Active Citizenship for an Effective Development Process in Africa

This is the summary of a paper I presented today 1st September 2021 at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, during the conference on “Good governance, participatory democracy, and social justice: Civil society as an agent of change and innovation in Africa”

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen

My main point for the 10 minutes I have, is to demonstrate how citizens’ participation in governance, which includes accountability from power holders, could make a big difference, and shorten our journey to development, reduces corruption, and obviously reduce inequality and poverty.

I will quickly look at it from a national angle to regional and continental perspectives and I will conclude with a few recommendations on how we can remove obstacles to active citizens’ participation.  

The realization of an integrated, peaceful, and economically developed Africa needs the full involvement of all segments of our society. It cannot be left in the hands of the only politicians holding office.

The conduct of national, regional, and pan African affairs should make room, both institutionally and informally for the participation of citizens as individual and their formations, in groups.

Our continental Agenda 2063 itself, recognizes that people’s ownership and mobilization are crucial,… as critical enablers to concretize Africa’s aspirations. So, for a prosperous and democratic society, the state, and a well-organized civil society should be seen as the two sides of the same coin. They complement each other. Civil society must be seen as a reservoir of social capital, capable of contributing into all aspects of national, regional and continental development.

The evidence is clear. We have seen it ! Citizens’ engagement with their leaders improves the delivery of inclusive, accessible, and responsive public service. These include the provision of healthcare, safe water, quality education and decent jobs etc…. Today, looking at the challenges that our continent is facing, supporting democratic accountability and participation towards, a people-driven development has never been more urgent.

If we exclude or limit citizens from policy development, we will experience poor political and policy accountability mechanisms. Poor accountability leads to service failure, abandoned projects, waste, institutional inefficiencies and, will further exacerbate poverty…. That is why, my organization, the ONE campaign focuses its entire actions on citizens participation, active citizenship!!!

We identify recruit, train, mobilize and provide platforms for grassroots campaigners and their formations, to engage with political leaders and policymakers in order to catalyse change.

The influence of civil society in national and continental policy making does not diminish the relevance of governmental or inter-governmental processes, rather, citizens’ actions enhance and inform it.

If we look at the area of human security, for example, because of their immersion within the society, civil society organizations have vocation, and the ability to contribute to peace building initiatives and social cohesion.

In conflict affected area, Civil Society has shown its capacity to organise the collection, analysis, and evaluation of first-hand information, allowing the identification of the sources of potential tensions as well as emerging conflicts.

While traditional conflicts were well understood by diplomats and specialists in political science, addressing adequately new conflicts, requires much more on-the-ground understanding, new skills of social and cultural analysis, the active involvement of communities and their leaders, links to vulnerable groups, and new ways of working. Most of the time, civil society organisations have unique capacities in all those areas.

At national level

Unfortunately, we have been facing a reality in which, too many countries on the continent, have adopted and continue to adopt national legislations reducing civic space. There are increased control and undue restrictions on the formation and the activities of CSOs.

Some governments perceive CSOs as economic saboteurs, inciters of violence, or, an extension of political opposition parties or even, agents of foreign interest.

The reality is that since 2012, new restrictive CSOs laws have been adopted in more than 30 countries in Africa. Limited civic space, restricts the ability of citizens to participate in public life, and speak truth to power. This constrains one of society’s primary tools to prevent political capture of the state and its resources.

Of course, promoting civic space does not tacitly imply that civil society should be unregulated and free from government oversight. We are not saying that. On the contrary, reasonable regulation is legitimate, necessary and can enhance effectiveness and accountability in the sector. Yet regulations must not be overly burdensome, driven by political motives, and design to shot down independent voices.

Africa has a proud history of civic activism.  social movements and activists were a vital component of most independence struggles, and, civil society was a driving force behind state formation and state building.

This should continue as we face new challenge. Unfortunately, CSOs are under threat!!! Especially at national level.

At Regional Level

Civil society and coalitions that are targeting regional and pan African institutions have an important role to play as a complement and a backup to national groups. They are less exposed to risks compared to national CSOs and in many cases they can really contribute, influence and pressurize member states through regional and continental bodies on regional policy issues.

While this is important, we know that, the actual implementation of decisions happens at country level, Fundamental changes in people’s life happens at national level so we should mobilize, and regroup to stand strongly against any shrinking or even shifting of civic space in our countries.   

It is then important that the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities step in, this unfortunate trend.

So, what can we do?

At continental and regional levels, we do have a strong normative framework!

The entire transformation of the OAU to the AU is justified by the importance of citizens’ participation. Other Regional bodies such as ECOWAS, SADC, EAC etc, give ways legally to CSOs participation and constitutions of many member states recognize that organized civil society is a legitimate and authentic expression of fundamental human rights…. But then, laws being made on political consideration come to mess things up…

A few suggestions:

  1. We need to first, push for a moratorium of restrictive CSO law in Africa, and bring the debate to a regional and pan Africa levels….
  2. A few progressive member states should table the issue in the regional debate then take it to continental discussion: South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Zambia, Nigeria etc… could play a leading role. There are reasons to do so…. We cannot reach the Africa we want, the Africa that is described in the Agenda 2063…. We can’t get there without a genuine citizens participation…  
  3. I know there have been a number of analysis of existing restrictive laws but I believe we need an independent continental taskforce to be commissioned by the AU to look at the situation, review laws and regulations that affect civil society organizations and make a report to the Assembly of Union for a progressive decision.
  4. CSOs on their side need to regroup on this matter and organize…. Not agonize.
  5. I really want to believe that this gathering, the CSO Conference constitute the beginning of a continental revolution to save Civic Space…

I thank you !!!

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