changing times. Everybody says times have changed. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, if times have changed, how are we changing to be able to affect and deal with those changes.

And so, to keep going with the Kenya case, what does success look like?

Success will be a number of things. I think if we can get the Mama Ngina name dropped and a new one coming up, that will be good. It was going well until there was pressure from the national government. The idea of naming a park is actually run by the county government. So we had a way through, which was we petitioned the country government, we were going to have public hearings. But on the day of, they canceled them, without giving another date. Now we’ve got our work to do in terms of mobilizing people to go and put pressure on the county government, to do what it’s supposed to do. It’s their role. If they don’t do this there will be a court case as well.

The second one is not allowing the privatization.

The third success would be that the SGR directive is withdrawn, and people can choose whether to go by road or go on the train; that would be their choice. They should not be compelled by the state.

If those three things work, the bigger task is in how you then leverage that success to become a political force. As Mombasa goes into elections in 2022, to be able to be a force to influence who is elected, how they are elected, and what they are going to do—their commitment to the people of Mombasa as opposed to their commitment to the national government.

So it’s all about building these really strong lines of accountability, right, to the people you’re actually supposed to be accountable to in a democracy?

We have to find a way to make leaders accountable, transparent and participative. That is one of the roles of human rights work.

Which is really kind of fascinating. Because a lot of the immediate rights you’re talking about, I think of as social and economic rights. But what you’re articulating is that there’s no way to get those without the political and civil rights as well. The marriage of the two is fascinating, because so much of the human rights community that I’ve worked with in my career is really much more on one end of the spectrum than the other. So are you getting any kind of support, I don’t necessarily mean financially, more solidarity, from the countering violent extremism community that’s out there?

We haven’t really gone into them properly. I’m not in Mombasa now, so I would have to ask the people there whether there has been any outreach from the countering violent extremism people. Their currency was very low, for a long time, because they were supporting it blindly. This is where you see that it’s top down, that people would have an idea that you could do it in that format. Now, there have been enough people who have talked about how the weakening and the impoverishment of Mombasa is fertile ground for al-Shabaab to recruit. It’s something we are trying to push as well to the regime to understand. But it is consumed with trying to get the money to pay for the train, that it can’t see anything beyond that. . .you know, by the way, that the loan agreement between Kenya and China is still a secret!

This blog originally appeared on Strength Through Peace.

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