Participation of Kenyan social movements in wsf nairobi


Onyango Oloo* argues that, notwithstanding some serious problems with the WSF Nairobi, Kenyan social movements were more involved than appeared to be the case.

The publicity and controversy swirling around the storming of the gates and the occupation of the food court linked to Kenya’s Internal Security minister at the just concluded seventh edition of the World Social Forum has contributed a great deal in clouding the true picture regarding the state of Kenya’s social movements and how they interfaced with the organizing committee and secretariat which was charged with mounting the monster “mother of all gatherings” in Nairobi this past January.

True, the protests, not just against the high food and water prices, but also against the incarceration of poor people and vendors at the police post located within the Kasarani WSF venue helped to highlight the internal contradictions within the Kenyan civil society sector and underscore the corporate leanings within a section of the WSF 2007 Secretariat itself.

The storming of the gates was a culmination of a long drawn struggle within the overall organizing committee with some of us (I am the national coordinator of the Kenya Social Forum and a key member of the Secretariat) arguing consistently that we had to remember the “S” in the WSF; in other words, the World Social Forum is basically about people, specifically the marginalized, the poor, the historically excluded and that its major success indicator would be the extent of popular participation, especially by Kenyans.

Regarding the fees, we had made this argument from day one, but clearly some of our voices were not the most dominant in this discourse and we gradually found ourselves isolated voices at the margins of the WSF 2007 organizing process even though we were formally and ostensibly supposed to be having both hands on the helm of WSF 2007 vessel…

In all fairness to the Nairobi-based Secretariat however, it must be underscored that the wider International Council (IC) of the WSF was pushing for even HIGHER fees and at one point was recommending that participants from other African countries outside east Africa should pay TEN TIMES the amount the locals were paying. The WSF 2007 Secretariat in Nairobi simply shot that down.

It must also be recorded that elements within the IC of the WSF were pushing a very neo-liberal line saying that the local hosting committees of WSF events should henceforth be more “self-reliant” with one very high profile guru/ founder of the WSF (name withheld) arrogantly saying that the IC was “not a bank” in response to pleas from the Nairobi reps at the IC Parma meeting that perhaps the IC could help with fundraising for the January 2007 event.

The Secretariat had plans for setting up a Solidarity Fund to ensure access as had been the case in India in 2004 when thousands of Dalits who could not afford even the nominal fees participated to the fullest. At the end of the day, we raised very little of the resources to sustain that fund.

All this is NOT to take away from the culpability of a section of our organizing committee who through their arrogant and flippant intransigence set up the conditions that ensured a full throttle confrontation between poor slum dwellers and some of the prominent members of our secretariat. Collectively we stand condemned, even though some of us had campaigned otherwise and foresaw the very confrontation months prior to the WSF 2007 event.

I said at the outset that what actually grabbed the headlines during the hectic and heady five days in late January over at Kasarani helped to in a way suppress the real story about the participation of the social movements in WSF 2007.

Let us remember that despite its myriad organizational, ideological, logistical and other snafus, WSF 2007 still managed to set a benchmark as the MOST “international” of the WSF editions so far; it was the WSF with the most widespread African participation so far.

For Kenyans, WSF 2007 remains the biggest-ever international gathering to take place on Kenyan soil. Because of our overzealous overestimations projecting 100, 000 WSF 2007 participants, it is easy to overlook the fact that there has never been a conference in our country drawing 46,000 participants. That is a very huge figure by our standards here in Kenya. Of course the flip side of that is there were hardly any Kenyans, relatively speaking. It was not because of want of trying.

The 2nd edition of the Kenya Social Forum that took place on November 25th and 26th 2005 brought together women, youth activists, community organizers from the informal settlements, social justice advocates and representatives from institutions dealing with housing, human rights and environmental concerns. The nucleus of the future WSF Secretariat was already present in the membership of the Steering Committee of the Kenya Social Forum – an umbrella organization of close to twenty civil society organizations.

It was from some of the participants from the above meeting that the KSF delegation to the African Social Forum gathering that took place in early December in Conakry was picked. We had outreached to such diverse communities and groups as EPZ and flower farm workers, members of ethnic and cultural minorities such as the 4,000 member Yiaku ethnic group surviving in the depths of the Mukogodo forests and activists opposing the plans of the Canadian owned Tiomin corporation bent on strip mining for titanium at the Kenyan coast, displacing local peasants and desecrating the ecosystem.

By the time the WSF Polycentric in Mali came round, we had drawn reps from the Yiaku community, young women active in popular theatre and organizers from landless squatters to be very prominent and visible in Bamako.

In the run up to the formation of the WSF 2007 Organizing Committee some of us made very concerted attempts to draw in radical grass roots organizations such as Bunge la Mwananchi (People’s Parliament) Hema la Katiba, Huruma Social Forum, Haki Jamii, Kenya Socialist Workers Movement and others right into the Organizing Committee itself, often in the teeth of opposition from some of our colleagues who were more comfortable with the more mainstream NGOs. It is crucial to underscore this because contrary to later assertions, the People’s Parliament (and one or two organizations that funded some of their WSF 2007 efforts) was part and parcel of the very WSF 2007 Organizing Committee that they were picketing. Of course, the foregoing only further illustrates the schisms and contradictions within the organizing committee.

The point is that People’s Parliament was/is NOT an “outside” fringe organization to the WSF 2007 process. In fact as I write these lines, the Nairobi-based leadership of this organization is busy preparing a statement that will be distributed to the World Assembly of Social Movements correcting what it feels are distortions about their role at the Nairobi event.

The inaugural meeting of the WSF 2007 Organizing Committee was held between April 22 and 23rd     2006 at a hotel a mere stone throw from the Kasarani venue. It was attended by 80 delegates representing almost as many organizations – which were spread out across Kenya from both the urban and rural areas. There were also representatives from the Ugandan, Tanzanian, Somali and Ethiopian Social Forums.

A month after that gathering the newly set up WSF 2007 Secretariat embarked on a series of regional mobilizations to bring in social movements and community based groups into the WSF 2007 process. These were both sectoral and geographic. On May 25th 2006 for instance, there was a public forum in Nairobi on “Gendering the WSF 2007 Process”. A paper presented at that forum by

the present writer later on had a very significant impact internationally in galvanizing debate about gender in the WSF process. At the tail end of July the two day Western Kenya Social Forum took place in the lakeside city of Kisumu with fisher folk, people living with HIV/AIDS, small farmers, youth groups, community broadcasters, women and human rights activists in full tow; in early September the Coast Social Forum took place in Mombasa; in late November the Central Kenya Social Forum took place in Nyeri; towards the end of 2006 the third edition of the Kenya Pastoralists’ Week took place at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre with pastoralists and minorities devoting their forum to building up support for WSF Nairobi 2007.

A very significant breakthrough was the participation of the Kenyan (and wider African) gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed conservative body that has alienated a big section of the very workers they claim to represent. They entered the process in September 2006 during a special technical consultation on WSF 2007 and force-fed the concept of “decent work”- itself an ILO campaign – into the 9 principles for the January meeting. It later transpired that COTU was more Women’s Struggles and the WSF communities at the WSF Nairobi 2007. What began as a discreet email sent by one of their organizers to myself blossomed into a series of meetings where the KSF Coordinator met with a very vibrant, militant and focused LGBTI caucus. Contacts were shared, networks were activated, LGBTI events registered, tents and spaces booked and hey presto, come January the Q-Spot was not only one of the largest tents but one of the most popular and highly visible. The participation of the LGBTI community mwas one of the highlights of the WSF 2007 event and soon ALL the major media outlets were covering issues concerning sexual orientation, sexuality rights and homophobia with some Kenyan members of the LGBTI communities coming out for the first time to their parents, siblings, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. Again let it be underscored that key members of the WSF 2007 Organizing Committee worked hand in hand with the LGBTI organizers to ensure success at the January meeting.

Another major success was the collaboration between progressive Christians and radical civil society organizations to ensure the full participation of the slum dwellers, evictees and street kids at WSF 2–7People like Father Danielle Moschetti of the Comboni Brothers, Boaz Waruku of Shelter Forum, Odindo Opiata of Haki Jamii just to name a few worked day and night to facilitate the participation of residents of Kibera, Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru, Wangige, Mwamutu, Githurai and several of the 199 slums that dot the “green city in the sun” at WSF 2007. An interfaith consortium took the trouble to register slum dwellers. In fact they later managed to register the largest single bloc (4,000) for the forum. Muslim groups like Muslim Human Rights Forum were not left out either. The militancy of the protests against US aggression in Somalia and the scape-goating of Kenyan Muslim youth could not have made the WSF 2007 agenda without their crucial input. Again it has to be emphasized that all these groups found ready allies within the WSF 2007 Secretariat.

Kenyan workers came in very late into the WSF 2007 process. There were two conduits. One was through the leadership of COTU- Kenya’s national trade union umbrella which had been a member of the KSF Steering Committee for almost two years but had hardly attended any meetings. COTU is a interested in wringing concessions from the local organizing committee rather than ensuring the widest participation of Kenyan workers in WSF Nairobi 2007.

The other conduit was via other organizations like the Kenya Socialist Workers Movement, started by young workers toiling in the horticultural farms in Naivasha; the exploited EPZ wage slaves supported by groups such as the Kenya Human Rights Commission. All in all, Kenyan social movements participated in WSF 2007 in greater numbers and greater involvement than is perhaps reflected in some of the critiques I have googled and cyber mined over the last three weeks after the forum.

For Kenyans the bigger and more relevant question is this:

What are we going to do with all that energy, all those networks all those ideological perspectives now that our progressive sisters and brothers have gone back to South Africa, Thailand, France, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Canada, Greece, Bulgaria, India, Vietnam and so on? How do we ensure that we can suffuse the 2007 Kenyan election year campaign with issues pertinent and pertaining to workers, small farmers, slum dwellers, cultural and ethnic minorities and other excluded groups? How do we ensure that debt and poverty eradication becomes part of the national political agenda? How do we strengthen the capacity of Kenyan social movements? How do ensure collaboration, for instance between Kenyan social movements and formations like Khanya College in South Africa, S.A.L.S.A. in Washington, TNI in Amsterdam and the Dalits in India?

More importantly how can progressive Kenyans contribute towards a vibrant global social movement focused on confronting imperialism?

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