Enabling Citizens to Expand the Frontiers of Human Rights in Africa

By Charles Kojo Vandyck

The mantra “civic space” is continuing to garner immense popularity on the African continent, especially within human rights communities, as the fundamental rights of citizens are seriously under threat. Citizens’ groups are fighting back to recover and expand civic and political space as they face unparalleled attacks. In Africa, civic space is characterized as a set of universal rules of engagement in an open society that allows citizens to peacefully organize, mobilize, participate, and interact with each other with the objective of influencing and shaping good governance.

Globally, in both self-governing and autocratic states, citizens and their associations face an increasingly repressive and securitized environment, as well as unprecedented attacks on their legitimacy and security. This has particularly occurred through laws, administrative practices, and financial regulations, among other tactics. This situation has galvanized a concerted response by citizens’ groups in both organized and organic variations to mobilize and counter a new wave of restrictions on political engagement.

In April 2017, the CIVICUS Monitor—a cutting-edge research tool developed to share reliable, up-to-date data on the state of civil society freedoms in countries where they are under threat—released civic space ratings for all United Nations (UN) member countries. The data revealed that only three percent of the world’s citizens live in countries with open civic space, while almost one in ten people live in a country with closed civic space, and over a third of people live in countries with repressed civic space. In addition, the data also revealed that the most prominent violators of civic space are found in 20 closed countries, mostly in Africa and Asia.

Worrying Trends

Clearly, there are growing threats on citizens’ freedoms and constraints on civil society operations. These threats have manifested in the following ways within sub-Saharan Africa:

Restrictive laws: Increasingly, domestic laws regulating the activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) are used as tools of repression. An example is the imposition of burdensome registration, licensing, reporting and accounting obligations on CSOs and allowing states to have limitless discretion in sanctioning organizations for compliance failures. In Ethiopia, civil society operations are under heavy surveillance and legislative constraints, affecting their ability to freely operate, particularly for journalists and bloggers. Laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009 and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 constrain the work of civil society. The Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009 restricts foreign funding, which has resulted in many legitimate CSOs closing down. In addition, the Ugandan government has proposed and passed laws, such as the Public Order and Management Act of 2013 and the NGO law in November 2015, that target particular groups and minorities, creating burdensome registration processes.

In South Sudan, the violent conflict has not spared civil society. In their attempt to provide support, CSOs have become easy targets for warring factions. The NGO Bill passed in February 2016 is feared to have further restricted the work of civil society in the country. These restrictions include limiting access to foreign funding, erecting barriers to digital communications, applying arbitrary registration processes, and excessive government oversight.

In Ghana in February 2016, Occupy Ghana, Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana’s Centre for Democratic Development, and other CSOs scuttled the efforts of the government to introduce the Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunication Message Bill popularly known as “the Spy Bill.” The bill was withdrawn because it had the potential to violate the privacy and civil rights of Ghanaian citizens without providing an opportunity for effective remedy. The proposed law would have allowed security agencies to intercept any citizens’ telecommunication messages if there are suspicions that they are involved in any form of organized crime or terrorism.

Government clampdown on public gatherings: Policies and practices imposing restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and association have become commonplace. This has been seen in acts such as the outright banning of demonstrations, use of national security laws to restrict mobilization, crack down on unions, and the militarization of police forces in the name of public order. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), fundamental freedoms including the freedom of assembly and peaceful public demonstrations are increasingly threatened. This is particularly true for CSOs and political opposition groups increasingly frustrated with the delays in the organization of the general elections that will usher in the end of the second and final term of President Joseph Kabila. According to the power-sharing deal that was brokered by the Catholic Church, President Kabila's term was to end in 2016, but the electoral commission cancelled elections citing logistical and financial challenges. Several detainees and political prisoners are languishing in prisons in the DRC for exercising their freedoms of opinion, assembly, and/or peaceful public demonstrations. In the recent past, in The Gambia, the rights of association, expression, and assembly were continually violated. Former President Jammeh and the Former Justice Minister, Edward Gomez, issued televised and broadcasted threats on human rights defenders regularly.

Digital and Internet restrictions: The restriction of freedom of expression in general and online, directly through censorship and intimidation and indirectly through mass surveillance is on the rise. On January 23, 2017, the government of the Republic of Cameroon ordered an Internet blackout after protests against what activists call marginalization of English-speakers. The Internet blackout came after the government outlawed at least two Anglophone groups: Southern Cameroons National Council and the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium and arrested some of their leaders.

Physical harm to human rights activists: There is increased intimidation, stigmatization, and de-legitimization of human rights activists and violent attacks against civil society by religious conservatives, vigilante groups, private sector elements, and other non-state actors. Activists are threatened more than ever in Burundi since the government’s announcement of its intention to maintain power illegally. In 2013, new laws on Public Gatherings and a Press Law were passed. Since then, there have been cases of severe torture, targeted killings, enforced disappearances, abductions, and judicial harassment perpetrated by police operating in complicity with militia Imbonerakure, in particular against journalists, bloggers, and LGBTQI activists.

Infiltration of civil society spaces by government sponsored CSOs and other non-state actors: There is increasing penetration and demobilization of civil society in response to the growing effectiveness of civil society in holding government accountable, exposing vested interests, and documenting human rights violations. This has manifested in the increasing capture of spaces traditionally inhabited by CSOs by private interest groups, lobbyists, government-sponsored NGOs (GONGOs), and corporate social responsibility initiatives, in addition to attempts to discredit CSOs.

This intriguing trend is common among contemporary despots in Africa who find it more strategic to manipulate civic space than to close it. The strategy being deployed is to use state-supported, state friendly organizations to co-opt and crowd-out legitimate and authentic civil society. Many GONGOs operate legally within the not-for-profit environment and compete for funds and join coalitions with the aim of diluting and thwarting the effectiveness of advocacy and policy influencing efforts.

Positively, there have been some noteworthy developments and evidence of civil society fighting back to reclaim its space that can be shared and replicated. In some African countries, civil society groups have mobilized and built alliances to challenge and successfully curtail the promulgation of restrictive laws. For example, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Chapter Four, and other groups challenged Uganda’s homophobic Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014. In addition, in 2014, The Nigeria Network of Non-Governmental Organizations mobilized its member organizations to advocate against the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Bill, which imposes restrictions on foreign funding of CSOs and the NGO Regulatory Agency Bill, which requires project-level approval by government authorities for all CSO operations.

In 2013, in Kenya, CSOs responded to government efforts to limit access to foreign funding by providing evidence of the number of jobs that would be lost and the overall economic importance of the sector. This campaign convinced the majority of legislators and the general public that the restrictions were misguided, and the amendments were withdrawn.

Even though these laudable efforts have contributed to restraining governmental attempts to shrink civil society spaces, the nature and intensity of these threats in many African countries calls for a more continental, interconnected and evidence-based approach.

Proposed Response

Within this context, research, capacity development, and movement building have become essential components to respond to inadequate knowledge and skills among citizens dealing with the risks associated with closing civic space.

Research: Contextual data is an important component to strengthening capacity and advocacy capabilities of citizens within African communities. More country-based research will help develop policy and standard-setting for the protection of freedoms of association, assembly, and expression in Africa. There is the need for more exploratory, field, and in-country research on the underlying triggers and root causes of closing civic space in Africa. In addition, there is the need to critically assess the sustainability and tactics of organic groupings within civil society, specifically social movements, in closing and closed spaces and the mechanisms they utilize to respond.

Capacity development: Developing the capacity of citizens and their groupings with knowledge about their civic and political rights and the current state and the manifestations and triggers of closing civic space has become essential. More support needs to be provided to civil society to facilitate local, national, and regional learning, knowledge generation, and production of methods to effectively respond to closing civic space. The creation and utilization of collaborative learning spaces to share experiences, strategies, and tactics would be an important catalyst for citizens and their associations to fight back and expand civic space on the continent.

Movement building: Africa is experiencing important changes within civil society. Traditional CSOs are looking increasingly ineffective, tired, and out of touch and seem to lack real domestic constituencies and the ability to remain viable without external donor support. More broad-based organic groupings are starting to reinvigorate the civic sphere, with dynamic and fluid new forms of civic organization emerging and gaining a significant presence in political and social debates. Therefore, there is an opportunity to create platforms for social movements and traditional CSOs to collaborate and generate more responsive, broad–based and authentic movements that connect national, regional, continental, and international push back responses and solidarity action.

Future Outlook

The space in which citizens and their associations organize, mobilize, and interact in Africa is rapidly evolving. The future of human rights and fundamental freedoms within the continent will hinge on two critical questions:

  • What needs to be done to ensure that the boundaries of human rights and the operating space for citizens and their formations in Africa are open and democratic?
  • How will the various typologies of civil society coalesce and collaborate to promote and push for the recovery and expansion of human rights in Africa?

The actions taken by citizens’ groupings in the next decade will be critical. Coordinated, multisectoral, and strategic actions need to be taken to educate and empower citizens to counter the various manifestations of closing civic space and enhance the capability of citizens to respond effectively to its associated risks.

Charles Kojo Vandyck is a social justice advocate who works to strengthen civil society and citizens’ participation in development processes.