Communiqué: The Role of Civil Society in Shaping A Better Future
The Role of Civil Society in Shaping A Better Future
We, civil society representatives, including activists, youth leaders, women leaders, scholars, NGO leaders, lawyers, media practitioners, and artists from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania convened at MS-TCDC on the 17th and 18th of December 2020 to explore a common understanding of civic space, identify the underlying forces influencing the changing Civic Space, re/imagine the future of Civic Space in East Africa, and reinvigorate our commitment to seek alternative spaces and enhance solidarity.
Civic Space has always been contested. The shared sentiment amongst scholars, activists, captains of industry and other non-state actors is that although there are remarkable intentions to spur development, there is a continuous global deterioration of the democratic ethos, characterized by excessive state restrictions on civic space and the curtailment of liberties and freedoms. This has prompted ongoing dialogue amongst the actors mentioned above and other stakeholders in the East African Community (EAC).
In the understanding that civic Space is “where the government/state does not interfere with citizens’ rights to hold the government/state accountable; it is inclusive and equitable participation in decision making and where citizen’s dignity is respected and valued,” we affirm that:-
- Civic space has shrunk as indicated by, amongst other things, the reduced involvement of civil society in election preparation and monitoring, the deregistration of loose coalitions and prohibition of new coalitions, the lack of people-led civic education, the commoditization of political engagement, increased suspicion by the state of civil society engagement, arbitrary arrests, the (overregulation and hampering) of research and publishing of findings/statistics, the labelling of peaceful protest and public organizing as forms of violence, et cetera.
- Access to information has been limited through mechanisms including the use of the internet kill switch during the Tanzanian general election of 2020. Legislation that makes information difficult to gather and disseminate freely and the overregulation of cyberspace and use of information technology that stifle freedom of speech, and the encroachment on privacy by surveillance methods and tools that instill fear and promote self-censorship, all of which are detrimental to people-centered development.
- Public oversight institutions such as parliament and courts of laws are restricted and/or caused to underperform, which undermines the provision of justice and the rule of law. This is made even worse by the weakness of the states’ commitment to regional and sub-regional agreements and institutions as has been evidenced, for example, by Tanzania’s withdrawal from the African Court which has removed citizens’ ability to file a case at that level and seek recourse if justice cannot be guaranteed in their own state.
Therefore, we resolve and commit to:-
- Resist all and any attempt at intimidation by the severe actions and measures used to disrupt and undermine the actions and intentions of civil society. We shall continue to document the injustices that civil society organizations have experienced, and use the resulting documentation as evidence when we seek for redress. We shall promote storytelling, art and cross generational experience sharing as powerful tools to stimulate our conscience and empower ourselves to stay focused and coordinated. We shall be mindful of the paradigm shift caused by technology, especially Information and Communication Technology, and seek to incorporate it into our work where it enhances it, and be vigilant and responsive where it threatens civil space.
- Inspire young leaders and work with youth platforms across the region to raise cadres of change-makers and informed and active citizens, and create greater awareness and appreciation for the value of civic space.
- Stand together as one across the region through conferences and learning events that will inspire, envision and re-energise our efforts towards upholding the rights and dignity of all citizens in East Africa. We intend to avoid co-optation by other actors with diverging agendas that seek to minimize the functionality and influence of civil society.
To honor our resolutions and commitments, we shall:-
- Act as civil society organizations to make every attempt to challenge the State in the courts of law on the overregulation of civic space. This will include reclaiming our autonomy by appealing for freedom of operation, including the removal/ repeal of prohibitive laws.
- Build solidarity and strategic alliances with media, academia, Faith Based Organizations, cultural institutions and all other relevant actors to protect civic space
- Promote local resource mobilization, including philanthropy, to create a sustainable local funding base that is not foreign donor -dependent or foreign donor-driven.
- Strengthen self-regulation and accountability mechanisms to enhance transparency in the civil society fraternity.
- Request that ActionAid, MS-TCDC and other capacity development institutions and individual consultants support efforts to build the capacity of CSOs to engage innovatively with the State.
- Improve information sharing and documentation of our evidence of successes, best practices, testimonies as learning experiences to inspire CSOs.
- Adapt our programming to the context and changing needs of our operating environment.
- Develop a common agenda across the East African region through consensus that will enable civil society to form a formidable common front with the might of numbers and ensure that the other members of EAC also get committed to these actions.
- Explore mechanisms of creating an emergency fund that will enable CSO actors and organizations in need to withstand and survive hardships and sustain their efforts.
- Galvanize our collective actions towards strategic litigation.
- Build healthy relationships with the State and keep open communication and engage in mitigation and conflict resolution and peace-building dialogues.
- Appeal to regional legal bodies to support the capacity development of local civil society organizations to engage effectively with governments.
- Galvanize our collective actions towards promoting constitutionalism, and, where necessary, take the lead deemed in constitution-making and/or constitutional reform that provides the relevant protection of quality civic space.
- Convene annually to build solidarity, share information, learning from each other, strengthen accountability, provide mutual support and continually monitor the health and evolution of civic space to inform our activities.