Why is Africa’s Civil Society under Siege?
Oxfam’s Ross Clarke (Governance and Legal Adviser )
After years on the margins of the mainstream development agenda, addressing civic space is finally getting the attention it deserves. If the number of policy initiatives, conferences and campaigns is any indication, creating the conditions for democratic participation, citizen activism and effective civil society organisations (CSOs) is again a priority of several donors and agencies.
In large part the renewed emphasis on civic space reflects a worsening situation on the ground, especially across the African continent. As Oxfam and CCP-AU’s new Policy Brief — ‘Putting Citizen Voice at the Centre of Development: Challenging Shrinking Civic Space across Africa’ (here in French) — makes clear, 29 restrictive laws have been introduced in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2012. The impact of these laws (well documented by Civicus, ICNL and others) is that mobilising around specific causes, speaking out and holding governments to account is getting increasingly difficult and dangerous. Even the African Union (AU), so long a positive example of civil society participation, and despite the commitment to being people-driven in its Constitutive Act, has recently restricted CSO attendance at AU Summits.
The new brief highlights two main drivers behind the crackdown. The first is
the impact of the security agenda and efforts to combat violent extremism. Increasingly, governments across the region have reacted to real and perceived security threats by asserting more control and restrictions over civic space. CSOs have been viewed with particular suspicion as potential cover for extremist groups, despite a lack of evidence to back this up. Vaguely worded laws allow police to disperse peaceful protests and funding is becoming all the more difficult as banks are increasingly reluctant to channel funds given perceived security risks. While safeguarding security is paramount, it is easily misused as an excuse to target CSOs or stifle independent voices.
The second driver is the overwhelming priority placed on national unity and economic progress over space for citizen participation. In the ‘developmental state’ critical voices are often cast as a threat to national interests. When activists criticise government policy, they are often labelled anti-development or politically motivated. Yet without critical voices how can we speak truth to power and hold them accountable?
More broadly, the rise of China and the economic progress of Ethiopia and Rwanda offer an alternative — and in some eyes more effective — approach to delivering national prosperity, building social cohesion and defining citizen-state relations. As European and U.S. democracies struggle on economic and political fronts, do they still represent an ideal to be aspired to? The answer has become far more complicated in recent years.
Yet tackling vested interests and resolving the continent’s most intractable challenges — persistent poverty and rising income inequality, political capture of state resources, youth unemployment, adapting to a changing climate, the list goes on — requires independent civic actors to be actively engaged in crafting and achieving solutions. Governments and the private sector cannot do it alone.
We are not arguing that CSOs are faultless or should be above scrutiny. The paper highlights the importance of civil society putting its own house in order. Reasonable regulation is legitimate, necessary and can enhance effectiveness and accountability in the sector. But any regulation must not be overly burdensome, driven by political motives or designed to stifle independent voices — and currently that is exactly what is happening in many countries. Above all, civil society must model the change it seeks. This requires greater transparency, accountability and reduced power imbalances between civil society actors.
Addressing closing civic space is not a self-serving exercise focused on Oxfam and our NGO friends. It encompasses the diverse range of activists, unions, social movements, religious and sporting groups that make up a vibrant civil society. Fundamentally, it is about our rights as citizens to participate in public life, whether individually or collectively, voice our interests and concerns, and where necessary be a check on power. These are values worth protecting. If the political shockwaves of 2016 are any indication, protecting the hard won human rights gains of recent decades may depend on it.