Most West African states recognise civil liberties in their legislation as an essential component of a strong and resilient democracy. However, in practice, West African states have been increasingly restricting freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, in turn reducing civil society’s capacity to act. Indeed, according to CIVICUS, today 88,9% of the West African population lives in repressed or obstructed civic spaces.
On the other hand, in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, West African states have closed their borders, established curfews and instituted rules of social distancing. However, these health measures have been criticised by civil society organisations (CSOs) on the grounds that they often have not been subjected to democratic debate and parliamentary oversight, and that they could be used as a pretext for these states to abuse their power.
In this context, on April 30, the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) organised a one-and-a-half-hour webinar in partnership with CIVICUS and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network to provide an overview of the most common restrictions faced by protest movements, journalists and CSOs in West Africa.
The event informed the 55 participants from the West African civil society sector about the results of the new global report developed by the CIVICUS Monitor on the state of civil liberties in West Africa and the world. According to the report, in 2019, only 3% of the world’s population lives in a country where civic space is considered open. If 2019 was a year of protests and demonstrations, it also faced significant setbacks for civic space. More specifically, in Africa, the dispersal of demonstrations has been identified as the main violation of civil liberties, explained Ine Van Severen, the researcher at CIVICUS Monitor. Other main violations of civil liberties include arrests during demonstrations, censorship, among which are cutting off access to the Internet and social networks, and attacks on journalists.
Through a panel of 5 experts from civil society in West Africa, the webinar consisted of a knowledge and experience sharing platform around civic space in West Africa, including Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and Guinea. According to Nahounou Daleba, Vice National Coordinator for Human Rights and Relations with CSOs of the “Coalition of the Indignants of Côte d’Ivoire” (Coalition des Indignés de Côte d’Ivoire), in the run-up to the Ivorian elections scheduled for October 2020, there have been significant restrictions on civic space. Among the many arrests of civil society actors, trade unionists, journalists, cyber-activists and political opponents in 2019, he cited the case of journalist Hubert Yao Konan, detained since 4 August 2019 in the Bouaké prison for organising a demonstration against the opening of a gold mine in N’Ka, in the central-eastern part of the country.
A statement that was also shared by Pierre-Claver Akolly Dekpoh, Head of the Promotion and Fundraising Programmes at the West African Human Rights Defenders Network, who noted that in Togo, restrictions on civil liberties have been in place at least since 2017 but have intensified in 2019. According to him, while the Togolese regulatory framework theoretically guarantees civil liberties, it is the implementation of these liberties that raises issues. For example, in Togo, there exists a law that recognises freedom of demonstration. However, it has recently been amended without consultation with civil society actors, which has led to strong criticism by human rights defenders at the local, regional and international levels, including four UN international rapporteurs.
For his part, Sékou Doré, National Coordinator of the Réseau Afrique Jeunesse de Guinée (RAJGUI) pointed out the double standard that prevails regarding the treatment by the state of organisations that support the government and those in the opposition. On the one hand, political parties and civil society that support the ruling power are always allowed to organise rallies or demonstrations. But on the other hand, peaceful marches organised by the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (“Front National pour la Défense de la Constitution in French”, FNDC) have been constantly banned and repressed in blood.
These restrictions on civic space are further amplified during the epidemic and prevent civil society from carrying out their activities, argued Clément Voulé, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association. He also criticised the lack of prior consultation with civil society on holding elections during the pandemic and the unilateral decision to postpone them in several West African countries. He thus called on CSOs to continue to exercise their role by sharing information about their activities and by reporting restrictions on civic space with the UN Special Rapporteur (the link to submit information to the Rapporteur is available here).
Faced with these challenges, according to Christian Elongue, Program Officer in the Knowledge Management Department at WACSI, West African CSOs need to be better prepared for violations of civil liberties in West Africa. According to him, it is fundamental that these CSOs strengthen their resilience by developing and implementing proactive strategies to prepare for future crises. He thus encouraged CSOs to strengthen their financial and organisational sustainability, through the establishment of a reserve budget, intelligent use of digital activism, or the creation of broad and inclusive alliances and partnerships. To learn more about recommendations to CSOs to protect civic space, please read our Op-Ed here.
The informative and interactive nature of the webinar was highly appreciated by the participants, with 67% of them expressing satisfaction with the training. According to one participant, the training “allowed us to see the situation in our countries in relation to civil liberty, and also to get to know better the organisations and movements defending rights and civil liberty in our countries”. One participant also highlighted the event’s relevance to the current context: “All the interventions are topical in view of the current situation due to the measures that our governments are taking to limit the spread of COVID-19″.
The active engagement for an open civic space in West Africa of all the actors gathered on this platform demonstrates once again the essential contribution of civil society to democratic vitality. Through their various remarks, the participants promoted the need, especially in times of crisis, for civil society participation in the management of public affairs, through several proposals: more citizen control of resources allocated to the management of the pandemic, more thorough monitoring of government measures taken in relation to COVID and the implementation of effective strategies to address the challenges posed by the limitations of civic space, to name only a few of the fruitful recommendations of these civil society actors.