AuthorOmulo, Albert Gordon
PositionCase study


In 1996, in his groundbreaking work entitled The Two Faces of Civil Society: NGOs and Politics in Africa, Stephen Ndegwa discovered inherent contradictions in the quest to hold the African state accountable. His study, a comparative analysis of two Kenyan NGOs, the Green Belt Movement and the Undugu Society of Kenya, found that in Africa, civil society either resists or yields freely to a despotic state. (1) This article borrows a leaf from Ndegwa's thesis in its examination of social movements and collective action; it begins from the premise that the consequences of opposing the state in Africa are similarly contradictory. It extends the understanding of civil society to the community and focuses on the Luo of Kenya as a subject of analysis.

I have chosen the Luo as a case study for numerous reasons. First, under their de facto leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, (2) the Luo were the first Kenyan community to actively and demonstrably voice and display discontent about "new forms of political oppression, social injustice, corruption and the arrogance of political power in the hands of the Kenyatta-led independent Kenya's ruling elites that started to make life difficult for the ordinary African human being" (3) soon after Kenya's independence in 1963. Second, ever since the Kenyatta-Odinga fallout of 1966, (4) the result of different perspectives on life--Kenyatta's influenced by "individual enterprise and personal virtue," and Odinga's by "clan-based communocratic and egalitarian values plus a tradition of resistance to authoritarianism of any sort" (5)--the Luo have consistently been at loggerheads with the Kenyan state and have been largely excluded politically as a consequence of this enmity. Third, when "state oppression by [Kenya's] dictatorial ruler [Moi], especially during the Cold War, precipitated a prevalent culture of fear and silence," the Luo, particularly through the failed coup attempt of 1982, expressed "the outcry of citizens over gross violations of human rights." (6) Fourth, when the third wave of democratization began to roll across Sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, the Luo community, under the guidance of Kenya's doyen of opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was at the forefront of advocating for the restoration of multiparty democracy in Kenya. (7)

Fifth, Luo leadership was instrumental in bringing to an end the 40-year reign of Kenya's independence party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Indeed, as Walter Oyugi, Peter Wanyande and Crispin Odhiambo-Mbai have noted, "it was [Luo politician and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga's son] Raila Odinga's 'blessing' that had assured Mwai Kibaki of the joint opposition's nomination in the 'transitional election' of 2002." (8) Raila Odinga's gesture led "to a virtual walkover and the promise of tangible change' in the lives of ordinary Kenyans." (9) Sixth, during the disputed 2007 general elections in Kenya, which were characterized by violence, the Luo, under "Raila Odinga, the main opposition leader representing the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)" were at the center of events that included "civil unrest... in Western Kenya to protest against reporting delays in some districts." (10) Seventh, during the 2010 referendum, the Luo community, alongside others, voted overwhelmingly for Kenya's new constitution. (11) Eighth, in contemporary times, when "democracy in Africa... features semi-competitive elections that retain and entrench neo-patrimonialism and old networks of elite domination," (12) the Luo, under the stewardship of the Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga and through collective action such as the 2016 protests against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that succeeded in bringing to a halt the term of office of top officials in Kenya's electoral body, have continuously fought for social transformation. (13)

The Luo have consistently been in the vanguard of democratic/political social movements and collective action in Kenya, and even as it looks to highlight the contradictions inherent in these movements and actions, this article is driven by the broad objective of establishing the consequences for Kenya, in general, and for the Luo as a community, of perceived or real involvement in social movements. It poses the following questions: How have antagonistic relations between the government of Kenya and the Luo, which have frequently manifested themselves through social movements and collective action against the government, influenced the socioeconomic development of Kenya in general and that of the Luo community in particular? From the Luo perspective, what are the socioeconomic consequences of opposing the Kenyan state? Because of the despotic nature of the African state, as partly narrated above, and in acknowledgement of the argument that social movements and collective action could well be "foreign funded agents of the opposition," (14) this study is situated within the "neoliberal--predatory state dialectic," which I will discuss further after an examination of contemporary literature on social movements and collective action. But first, I briefly outline the neoliberal perspective of the state and development.


In its attempt to explain international order, the neoliberal paradigm grounds itself in three broad assumptions: first, that "the sub-units of the larger world-system acquire their defining properties prior to their participation in the international system"; (15) second, that "states interact to maximize [their] given power and economic interests"; (16) and, third, that the result "of these international interactions (whether economic, political, or cultural)... is some kind of international order, which takes the most prominent utilitarian forms: contract and division of labor." (17) These suppositions are firmly embodied in two closely related theories of international relations: the realist theory, which "argues that the international state system is a product of struggles for power between sovereign states in a condition of international anarchy"; (18) and the world-system theory, which sees the planet "as developed and underdeveloped states, or zones, the interaction of which, through unequal exchange processes, produces a global core-periphery of labor." (19) My analysis in this study is guided by these two theories of international relations.

Peter Evans thoroughly analyzed the neoliberal perspective of the state and development, the logic that dominated discourse on economic development during the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, in his acclaimed work Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. (20) Neoliberal theorists, Evans argued, were completely against the state and castigated it vehemently, oftentimes in a subjective way. Their motivation arose from the fact that most African states were dismally failing to meet the expectations of their citizens in the postcolonial era. These theorists did not spare Latin America either; they argued that economic stagnation in that part of the world was the result of "bloated state apparatuses." (21) Even where greedy politicians and bureaucrats should have taken the blame, says Evans, this lot of analysts took advantage and opted to use the behavior of these two entities as an opportunity to attack the state.

At the core of the neoliberal argument was the contention that incumbents seldom act in pursuit of the common good of their society; rather, their actions are largely motivated by the desire to please and reward their supporters. (22) Neoliberal theorists contended that in their quest to cling to power, incumbents ensure that resources such as "subsidies, loans, jobs, contracts, or the provision of services" are shunted directly to their enthusiasts; they also "use their rulemaking authority to create rents for favored groups by restricting the ability of market forces to operate." (23)

Neoliberal theorists found repugnant other actions of incumbents, which they saw as ways of "creating rents." These actions included the following: "rationing foreign exchange, restricting entry through licensing producers, and instituting tariffs or quarantine restrictions on imports." (24) So evil was the state in the eyes of the scholars of the neoliberal ilk that they argued that in many parts of the Global South there was a struggle to obtain employment in the civil service because this would guarantee the concerned parties some rent. (25) Since the production process became overwhelmingly characterized by entities seeking corruptly acquired wealth, they contended, economic competence and vitality deteriorated. (26) So what solution did the neoliberal theorists offer?

To these thinkers, the alternative route to development entailed dismantling government bureaucracies to solve the rent-seeking issue and deserting the state as the driver of development. (27) The task of development would be given to the market, which had to be liberalized through the formulation and adoption of a collection of policies constructed on the basis of utmost faith in market forces--neoliberalism. (28) Such is the nature of the neoliberal perspective of the state, and its agenda, the lens through which this study approaches and scrutinizes literature on social movements and collective action.


Contemporary research on social movements and collective action, especially on the Global South, has mainly focused on three broad themes: technology; gender/women's issues; and the expression of ambiguity, frustration, and challenges--and the need for social activists and social movements to use nuanced approaches--owing to changes in political contexts, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa.

During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and especially since the 2011 Arab Spring, researchers of social movements have given much attention to the...

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