Empowering Citizens to Reclaim Civic Space in Africa
August 8, 2017
The growing and worrying phenomenon of shrinking civic space in Africa hampers citizens from freely exercising their fundamental human rights. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s 2016 quarterly review of non-governmental organization (NGO) legal trends around the world, the number of restrictive laws that have been proposed or enacted by governments on the continent have risen significantly. These laws—which include legislation on associations and counterterrorism—seek to hinder the rights to the freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly by restricting civil society’s registration, operation, and financial resources.
For example, the Eritrean government impedes foreign donor agencies from funding NGOs and requires all donor funds to flow through government ministries. Non-governmental organizations are only allowed to receive funding if there is insufficient capacity in the ministry. In addition, Equatorial Guinea limits NGOs from promoting and engaging in human rights activities and requires the government’s prior approval for social and political gatherings that involve more than ten persons.
There has also been an increase in blatant and clandestine attacks on human rights activists, who are consistently accused of being foreign agents and branded as anti-economic development and a threat to national security. In some instances, individuals associated with the government have threatened and murdered human rights activists. For example, in 2016, the Egyptian government thwarted demonstrations and dissent through the arbitrary arrests of journalists, human rights defenders, and protesting citizens and non-citizens. In the same year in Ethiopia, the clampdown on the political opposition saw mass arbitrary arrests, torture, politicized trials, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association.
Environmental and land rights defenders are not spared. For instance, fifteen land rights activists were killed in Africa in 2015. Humanitarian organizations also face accusations of corruption and a lack of accountability from governments, vigilante groups, and private sector entities. Due to the lack of a well-established legal framework for accountability, governments selectively impose regulations on humanitarian organizations, raising question marks about their real motives. For example, the Sudanese government uses the Organization of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act 2006 to suppress civil society by requiring organizations to register with the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) as a condition to operate and to receive funds. As documented by human rights and humanitarian organizations, the Act has been implemented by the HAC in a discretionary manner, obstructing the ability of donors and NGOs from fulfilling their humanitarian mandate.
This dire situation calls for a new approach that mobilizes citizens’ response to these restrictive measures. Current initiatives focus more on highlighting and amplifying the various dimensions of shrinking space through research, documentation, and policy advocacy at national levels. However, effectively addressing the crisis confronting civil society in Africa requires developing citizens’ skills and knowledge on effective measures to address human rights violations. This can be done through public education and awareness raising, online community mobilization, town hall meetings, and targeted convenings that include the participation of faith-based groups, voluntary associations, citizens’ movements, and community-based organizations.
For example, global pushback alliances like the collaboration between ActionAid, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Association for Women’s Rights in Development, and CIVICUS recognize the viability of mobilizing citizens to protect civic space and ensure the realization of their rights. This represents a critical step towards tackling inequalities that continue to hinder sustainable development efforts.
The increasing number of initiatives presents an opportunity to empower citizens to effectively respond to the risks associated with closing civic space. A promising strategy would be to ensure that learning resources are accessible for citizens and human rights activists working at all levels, especially within grassroots constituencies.
An effective response should focus on highlighting and evaluating the triggers and root causes of closing civic space on a country-by-country basis. The inability to invest resources in identifying and mitigating the root causes puts civil society in a defensive posture and prevents the kind of proactive discourse, mobilization, and action that is needed to strengthen and expand the space for civil society.
Shifting from the current emphasis on the effects of government restrictions and their implications for human rights to building the resilience and support base for civil society would go a long way in stemming the tide of growing restrictions across Africa. There must also be an extensive examination of the operational strategies of citizens’ movements and their pushback tactics and strategies.
It is also essential that these initiatives cultivate citizen-led platforms to foster convening, learning, and sharing among human rights activists, members of citizens’ movements, and social justice campaigners. For example, Africans rising is a Pan-African movement of people and formations working for peace, justice, and dignity. This loosely formed association utilizes virtual and physical fora and digital participation tools to expand space for citizens’ participation and mobilization to influence decision-making. The platform’s modus operandi enables citizens to shape rights-based thinking and practice in their various communities and policy spaces.
The design of such initiatives should be sustainable and flexible. The priority should be to help NGOs and citizens develop the skills needed to deal with a shifting environment for civil society. Such skills include the capacity to analyze laws and regulations, digital and Internet security, security awareness training, mass mobilization and movement building, policy advocacy and public engagement, networking and alliance building, and digital activism.
Furthermore, traditional civil society organizations and private sector associations have an enormous responsibility to raise awareness on human rights. They should continue contributing to the provision of civic education, implementing advocacy campaigns, lobbying and promoting new laws, providing legal training and services, strengthening the capacity of officials in the judiciary and law enforcement, as well as monitoring and reporting on the performance of the state in these areas.
In the midst of this restrictive trend, some countries in Africa have undertaken efforts to improve the legal environment for civil society. Mauritius, Botswana, and Cape Verde are Africa’s best examples of good governance. For example, Botswana’s NGO policy promotes an operational environment that recognizes, respects, and preserves the independence, autonomy, and constitutional rights of NGOs.
However, without proper safeguards, enabling legislative frameworks, and deliberate efforts to empower citizens, the space for civil society, even in democratic countries, can easily diminish as pockets of repressive and undemocratic practices continue to manifest. It is evident that the level of awareness and capacity of citizens to assert their civil, political, and socio-economic rights is the bedrock of a thriving democracy. In Africa, increased citizen participation in expanding the boundaries of these rights would fundamentally shift power relations between citizens and their political leadership.
It is imperative, now more than ever, that public and private sector stakeholders step up and harmonize their response to the threat of closing space. However, doing so effectively requires going beyond reactive, national-level efforts to beat back restrictive measures. What is needed in Africa are grassroots efforts to empower, mobilize, and grow constituencies for human rights before the next crisis or challenge to civic space emerges.
Charles Kojo Vandyck is a social justice advocate who works to strengthen civil society and citizens’ participation in development processes.