Arusha. There was an almost unanimous agreement here today among pro-democracy actors from across the African continent on the role played by governments in suppressing people’s fundamental rights, with the state identified as the chief human rights violator in the continent.
Pro-democracy actors have convened in Arusha for a two-day Drive for Democracy conference with the goal of renewing and reshaping the democratization agenda in Africa. Thursday was the last day of the conference that started on July 20, 2022, at the MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation (MS-TCDC).
Speaking during a panel discussion themed ‘the Plight of Africa’s pro-democracy actors,’ discussants acknowledged that while there are other violators of people’s fundamental rights in African states, governments there are the “chief harassers.”
Pascaline Kangethe is ActionAid International’s Regional Supporting Lead for Africa who explained that pro-democracy actors in Africa go through a number of mistreatments, many of them being state-sanctioned or perpetrated with the blessings of those in power.
“Pro-democracy actors are being threatened on a daily basis,” said Kangethe who has over sixteen years of development experience. “The threats they’re facing have been so consistent that some of them have stopped going out in public altogether or had to seek refuge outside their countries.”
She gave an example of how authorities in Kenya weaponise the country’s taxman against people critical of the government and the role of the NGO board there in limiting the works of NGOs by sometimes denying NGOs workers from outside the East African nation to go there for works.
“But many of these actors have chosen to go on with their works despite all these odds,” said Kangethe to the participants who came from every corner of the African continent. “Many of them tell me during my conversations with them that this is their work; that this is a mission they have chosen for their lives.”
Themed Fighting the Democratic Backslide Through Renewed Action and Solidarity, the Africa Drive for Democracy conference is taking place against the backdrop of the backsliding of liberal democratic norms not only in Africa but also in other parts of the world.
According to recent findings by Freedom House, for example, out of 54 African countries, only 12 could be considered ‘free’ over the last 15 years while only seven per cent of the continent’s population live in such societies.
West Africa alone has recorded three military takeovers this year in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. There have also been attempted coups in Niger and Guinea-Bissau. Coups and insurrections have also occurred in Sudan and Algeria.
Pro-democracy actors across the continent are expected to stop this wave of democratic degeneration but unfortunately, most of them operate in what Mr Washington Katema, the Executive Director of the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, called “crime scenes.”
Katema, who has over fifteen years of working in pro-democracy activism in Africa, identified Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as “the worst” places in Southern Africa for pro-democracy actors to work, saying activists there have been treated as enemies by their governments, making their works very difficult.
“Civic spaces have been dangerously shrinking in these countries,” said Katema at the conference. “Civic space is the engine of citizens’ participation in governance issues, its shrinking is a huge blow to any serious pro-democracy works in those countries.”
Margaret Mliwa is a program officer with the Ford Foundation’s Eastern Africa office in Nairobi, Kenya. She told the conference’s participants that a number of pro-democracy actors in the region have been asking for support from the organization lately, needing a place where they can “cool down” and “rethink.”
“With social media now, we have also observed an increase in the mental harassment of pro-democracy actors in Africa,” said Mliwa who has over 20 years of experience working in social justice movements. “The problem almost doubles for women.”
To respond to these challenges, some participants suggested that there is a need to build a broad member-based movement that will be difficult for governments to kill with a single blow.
“We need to focus more on building a critical mass of citizens instead of a critical mass of voters,” Katema, for instance, advised. “We need a critical mass of citizens whose work will be holding the government to account on a daily basis. This is key to building a strong democratic culture.”