Bilal, S., Aggad-Clerx, F. 2015. Rising voices in Africa. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3. April/May 2015.
“Without good, effective governance, Africa’s present strong economic momentum will not be sustained, the rewards will be wasted and tension will increase”, says Mo Ibrahim in his exclusive contribution to this issue of GREAT Insights. Indeed, African citizens, either organised in the form of civil society organisations or mobilising during key moments such as elections or popular uprisings, have become an important feature of the political landscape in Africa over the last few years. Their voices are growing and they are slowly but surely starting to reshape politics and socio-economic factors in their respective countries.
In its 2014 Index of African Governance, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation noted that, despite a noticeable deterioration of the governance situation in some countries, the continent recorded improvement in the overall governance performance. Unlike previous periods, change between 2009 and 2013 was driven by greater participation in democratic processes. This is perhaps not surprising, due to the growing role of citizens and civil society in political processes across the continent, especially around the time of elections.
The right to vote in free and fair elections is a vital component of any democratic process. But it is by far not sufficient, as the road to democratisation remains a difficult and fragile one. The number of ‘constitutional coup d’états’ in Africa has risen over the last years, as leaders sought to introduce constitutional reforms to remain in power. “Even the prophets had successors, you are no exception”, said a banner carried by a protestor during the uprisings in Burkina Faso in 2014. While some countries, such as Burkina Faso recently, were successful in blocking such attempts, others were not. A number of blockages to change continue to exist in some countries, including a lack of social cohesion to support reforms or the persistent dominance of ruling and economic elites who still control power and resources
Ethnicity, personality and regionalism often predominate political debates. Powerful actors increasingly resort to legal tools to stay in power (such as the first-past-the-post system favourable to incumbents) or to close the space for civil society activities. This is another worrying trend in Africa.
To address this challenge, the role of civic freedom, organised citizenry and civil society participation is key in pursuing greater transparency and accountability from authorities and economic actors, as well as promoting social and economic justice. Combining dynamics at national, regional, continental and international levels can be instrumental in that respect. A number of civil society organisations have advocated for the creation of stronger regional spaces for civil society participation, including to challenge the closing space at national level.
The demands from the citizen for change have triggered some institutions to rethink their approaches to governance. The African Union (AU), traditionally known as a ‘club of presidents’, has most recently signaled a significant paradigm shift when it called the different parties in Burkina Faso to respect the demands of the people. This was in sharp contrast to the passive attitude it adopted during the North African uprisings, where it was seen as indecisive. Such shift needs to be consolidated and a number of opportunities could be used to this end; for instance the establishment of the African Governance Architecture (AGA) as a comprehensive governance framework that identified a clear space for civil society or the launch of the post-2015 framework. The dynamism that we have seen over the last few years is the result of a number of factors. The failure in many countries to translate strong economic growth or even democratisation processes into better opportunities and standards of living for all, combined with rising inequality, has triggered citizens concerns and protests. To sustain interest and avoid relapse, it would be important to ensure that better governance delivers tangible results. This is all the more important for vulnerable or discriminated groups, such as young people and women, as well as marginalised economic groups on the continent. Improving governance standards in strategic sectors, such as agriculture, land, mining or finance, and improving citizenry participation in policy processes should be some of the priorities.
Addressing the challenge of the closing space for civil society is particularly critical for development. Indeed, as pointed out by Mukundi Wachira in this issue (p.6), “as the African rising narrative gains traction, the centrality and primacy of the drivers of that rise – the African citizen – continue to dominate debates on sustainable development”. Furthermore, a restricted space will undermine the implementation of important continental and international frameworks, such as the Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 16 for instance, which speaks to issues of responsive institutions and good governance, would require an active civil society at country level. Supporting civil society organisations, especially from within the continent and also by international partners is therefore necessary.
This edition of GREAT Insights covers these issues related to the rising voice of African citizens. We have invited different authors to reflect on the relevance of the reforms being undertaken, their impact on African citizens, the remaining challenges and what this means for the international community as it embarks on an ambitious post-2015 development agenda.
Dr San Bilal (Editor), Head of Economic Transformation and Trade Programme, ECDPM
Faten Aggad-Clerx (Guest editor), Head of Africa’s Change Dynamics Programme, ECDPM
Follow us on Twitter: @SanBilal1 – @Fatenclerx
This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).