Africa: Civic Space is at Risk, But There is Hope

The unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russia has shocked the world. But, should we have really been surprised. The trend toward autocratic leadership that cares nothing about the basic principles of democracy or its citizens has been on the rise for years. In January the takeover of the government by the military in Burkina Faso added to the record of coup d’états set in 2021 – the most in the entire 21st century.

According to V-Dem, the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. Dictatorships now harbour 70% of the world population – 5.4 billion people.

The lesson to be learned here is that no one country is safe from these alarming trends – not in Europe, Asia, the Americas or Africa.

No one is immune

The sad news is that even countries which are part of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative where members commit to promoting ideals of open government and empower citizen to participate in policymaking, haven’t been immune to this worrying trend

Australia, for instance, has been called out for not modernising its access to information laws. The UK on the other hand has been criticised for not fully including the public in designing its OGP commitments in improving freedom of information and increase transparency

Overall, even as majority of commitments made by the OGP members related with freedom of expression and/or freedom of association, civic space commitments related to freedom of assembly accounted for only five percent

One of the narratives peddled is that democracy is being snubbed because it has failed to meet the expectations of ordinary people. Others have suggested that if only the perceived exemplars of democracy, mainly the Western countries, would do better, things would have been different

There is hope

Many also talk about the causes – toxic levels of polarization, the increasing use of misinformation to shape domestic and international opinion, significant deterioration in freedom of expression to just begin. I want to suggest one possible solution; fully citizen involvement in decision making

Those who have realised this truth are already reaping the benefits, albeit at a slow pace and at a small scale.

Like in Indonesia, where after several other platforms for citizens to air their complaints fail, a local government in West Sumbawa sought to try a new and innovative forum called Yasinan which has simplified ways for citizen to air their grievances and then work together with the local government to find solutions for them.

To make it even more transparent, the exchange of grievances from citizens and responses from their representatives, which is usually attended by a wide variety of local leaders, police chief, military district commanders, civil society organisations and others, is broadcasted LIVE on a radio station to reach even those who couldn’t attend the meeting.

Unsurprisingly, this seven-year-old initiative has been hailed for not only increasing openness among the public but also accountability among public servants

The genius of these kinds of initiatives is not only in their innovation but also that many of them are being tested and implemented at a local level. That’s where the citizens interact with their representatives at a closer proximity. It is at this level where citizens directly experience shortage of classrooms for their children or lack of medicine at a health centre for their ailing elderlies and many other needs that matter the most to them.

It’s for exactly these reasons that this year the OGP will open doors to up to 50 local jurisdictions to allow local governments an opportunity to interact, learn from each other and hold one another accountable for the progress of democracy.

In the words of Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz in their Freedom House report ‘Democracy Under Siege’  that democracy is beleaguered but not defeated. The challenge for the champions of open government is to not only intentionally implement commitments to be more transparent, inclusive, responsive and accountable but to also recognize the opportunity that lies at local government to promote and benefit from deeper freedoms for ordinary citizens to speak up.

Aidan Eyakuze is Co-Chair of the OGP Steering Committee and Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa