by David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead, CIVICUS
The introduction of multi-party politics in most African countries in the 1990s led to a blossoming of civil society organisations focusing on different issues affecting the lives of citizens. However, the growth and development of civil society in most African countries, particularly those who work on issues considered sensitive by the state, elicited restrictions from the state.
Global civil society alliance CIVICUS defines civil society as the arena outside of the family, the state and the market which is created by individual and collective actions, organisations and institutions to advance shared interests. One of the main objectives of CIVICUS is to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world.
A look at the ratings on the CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks civic space dynamics across the world, may elicit feelings of despair on the state of civic space on the continent. Ten countries are rated closed by the Monitor – meaning there is complete closure in law and practice of civil society. Overall, restrictions on civic space in Africa are growing, and this downward trend is being precipitated by various laws, policies, physical attacks, threats and vilification of those who stand up for the rights of citizens.
While government officials and security and intelligence services are the main perpetrators of restrictions, non-state actors including armed groups and the private sector also carry out attacks. While current trends broadly show that restrictions are on the rise, the pushback from civil society and citizens, solidarity across countries, and changes in political dynamics in some countries indicate that civil society is making great strides in addressing some of these restrictions.
We look at some of the challenges facing civil society below and the opportunities that exist for civil society to fight back.
Challenges faced by civil society
Civil society groups that work on human rights, corruption, governance, environmental, land and indigenous rights, and activists that raise concerns over the actions and policies of governments, continue to experience a backlash from states. Aside from the fact that those working on specific thematic areas are likely to experience more restrictions, attacks on civil society and citizens increase during politically-sensitive periods like elections and during protests over issues affecting citizens. Over the last few years, human rights violations have increased before, during and after elections in Burundi, DRC, Gabon, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia. We are likely to see restrictions continue during future elections and more so in countries where incumbents amend constitutions to extend their stay in power.
While the constitutions of most states guarantee the respect for fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of association, assembly and expression, one of the most common strategies used by states to target civil society is through the promulgation of laws and policies that inhibit the ability of civil society to function effectively. In recent years, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zambia have promulgated, or are in the process of passing laws and policies, that restrict rather that enable civic space. In addition to laws, states also subject civil society organisations to smear campaigns, calling them agents of western powers or members of political opposition parties. Aside from these forms of public vilification, the premises of civil society organisations are broken into and sensitive information or reports stolen. This form of attack on civil society groups aims to intimidate and force them to self-censor or stop their activities altogether.
In extreme circumstances, human rights defenders and representatives of civil society have been assassinated. This has happened recently in South Africa, DRC, and Kenya. Usually, these assassinations are preceded by threats and smear campaigns. Furthermore, as citizens, journalists and civil society organisations increasingly use the internet and social media to share information, so governments around the world have contested their ability to use these platforms, using internet shutdowns as a means of social control and censorship. CIVICUS monitored at least nine African countries – Cameroon, the DRC, Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Somaliland, South Sudan, and Togo – that shut down the internet in 2017. The length of these shutdowns varied from a few hours to several months.
Civil society pushing back
In the recent past, countries such as Gambia, Angola, and Zimbabwe have experienced changes in their leadership, and these changes have provided opportunities for civil society to play an increasing role in governance issues.
At the same time, citizens continue to use innovative methods to raise awareness of the challenges facing them and call for reform. During the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Ethiopian athlete, Feyisa Lilesa, crossed his hands over his head in a symbolic gesture when he finished the men’s marathon and made the same gesture when he was presented with his silver medal. His gesture was a cry for justice and a protest against the brutal repression and marginalisation of the Oromo people by the government of Ethiopia, with the gesture a replica of those made by protesters in Oromia.
Uganda activist, Stella Nyanzi, uses unconventional means in a conservative society to criticise the actions of the government and call for reforms. In Zimbabwe, after more than a decade of violence against human rights defenders and civil society organisations, and at a time when most formal civil society groups had resorted to self-censorship under the Robert Mugabe regime, activist Pastor Evan Mawarire galvanised thousands to protest against socio-economic and political challenges Zimbabweans faced through his #ThisFlag movement.
Social movements and pro-democracy movements continue to expand their reach in several countries on the continent and their loose and informal structures enable them to continue mobilising citizens and call for reforms, even when some of their leaders are targeted or arrested by the state.
In closed, repressed, restricted and obstructed contexts civil society and citizens continue to carry out advocacy at regional and international human rights bodies. In December 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the protection of human rights defenders, enjoining states to hold perpetrators of violence towards human rights defenders accountable and release those who are in detention. The resolution recognised the role of human rights defenders in advancing economic, social and cultural rights, and called on businesses to respect the rights of human rights defenders to assemble, associate and express themselves in a peaceful manner.
In the same light, in October 2017 the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted guidelines on the Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa. The guidelines provide guidance to states and serve as a reference for civil society on the protection and implementation of the rights of association and assembly in Africa.
David Kode is the Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance that has members and partners in 170 countries. He has published several articles, op-eds and book chapters on issues related to civic space and the state of civil society in different countries around the world.