[23 June 2022] Over 70 African citizens held a dialogue to address the shrinking civic space and violations of human rights and freedoms in Commonwealth Africa during the Commonwealth People’s Forum held at the 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda.
The virtual event which was co-organised by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), CIVICUS, International Centre for Non-Profit Law and Network of Women Leaders for Development under the theme: “Shrinking civic space and freedoms in Commonwealth Africa: a deliberate silence, feigned ignorance, or indifference?”, brought together civil society actors, human rights activists, and civic space advocates from diverse backgrounds and commonwealth countries.
Speaking at the event, Dr. Anne T. Gallagher, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation urged civil actors and organistations to consciously carry the principles and ideals of the Commonwealth Charter forward in their quest for a free and open civic environment. She said the Charter already has significant provisions to support human rights and freedom of expression.
In her words, “the Commonwealth Charter is an anchor which professed commitment towards promoting human rights, freedom of expression and democratic societies in Commonwealth member states.”
Dr. Gallagher noted that the dialogue was strategic and timely at a time when civic space restriction and human rights and freedoms violations continued to be a major concern in Commonwealth Africa.
She however admonished civil society to intensify efforts to reclaim civic space by exercising their rights as recognised in the Commonwealth Charter, and never give up their power regardless of the struggle.
Closing her presentation, Dr. Gallager reaffirmed the foundation’s commitment towards advancing the interest of civil societies to make them more resilient in pursuing their effort to reclaim civic space, especially because human rights and freedom of expression remain a key area of focus of the Foundation strategy.
In her presentation, Nana Afadzinu, Executive Director, WACSI recounted the unprecedented wave of democratic decline and retrogression being witnessed in the region and how it further impacted the work and space in which civil society operates.
According to her, “West Africa has enjoyed progressive democratic growth since the 1990s with practices such as open, free, and fair electoral systems, promotion of civil liberties, increased multiparty political system amongst others.
However, the past few years and indeed, recent times, has witnessed several states backsliding in this democratic journey.”
Citing the 2021 Freedom House report, “22 African countries suffered decline in democracy and out of the twelve largest declines globally, West Africa had five – Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea and Mali with Nigeria being a Commonwealth member,” she said.
Afadzinu added that recent years have witnessed violations of political rights and civil liberties including numerous incidences of police brutalities, growing citizen protests and agitations, internet shutdown, coup d’états, fast shrinking civic space and restrictive cyberspace among others in the region.
She said many civil society actors, activists and human right defenders have been brutalised and arbitrarily arrested in their quest to mobilise people against States oppression or even hold government accountable.
She added that, the decline in sources of funding, constantly shifting donor priorities coupled with the adverse effect of COVID-19 further exposed the fragilities of many civil society organisations (CSOs) and impeded their efforts to establish dynamic institutions with strong governance, accountability, and civic leadership.
Closing her submissions, she reiterated the importance of constant tactical space for CSOs to engage governments to bring about change, through different entry points including leveraging the various arms of governments
She also urged the Commonwealth Foundation to exert more peer pressure and implored the secretariat to lay out sanctions or punitive measures to deal with Commonwealth member states who are non-conformists to the principles of the Commonwealth to promote civil liberties, human rights, and freedoms.
Madi Jobarteh, Country Representative of Westminster Foundation for Democracy, The Gambia, bemoaned new acts and laws being enacted by some governments which he said seemed to place limitations on citizens’ rights and freedoms. This he added shakes the foundation of every strong democracy.
Jobarteh explained that the past few years have seen governments across the Commonwealth African states passing new laws on areas such as anti-money laundering and counterterrorism which in most cases contradicted and curtailed the very constitutional provisions on human rights, freedoms of expression and assembly fashioned by same states.
On her part, Adenike Aloba, Programme Director and Managing Editor, Dataphyte, Nigeria urged media and CSOs to tell stories about their struggle, frustrations and how violations of their rights and freedoms posed threats to the democratic impetus of their societies in ways that connect easily with the people.
She indicated that to reclaim the civic space, there was the need for “multiplicity of strategies” and collaboration between CSOs across the region to build a stronger force.
Saril Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Institute for Human Rights and Business posited that there was the need to transform the shrinking civic space to “a shared civic space” where CSOs could build relationships with the private sector and leverage same to propel their mandates.
Muthoki Mumo, Representative for Sub-Saharan Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists, Kenya emphasised the crucial role media played in reclaiming civic space and ensuring public interests, rights and freedoms were protected.
However, she decried the brutalities and human rights infringement journalists in the region continued to suffer including arbitrary arrests, physical attacks on journalists and attacks on media houses.
She urged governments of the Commonwealth African states to “stop harassing their employees who work in the state media” and protect their freedoms of expression and rights of access to information which are fundamental to democracy.
Mumo added that one of the best ways the state media could play its role objectively was to shift from being “government media” to “public media” so that their focus would be on pursuing public interest and holding government accountable.
Yona Wanjala, the Executive Director of Defenders Protection Initiative, Uganda, opined that international bodies that made Anti-Money Laundering and Counter terrorism laws architecture be held accountable adding that “there is the need to assess the risks” and application of these laws as some of them posed threats to open civic space.
Over 70 people from the world, especially from Commonwealth Africa participated in the webinar which was moderated by Dr. Paul Mulindwa, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, Sub-Saharan Africa Lead, CIVICUS, South Africa.
The webinar generated a communique to be submitted to the CHOGM, Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Foundation, national government, agencies, opinion shapers, media, and the public.
Click on this link to access the full video of the dialogue.