Citizen participation and the promotion of democratic governance in Africa

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    In an evolving environment, African citizens are increasingly able to effect change by influencing and reshaping governance processes but this transformative mobilisation is not without challenges. 

    Keeping leaders in check: opportunities and constraints

    In October 2014 in Burkina Faso, an uprising led to the ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power. Brewing since early 2013 and heightened in the wake of the 2015 presidential election, the uprising was triggered by the national parliament’s attempt to amend the constitution and remove the presidential term limit. The crisis fed on past governance and accountability challenges raised by the unresolved killing of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 and the hunger riots that spread in the region a decade later. It illustrates the increasing role organised citizenry can play in rearranging national governance institutions and processes in Africa. In South Africa, such organisation led to intense scrutiny of the use of public funds to lavishly upgrade President Jacob Zuma’s private home. In Nigeria, popular mobilisation continues to demand the liberation of over 200 school girls abducted by the extremist group Boko Haram. In Burkina Faso, as well as in South Africa and Nigeria, citizens have resolved to impose pressure on their leaders by demanding accountability for the delivery of long-expected goods and services including democracy, social and economic justice, and peace and security. In an increasingly interconnected world, marked by an international movement towards widely shared information, and greater group and individual engagement and solidarity, citizen participation offers renewed opportunities to strengthen democracy, accountability and the rule of law. In Africa, this renewed participation is made possible by a relatively conducive normative and institutional environment. It is also facilitated by improved socio-economic conditions such as higher rates of education enrolment and access to healthcare. As a result, citizens have called on national and regional institutions to account for their role in preventing and addressing old and new governance and security challenges posed by unconstitutional changes of government, inequitable share of national wealth, poor social service delivery and the rise of violent extremism which can lead to greater democratic governance throughout the continent. Citizens have also been able to counter poor governance practices perpetuated by the monopolisation of power, control over national resources by ruling elites, and the marginalisation of groups including women and youth, who still constitute Africa’s largest component of the population. As Africa prepares for several high risk elections this year in countries including Burundi, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan, organised citizens can play a critical role in advocating for consensual and inclusive electoral processes that can ensure peaceful, free, fair and credible elections. In contexts where the need to restore stability and constitutional order, and consolidate democratic gains in post-crisis nations, strongly competes with factors like tight timeframes, social tensions and insecurity, citizen initiatives such as civil society situation rooms in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, and efforts to broaden national dialogue processes in CAR, Sudan and South Sudan, including by advocating for increased women’s participation in ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts, are additional strategies to influence ongoing governance processes. However, citizen mobilisation to advance democratic governance is not without its challenges. Mutual and growing distrust deepens the gap between citizens and their leaders. Persistent repression and the manipulation of laws and public institutions for political purposes regularly attempt to stifle perceived opposition. Moreover, for civil society organisations to effectively contribute to improving governance in Africa, their own issues of capacity and resources, as well as competition, internal governance, representation and legitimacy must be addressed. In several countries, the co-existence of local and international non-governmental organisations – with the latter offering better employment conditions – often leads to a local “brain-drain” that deprives national and community-based organisations of much needed capacities and resources. This loss of expertise and undue competition with better resourced international organisations also have the potential to negatively impact local civil society’s role as their communities change agents. In addition, in countries where non-governmental organisations receive substantial financial support from partners, their functioning has been in some cases questioned, and issues of increased elitism raise concerns about their legitimacy and representation.

    Regional and international prospects for enhanced citizen participation

    Efforts to promote inclusive and democratic governance in Africa are supported by a growing body of regional and continental norms and institutions, the effective implementation of which has yet to be generalised and sustained. These normative and institutional frameworks acknowledge the critical role civil society organisations, through training, advocacy and monitoring, play in strengthening democracy, governance and the rule of law. Various regional economic communities (RECs) including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Horn of Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have adopted frameworks defining standards in the areas of democratic governance and the rule of law, elections, and human rights and gender equality. Such policies have also been established at continental level, formalised among others by the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance that commits member states to encourage the participation of civil society organisations in efforts to advance political, economic and social governance. Under the general oversight of the Ethiopia-based African Union (AU) Commission and the coordination of the recently established African Governance Architecture, monitoring of these policies’ implementation is ensured by both legal and political mechanisms such as the African Commission and the Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Peer Review Mechanism, and conflict prevention organs including the Peace and Security Council and the Panel of the Wise. Moreover, the forward-looking African Union Agenda 2063, the latest strategy to boost Africa’s development, reaffirms regional leaders’ commitment to overcome the continent’s challenges – which include governance, peace and security; and women’s and youth’s empowerment and participation – to accelerate the continent’s socioeconomic transformation. In practice, regional human rights mechanisms have developed well-established relations with civil society groups and more than 400 human rights organisations have now been granted observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for example. Increased AU attention to potentially violent electoral processes has resulted in the deployment of election observation and monitoring missions to countries preparing and holding elections, which also have the potential to enhance interactions with African citizens and local civil society. Moreover, at the level of the Peace and Security Council, interactions with civil society organisations working in the areas of peace, security and stability in Africa have been facilitated by the implementation of the “Livingston formula”, a mechanism adopted in 2008. Yet, limited and ad hoc civil society engagement in the AU’s governance and peace and security processes sustains the perceived disconnect of continental as well as sub-regional institutions from African citizens that often prevents common understanding of the continent’s challenges and a shared ownership of the regional and continental strategies defined to overcome these challenges. This gap has resulted in the definition of legal and political frameworks without consultation and involvement of civil society, the vast majority of the latter remaining ignorant of developments in both the AU and the RECs. It has also contributed to widening the divide between national elected leaders and their constituencies, in the absence of effective and consistent supra-national governance monitoring systems. In Burkina Faso, no regional or continental pressure prevented the almost two-year escalation that preceded former President Compaoré’s departure, despite proclamations from ECOWAS and the AU of their attachment to democratic governance principles, which include rejecting unconstitutional changes of government and tampering of fundamental laws to contravene constitutional rules of power alternation. The development process of both Agenda 2063 (the framework of which was adopted by AU leaders during their last summit in January 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) and a Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda provided multiple opportunities to engage African citizens and civil society groups in the definition of renewed priorities for human development and socio-economic transformation. At the United Nations, the proposed goals to be adopted by member states during the Special Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2015, particularly Goal 16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, the provision of access to justice for all, and building of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions, offer additional prospects to promote democratic governance, accountability and the rule of law across the continent. Both at the continental and the global levels, these efforts can benefit from greater civil society’s involvement to raise awareness and advocate for these policies at national and sub-regional levels. While these initiatives offer opportunities for African citizens to continue influencing governance processes and demand for greater accountability across the continent, they also provide useful models for better cooperation between national governments and civil society organisations. Mireille Affa’a Mindzie is a Policy Specialist at the Peace and Security Section, UN Women. The views in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the UN Women.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).
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