Africa’s liberators should embrace civil society as an ally

Governments across Africa are clamping down on dissent, hiding their secrets and attacking the funding base of their critics. And it seems that those who fought hardest for freedom, are now those least convinced by the virtue of freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Despite numerous international commitments to protect civic space, evidence from around the world suggests that conditions are getting worse for civil society. Our annual stocktake, The State of Civil Society 2013, published by CIVICUS,catalogues a litany of threats to civil society: from outright violence against civic leaders, to legal restrictions on civil society organisations and dramatic funding cuts.

The situation in many African countries is particularly acute, especially where political movements that once fought for freedom and prosperity, having assumed power are now undermining both aims by trying to clampdown on civil society. What they ignore at their peril is that, while solidarity and unity are crucial during liberation struggles, debate and dissent are vital to promote both vibrant democracies and economic prosperity.

From South Africa to Rwanda, we are told that “young democracies” or countries with a “fragile peace” could easily be destabilised if the government were to loosen its grip on civic space. In Zimbabwe, the activities of local civil society organisations are attacked because they are allegedly plotting regime change on behalf of foreign governments. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the state has the power to de-register a civil society organisation without reason and without the intermediation of a court of law.

Elsewhere, governments are using their legal system to block funding. In Ethiopia, groups that receive more than 10 per cent of funding from foreign sources cannot undertake advocacy or human rights work.

In North Africa, much of the euphoria and optimism of the Arab Spring has been lost amid the chaos, corruption and clampdowns on civil society that have ensued in that region. In Egypt, proposed new laws on the registration and funding of civil society organisations risk taking that country back to the dark days of repressive control under Hosni Mubarak. So much for the Arab Spring empowering citizen action.

The potential of arguably the most liberating tool for activism – the internet and social media – is under threat from new restrictions that clampdown on the ability of citizens to mobilise or hold governments to account.

The Johannesburg-based Association for Progressive Communications estimates that 30 per cent of global internet users face restrictions on accessing content. The internet is a space where citizens increasingly express and debate their views, publish real-time information and facilitate offline protest and activism.

But aware that social media has mobilised citizen action, governments are in turn placing greater restrictions on technology or taking action against those using it. Over 45 countries around the world have imposed some kind of online restrictions.

Other states are leaving internet access open but are monitoring for dissent, using social media to create ‘Autocracy 2.0’: allowing freedom of expression online but rounding up, jailing and physically attacking people who dare to disagree.

The real danger is that the contagion effect will lead to copycat measures where one country justifies its restrictive measure on what its neighbour has done, creating a slippery slope towards a new regressive set of international norms, that go against universal principles guaranteeing civic freedoms.

Rather than seeing civil society as a threat, these governments should see it as a fundamental building block of a stable democracy that needs to be nurtured not over-regulated. Of course, governments have the right to limit anti-democratic acts or hate-speech but this should be done through the general legal framework rather than specific measures to limit citizen participation.

Africa’s liberators, now in government, should also recognise that a vibrant civil society supports economic development. Community-based organisations can deliver grounded and cost-effective services, helping educate and skill-up people to take advantage of financial opportunities. In many countries, civil society organisations are also big employers in their own right, and a new generation of social entrepreneurs across the continent are coming up with innovative and profitable ways of tackling intractable social problems. And, as we have seen in South Africa, it is the social activists of yesterday – who gained valuable leadership, organisational and communication skills during the struggle – who are the business and political leaders of today.

When citizens, and consumers, feel empowered to shape the societies around them rather than live in fear of reprisals, they invent, they invest and they spend. If more is not done to promote an enabling environment for civil society, Africa’s efforts to reduce poverty, tackle inequality and resolve conflict will be fatally undermined.

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian  on 4 May 2013.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Danny has been Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the world alliance for citizen participation, since January 2013. Please send feedback using the form below or via Twitter and Facebook.

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