Civil society must create respect for democracy and human rights as mainstream popular culture

by Irũngũ Houghton, Executive Director, Amnesty International Kenya

Three incidents in January brought Amnesty International’s 400-page, 159 country report home for me and my work as an NGO leader.

The first was parents Lancer Achieng and Joseph Abanja bravely appearing in a Kisumu court to demand justice for baby Pendo after she was crushed to death in our post-election violence last year. In a Nairobi court, LGBITQ activist citizens sought to strike out sections of our archaic penal code that criminalise intimate same-sex relationships. Lastly, thousands of kilometers away in Florida, students from Stoneman Douglas High School demanded their Congress leaders and the National Rifle Association lobbyists take responsibility for the mass killings of seventeen of their fellow students. Their words, “We refuse to be ignored by those who will not listen. We are not going away”, could apply to all of those involved in the three incidents.

2017 saw both peril and progress for millions of people. Over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled their Myanmar homes for safety in neighboring Bangladesh. A similar number of South Sudanese left one of Africa’s youngest states for Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. Imagine the entire people of Nyeri, Kajiado or Bomet being forced to flee en mass by famine, sexual abuse, and violence. That is what happened to the Rohingya and South Sudanese last year.

Violent clampdowns by Governments also left many dead, injured, tortured or traumatised simply for expressing dissent or their right to expression and assembly within their borders. While the cost of standing up has been expensive for many, 2017 saw new energies in unexpected places.

The #MeToo #TimeIsUp campaigns broke the global silence on sexual harassment in business, entertainment, NGO, religious and Government spaces. American and European citizens directly challenged their Governments’ treatment of Arab and African refugees and migrants. British, Greek and Algerian citizens confronted the silent killer of corruption and public health cuts.

These global trends paint a predictable common future for African leaders and citizens. That future is restless and rebellious societies, unstable states, inequalities, and repression. However, another future is possible if we are willing to confront three inconvenient truths.

As the power of digital information continues to grow over our minds, lives and countries, the toxicity of fake news imperils leaders and citizens alike. Misleading or polarizing each other with lies and half-truths is neither leadership nor citizenship. Fake news may be great for high suspense action movies but will not create safe and dignified societies for all of us.

Civic leaders and human rights defenders must insulate themselves from party and/or Government capture. Political party capture comes at a very deep cost. We choose our targets and our words selectively not based on constitutional principles but on which side we are on. Inevitably, we find ourselves trapped in the crossfire of party hardliners caught in zero-sum politricks and unable to elevate their thinking.

Lastly, too many of us still believe or tolerate the myth that strong autocratic leadership creates regime stability and smooth leadership transitions. The truth is that most autocratic leaders spend their lives in the dizzy pre-occupation of stopping this and pre-empting that. For most of them a more honest tombstone would read, “Here lies a troubled and hyper-tensive failure of a man. Besieged for most of his rule, he had thought he kept his citizens in check, then he watched it all fall apart”.

Trampling on the rule of law and repression breeds instability and new ways of transforming popular dissent are desperately needed. The more courageous and wise of our leaders know this. Only by creating value-based and virtuous conversations and institutions can we create stable and inclusive nations. Even jobs, health, housing and food cannot do this alone. We must find new ways of confronting inequalities, corruption and abuse of office. Until we can create respect for democracy and human rights as mainstream popular culture and boldly inspire our youth to lead us, the rights violations and violence of 2017 will sit out there in our future as well.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in his personal capacity. You can engage him on Twitter @irunguhoughton.

This is the second NGO analysis of my #NGOs4Africa Campaign.


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