The liberation era struggles of the 1950s on the African continent has seen the move from colonial era and one-party dictatorships to a semblance of multiparty democracy and regular free and fair elections in many countries. Accompanying this has been the emergence of relatively vibrant and organised civil society formations, acting as the vanguard for accountability and activism, trying to hold governments accountable for their actions or the lack of them.
The growth of vibrant civil society has been against the backdrop of failed neoliberal economic policies and, an increase in foreign funded transnational criminal activity such as Boko Haram in West Africa and Al Shabab in the Horn of Africa. These conditions together with the uprisings and insurrections in the Maghreb that dislodged long time dictators, have sent shock waves and fear into many African Big Men whose regimes are bent on, and preoccupied with, survival and regime consolidation.
These regimes see a strong and vibrant civil society and increased citizen agency as a threat to their grip on power. They have responded with the enactment of multiple draconian pieces of legislation to cage and control the otherwise vibrant civil society organisations (CSOs) – a development which is a negation of any progressive civil liberties articulated in many of these country’s constitutions. In consequence, these regimes strengthen and equip the Police and other security apparatus not to keep law and order, but to clamp down on any voices of dissent. They militarise and securitise all state institutions as a way of sowing seeds of fear and, continuing the oppressive politics of their colonial masters.
Africans have witnessed a drastic curtailment of the freedom of association, assembly and expression in far too many countries across the continent. The shrinking political and civic space, heightened levels of corruption and growing levels of inequality are the markers of post liberation democracy on the African continent and, some would argue in many parts of the world too. We are experiencing many restrictions on political space, the erosion of women’s rights, rampant corruption that aids illicit financial outflows, natural resource devastation, and increasing threats to peace and security. Regular livelihoods are often reduced to marginal existence – not a peaceful, prosperous and healthy Africa – we have therefore become focused on mere survival when we should be working on the aspiration to thrive and fulfill our human potential.
Shrinking political and civic space manifests in many ways; in Uganda, the Public Order Management Act, Anti-Terrorism Act and NGO Act are intended to constrain civic space; in Burundi, the closure of independent media houses points to shrinking political and civic space across the continent; in Zimbabwe social medial platforms were closed down during demonstrations spurred by the #ThisFlag movement as they were in Uganda, during the recent elections. Other manifestations of narrowing civic space include inter alia intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture and incarceration of activists.
Additionally, governments are increasingly clamping down on sources of funding for CSOs under the guise of curbing terrorism and money laundering. Most organisations working on human rights, advocacy and accountability issues are blacklisted as anti-government, creating the sense of fear for their staff. Attempts to “plant” government agents within CSOs, creates a sense of mistrust among staff further undermining the work of these CSOs. There are also attempts to buy-off CSO activists by offering them lucrative government employment as a way of silencing them.
Despite clampdowns and restrictions on civic space, activism along with political consciousness is growing. There is an increase in citizen agency in many parts of the continent with readiness to challenge bad leadership. The youth movement is growing out of frustrations from unemployment, but also more energised by the urge to connect globally as agents of change. Social media platforms continue to pose new challenges to regimes that want to hide information and human rights abuses.
The process that started out as the Africa Civil Society Centre, widened into the Africa Civil Society Initiative and since August 2016 is known as Africans Rising is the result of a rigorous bottom-up series of on and offline consultations and dialogues between and amongst social movements, CSOs, peoples and popular social justice movements, intellectuals, artists, sports people, cultural activists and others, across the African Union (AU) determined regions of the continent including the African Diaspora.
Finding resonance with Africans Rising and in other ways, Africans are determined to rid themselves of what Hugh Masakela calls the “cheap imitations of our oppressors” and hit the reset button as reflected in the Kilimanjaro Declaration – the founding charter of Africans Rising.
This blog is the ninth in our series on the future of civic space. Do you want to help secure the rights of citizens across the globe? Sign the Civic Charter today!