African leaders must accept that change is inevitable

A three-day continental conference that was convened in Johannesburg, South Africa under the  theme of ‘”Protecting Democracy: Reclaiming Civil Society Space in Africa” challenged stakeholders across the continent to live to the expectations of the citizens and challenged African leaders to realize sooner rather than later that change is inevitable.

The continental forum which was funded by the Trust Africa, Centre for Citizen Participation on African Union, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Southern African Trust and Mindrand Civil Society Support Facility from 21st to 23rd November 2011, sought to reflect upon and discuss challenges of the operating environment of civil society actors in order to craft an effective civil society response and advocacy strategy.

The conference noted that attempts to restrict or close down the space for independent citizen action have risen as governments across the globe formulated and continue to formulate laws, regulations and registration requirements for NGOs and other civic groups.

Southern African dictators

In addition, the conference observed that the ongoing backlash against democracy has been characterized by a pronounced shift from outright repression of democracy, human rights and civil society activists and groups to more subtle government efforts to restrict space in which civil society, especially democracy – oriented groups and citizens operate.

They also strongly observed stark inequalities, poverty, marginalization and the trend whereby the local ruling elite integrates itself into and works in cahoots with the global elite system. However, they delegates challenged that civil society and the citizenry have been the bedrock for the struggle against colonialism and other forms of oppression.

Representatives to the continental forum were drawn from civil society organizations, policy experts, scholars, individual activists working on human rights, democracy and governance, representatives from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, representatives of the African Union and its organs, international non government organizations and donors. Malawi was represented by Benedicto Kondowe, the Executive Director of the Civil Society Education Coalition. In total 15 countries were represented.

Participating in a televised panel discussion on ETV channel 144 under the theme ‘CSOs Dialogue with Pan African Institutions, Kondowe challenged representatives of the African Union to live to the expectations of the African people.

The notion and belief that the African Union is a ‘club of states’ defeats the constitutive act of the AU as a body or platform for the people. In addition, Kondowe argued that it is surprising that the body that seeks to defend its people appears to behave as a cocoon for tyrannical leaders at the expense of their people. In the spirit of the AU constitutive act, Kondowe called upon governments to ensure that human rights and democracy aren’t only enjoyed but also lived and experienced.

‘African Leaders who believe that Africa is the same; those who think that African people are idle to accept tyranny in 21st century, are  bent to face their own mistakes of miscalculating the historical unfolding that has become so eminent in Africa. African people in many countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Seiraleone, Zimbabwe, and now Senegal and Malawi have chosen to defend their rights in order to create hope for the generation to come’, said Kondowe.

He reiterated that a circumstance where the media is attacked by party zealots in full view of the police who have the mandate to protect citizens is not only worrying but also a sign of lawlessness. African leaders who are geared towards suppressing democracy, human rights and the people’s wishes must realize that change is inevitable and is taking root.

Take note: Even the West has failed to suppress change as people who are driving this change by themselves are more determined to live by it. Change has come and is with us, and those who lead must accept or face it, he concluded.

At the same conference, a communiqué was signed calling for an end to the Senegalese oppressive regime. Members demanded a stop to a crackdown on civil society and oppression of the citizens. In the spirit of solidarity, they challenged the AU to stop playing hide and seek, and treating tyrannical leaders with kid gloves. The delegates observed that it was against the aspirations of the Africans to have a continental body that is failing to acknowledge the urgency of collective action against oppression when countries like Zimbabwe, Senegal and Malawi are turning into lawlessness; when leaders chose to relegate human rights and wage war against their own people through poor economic and political decisions that leave them with lost hope.

Furthermore, members challenged Western countries for attaching aid to gay rights which they said doesn’t only question the normative intent of aid but also makes the said group more vulnerable especially in oppressive regimes. The conference felt that the basis of profiling gay rights in aid discourse lacked substance and raises questions about their agenda. In this context, they urged the Western countries to desist from being selective in their aid agenda.

The representatives of the AU and its organs admitted that the body requires reforms in order to better represent the interests and aspirations of the African people. The members also bemoaned weak engagement between member states, civil society and citizens to advance the agenda of the AU. For this reason, they acknowledged the need for effective engagement mechanisms at different levels to promote human rights, transparency and accountability, and quality public service delivery which are crucial for poverty eradication.

Some of the recommendations made included:
·    Opening up debate on statutes of regional and continental bodies in so far as CSOs participation is concerned including Challenging the accreditation requirements, eligibility criteria of regional and continental bodies, particularly at AU level in favour of broad-based, transparent and people-friendly mechanisms

·    Mobilising regional and continental wide support mechanism for human rights defenders, including solidarity networks, strategic service support and support fund, where possible.

·    Use of legal systems (national, regional) including constitutional challenges to reclaim the space of citizens and civil society. This should entail challenging laws or statutes that stifling freedom of association, assembly, and speech and expression

·    Engaging AU to challenge unnecessary restrictions on freedom of movement within the region. For this, a resolve was made to undertake a continental free movement of persons; to challenge VISA regime and its costs implications, including other impediments such as border problems, corruption, and restrictive migration regimes within the countries.

·    Enhancing civil society capacity, legitimacy, credibility and accountability to constituencies and target groups.

·    Challenging and petition AU to remain steadfast in its resolve to making the body a people’s union so that rights and interest of the citizens are expeditiously protected in oppressive regimes and war torn areas.

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