Reflections on Social Justice Centres, alternative model of community organizing and social movement building in Kenya

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 06/11/2019

By: Lena Anyuolo, Ukombozi Library and Member of Mathare Social Justice Centre with Contribution from Gacheke Gachihi Coordinator Mathare Social Justice Centre.

The foundation of social movement building is first and foremost, friendship. The camaraderie is vital as it guards against self-interest and opportunism among the members. The second is organizing protest against human rights violations and documentation of the same. The third is to establish a civic space for community organizing, participatory action research and community dialogue through formation of social justice centres, and finally to anchor your efforts in the struggle for social justice, to participate in bourgeois elections in order to meet and recruit other social and political activists so as to cast the net for social justice struggle further. Gacheke Gachihi, the coordinator of Mathare Social Justice Centre reflects that it is his participation in the 2013 parliamentary election in Mathare constituency that helped him create a network of friends which sowed the seeds of the social justice movement.

Mathare Social Justice Centre was the first social justice centre in the network to be formed out of an action research and fellowship program by IDS fellow Patta Scott Villiers and Making All Voices Count. The fellows were members of Bunge la Mwananchi members from Mathare and Kangemi slums. Bunge la Mwananchi is a social movement that was formed in the 2000s to mobilize and create awareness on the right to participate in the constitutional reform process.

Mathare Social Justice Centre led to the emergence of several social justice centres in Dandora, Githurai, Kayole, Mukuru, Ruaraka, Kiambio, Kariobangi, Makadara, and several others in informal settlements in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, and a Social Justice Centre Working Group to oppose the dehumanization and oppression of the urban poor in Nairobi.

The social justice centres network is organized into a Social Justice Centres Working Group which functions as the collective voice for the social justice movement. The Working Group comprises of two representatives from each Social Justice Centre.  It was formed in 2018 during the Saba Saba March for Our Lives, a peaceful demonstration organized by various social justice centres to protest the normalization of Extra Judicial Killings especially in the 24 informal settlements. Over 500 residents from these neighbourhoods together with some members of civil society marched to Kamukunji grounds. The Saba Saba March for Our Lives borrows its name from the Saba Saba Day public rally held on July 7 1990 at the Kamukunji Grounds to protest former president Moi’s undemocratic rule and press for constitutional reform by repealing section 2A of the constitution and re-introduce the multiparty system.

There are six committees within the social justice movement open to members from the different centres. These are, Right to Life, Wellness, Research, Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya, Sexual and Gender Based Violence and Arts for Social Justice. The committees ensure that the objectives of the working group are realized in the communities where the social justice centres are based.

At the helm of the organizational structure is the steering committee, comprising of three members who form the vanguard of the social justice centres movement.

The centres have extensively documented cases of human rights violations; and given victims of the violations the courage, support, voice and platform to seek redress by linking the community to agencies and organizations that help them pursue justice. Dozens of cases against suspected killer cops are now ongoing thus restoring hope in the rule of law and encouraging people to come out and seek justice for violations against them. A network of Mothers and Victims and Survivors of Extra Judicial Killings was launched during the Saba Saba March for Our Lives 2019 and it has over 50 members.

The social justice movement has helped to foster unity in the community based on class struggle and class consciousness, knowledge of the constitution of Kenya and human rights, and friendship and solidarity among members and beyond, and it has emerged as a vibrant grassroots social movement.

A Unified Grassroots Movement

On 20 July 2019, members of the network convened at Kiamaiko ward to debrief after a successful Saba Saba March. All due process had been followed before calling for the gathering, including notifying the OCS of Huruma Police Station. However, as the night wore on, we received the news that three of our comrades had been arrested and were being held at the Huruma Police Station. Together with other comrades, we walked to the police station to find out the reason for their arrest. Other comrades, who asked after the three arrested, were also arrested, in total 12 of our comrades ended up behind bars that night.

As news spread of these arrests, more members of the movement flocked to the station in solidarity with those seeking information on the arrest. Things quickly turned sour and we were shoved out of the police station and also threatened with arrest if we did not comply. We still did not know the reason for the arrests as no charges had been placed and it soon dawned on us that this was a case of arbitrary arrests which had become the norm in the Huruma area and informal settlements in Nairobi. Criminalization of young people is a common practice and part of extensive extortion rackets run by the police. Also, state sanctioned violence is often meted out on the youth in the form of arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial execution and use of unnecessary firepower to contain peaceful protestors, as we ourselves witnessed that night.

We camped outside the police station singing freedom songs. Our nonviolent methods were met with teargas, arrests and police brutality. Our comrades were beaten and police shot live bullets in the air. We had no choice but to disperse into the labyrinth of Kiamaiko ward and wait for daylight to return and ask after our 12 detained comrades.

As I hid in Kiamaiko, I met a young man who had been selling tea outside the police station when the fracas broke out. He explained to me that the police in Huruma took the freedom of the people for granted, arrested and extorted poor urban youth in exchange for freedom. He told me the cases were particularly rampant in Huruma as there wasn't a social justice centre like the ones in Mathare and Dandora. I took his number and invited him to the next community organizing meeting in Mathare Social Justice Centre the following week, which he attended, and continues to attend the weekly meetings. I saw in him an organic hunger to find a solution to the police menace in his neighbourhood and I was in a position to help him shape up a progressive movement to counter the social injustices and violence by the state through the police.

Our spontaneous protest did not emerge from blind courage, it was bolstered by knowledge of our constitutional rights and the awareness of human rights violations, all of which had been fostered through constant community dialogue  on local and national issues that affected us, documentation of human rights violations and regular interventions for social change on various platforms within the social justice movement network. There was unity and power in our numbers and above all, a sound understanding and analysis of the social conditions that affected us. And as we continued to protest online using the #FreeHuruma12 the following day, we saw our efforts bear fruit with the release of  of our 12 comrades on a free bond. We did not use bribes, but only our collective force to bargain for the freedom of our wrongfully arrested comrades.

The arrested 12 were grouped into two groups of six and were charged with trumped-up charges of drunk and disorderly, incitement, causing disturbance and malicious damage to property. Yet it is the police who threw teargas and shot at peaceful protestors and comrades! The first group, falsely charged with drunk and disorderly had their plea case on 22 July at the Makadara Law Courts. The court room was packed with comrades from the social justice movement who had come to attend the proceedings in solidarity. They pleaded not guilty to the false charge and after an argument from the lawyer demonstrating that the charges were malicious, intended to curtail the freedom of human rights defenders in the social justice movement and a classic case of criminalization of the urban poor, the Director of Criminal Prosecutions decided not to pursue the case further.

The next group which was falsely charged with incitement, malicious damage to property and causing disturbance was scheduled for a plea hearing on 26 July which was postponed, and continues to be postponed. The latter is a tactic employed by the state to demobilize human rights defenders and social movements from progressive work in their communities by wasting their time and resources with endless trips to the courthouse.

The vision of the Social Justice Centres Working Group

The vision of the Social Justice Centres Working Groupis to continue with the struggle for democracy and build a socially just democratic state with a mission to Organize, Educate and Liberate.

Objectives of the Social Justice Centres Working Group (SJCWG)

  1. To activate community agency on matters of human rights and social justice.
  2. To build solidarity among the Justice Centres.
  3. Organize joint campaigns on cross cutting grassroot and national issues.
  4. Empower the communities to advocate for their own Social Justice and Human rights.
  5. To expand the democratic and civic space.
  6. To consolidate the efforts and the work of grassroot human rights defenders and rescue the failed democratic state in Kenya.

Structure of the SJCWG




  1. Saba Saba March for Our Lives in 2018 and 2019.
  2. Social Justice Centres National congress in 2019
  3. Rapid growth of social justice centres across the country
  4. Through consistent and vigorous campaigns on Extra Judicial Killings, we have been able to give the crisis the weight and attention it deserves, stirring the nation to solution-oriented conversation around this injustice.
  5. We have been able to give the victims of violations the courage, support, voice and platform to seek redress.
  6. We have successfully engaged duty bearers and formed progressive working relations.
  7. Through documentation of human rights violations and linking the community to agencies and organizations that help them pursue justice more people have been encouraged to come out and seek justice for violations against them, restoring hope for the rule of law.
  8. We have managed to turn the community to Human Rights Defenders and advocates for Social Justice.
  9. Through mentorship and engaging the youth in activities and dialogues against crime we have been able to change reformed youths to human rights defenders.
  10. We have been able to tell stories and advocate for change through Arts for Social Justice.

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