Central Africa: what responsibility for Civil Society?

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) stand out for their role as a counterweight to public authorities, themselves increasingly subject to contestation in new democracies. Civil society represents the force enabling a balance of forces in governance for the benefit of the population, by braving the multiple challenges of the exercise of power. Is she already mature enough to competently take over the role of " fourth power " in central Africa.

“Faced with the adventurous trend of universalization of the world which is evolving at double speed, Africa is not giving up, on the contrary, it is mobilizing. »

The controversy that exists around the concept of “civil society” raises questions about themes that go beyond the scope of public space. Like a fashion effect, the global tendency to conform to the logic of economic growth, citizenship, or even participatory democracy has shaped the very notion of " civil society » in Central Africa.

CSOs, while covering a wide variety of adored or criticized realities, are confronted with current global issues covering an extraordinary diversity of so-called initiatives. " of development ". This exponential proliferation has shaped the very image of CSOs din developing countries,

The idea of " civil society » then refers to an ethical vision of society articulated around the harmonization between particular interests and the common good. It can be recognized as the intermediate space that must exist between the sphere of the State and the private sphere[1]. It thus constitutes a variety of initiatives such as associations, unions, religious movements, professional or scientific orders, etc. These structures pursue objectives of general interest which are becoming essential, particularly in the sector of international solidarity.

Beyond speculation on their role, the relevance of the debate relating to new structures and movements which claim or dispute the label of "civil society" must also be questioned. Today, movements are being born in Central Africa which have not no formally established or legally constituted organization but which are taking up more and more space in public debates. These “citizen” movements are formed spontaneously and do not respond to any traditional form of management. Speculation on their genesis, the quality of their members, the sources of their financing as well as their true objectives considered occult, still fuel the debates. The mere fact of being identified as “ civil society organization » seems more profitable to them because these citizen movements thus gain visibility among the general public. This is particularly the case of the Lucha, Filimbi, movement " Congo is not for sale » in DR Congo, “Imbonerakure” in Burundi, etc.

According to Poncelet and Pirotte, this associative impulse is stimulated by multilateral or national cooperation and aid agencies, but also by NGO networks and other international actors, such as foundations, universities or institutions in the North[2] participating in indirect and decentralized cooperation. The new configuration of non-governmental actors as privileged vectors of collective action for development that Julie Godin calls “NGOization[3] » concerned about the depoliticization of their speeches and practices.

Criticized on one hand or praised on the other, the perpetual mutations of this concept of "civil society" or better to “CSO” now impact the social and political fabric of African societies, particularly with regard to education, the practice of justice, the media, the economy and public administration. Thus were born organizations for the defense of Human Rights, the environment, gender equality rights, etc., whose aims are the improvement of the quality of basic services, the fair and equitable distribution of resources , the participation of disadvantaged populations in political decision-making as well as the democratization of institutions.

Let us nevertheless note that, despite the few similarities in the political regimes of the countries of Central Africa, we nevertheless note particular realities depending on the historical and cultural realities specific to each of the States.

The proliferation of civil society associations and organizations in DR Congo and Burundi seems to be driven increasingly by a new generation of professionals, deprived of job prospects or by former civil service executives who are still struggling. today to offer them a place. The increase in the unemployment rate also pushes the rising generation, even though it is sufficiently qualified, to create alternatives.

These various initiatives, often in duplicity with other existing structures of civil society, endanger the representative legitimacy of their leaders and facilitators. In the 1990s there was a Regional Confederation of Development NGOs (CRONGD). This structure broke up and developed in place of heterogeneous realities giving the political powers of the region, as a latitude to use “a la carte”, the choice to designate one or the other representative as the preferred contact. Having become fragile, the passage in the CSOs also constituted for certain people, an opportunity to occupy political functions: Mgr Marini Bodho former president of the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) was President of the Senate (1998-2017) , Father Malu Malu, of happy memory, activist, was president of the CENI in 2006, Bahati Lukwebo, current President of the Senate in DR Congo, was national president of the Civil Society of Congo (SOCICO) 1992-2010, etc.

Like the governments of Burundi, DR Congo and Rwanda; Civil society organizations (CSOs) are increasingly becoming key societal protagonists who make valuable and significant contributions in the process of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They are expected to play an essential role in the implementation and monitoring of the implementation of the SDGs.

But what are the conditions required for CSOs to be able to do this? The increasingly preponderant place and involvement of civil society is felt in the issue of development in Central Africa. Will it constitute a political counterweight against authoritarian regimes or will it be a response to the bankruptcy of States? What then is its contribution to the advent of democracy in Central Africa?

The adaptive resilience of CSOs in Central Africa

Faced with the adventurous trend of universalization of the world which is evolving at double speed, Africa is not giving up, on the contrary, it is mobilizing. A marked multiplication of citizen and mobilizing action structures is being created. Her youth, although idle, finds ways and means to act through new technologies and social media. This emulation challenges global players and stands out as a way for international justice and solidarity to be values enshrined in the global economic architecture.

Contemporary African crises show the differences in context compared to the colonial period. The current African situation reveals the downside of a global system erected from a north-centrist paradigm. Internally, these crises also reflect the failure of a political culture marked by depredation, corruption and clientelism. Sub-Saharan Africa is not poor, it is impoverished[4], said Aminata Traoré.

Africa then seems weakened because it is constantly seeking adaptation in a global system dotted with pre-established restrictive standards where the “great” powers do not slow down their quest for growth. Africa is also impoverished because most of its postcolonial leaders did not hesitate, for a long time, to despoil its resources by defying almost all democratic values in order to stay in power. Faced with this repetition of history, collective awareness in Central Africa is imperative. Collective action is emulated by all means, even non-traditional ones. The pressure exerted by political parties at the time of the struggles for independence is supplanted by the mobilizing force of current citizen movements. The dynamism of civil society finds its substance in the lethargy of State public services. More frequently too, there are – as was the case in Burundi and DR Congo or Rwanda – sudden ruptures in international cooperation. The actions of CSOs have been sufficiently remarkable, particularly in the areas of health, education and support for elections. What is their place in current life in Central Africa?

Civil Society Organizations: a societal alternative

In Central Africa, civil society draws its political legitimacy from questioning the forms of public action. She showed herself present to supplement the proven lack of government action.

In Burundi, there is reason to question the situation of civil society, which has several times become the victim of pressure and measures from the international community, against political actors. Burundian CSOs operate in a vsvery complex political context. Society remains dependent, in large part, on the generosity of international and bilateral donors. The Cotonou agreement which established, in 2010, the partnership framework between the European Union and the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP), allowed Burundian civil society to strengthen itself. But its momentum is gradually diminishing due to the brakes established by the public authorities (such as censorship and banning of certain media, asymmetrical management of operating authorization requests, etc.). The legislation also remains silent regarding possible financial support from the State. The non-protection of sources and the censorship of the CNC (National Communication Council) also contribute to this significant limitation. Some journalists have been convicted of endangering state security and others have found themselves in exile. The establishment of the Partners Coordination Group “GCP”, a legal and official framework, is nevertheless innovative. Its mission is coordination, monitoring and dialogue with partners on development and peacebuilding issues.

In DR Congo, several structures claim the legitimacy of representing civil society. The unprecedented experience of its political transition was also the work of several local, regional and international initiatives. The inter-Congolese dialogue[5], for example without which the peace process would not have been possible as well as the involvement of CENCO (National Episcopal Conference of Congo) which provided good offices in favor of political alternation have definitively shown that the contribution of civil society is essential in the search for peace and reconciliation[6]. The recent bill on the organization of elections calls for an equal presence made up of 15 facilitators including 5 from the presidential movement, 5 from the political opposition and 5 from civil society organizations. This is a mark of institutional recognition of CSOs as actors in their own right in the same way as traditional political components.

In Rwanda, Civil Society is instead committed to supporting the government by working more on cross-cutting themes: gender, environment, social inclusion of minorities and memory work. The recent installation of a tripartite commission for the management of public aid (government, donors and civil society) could alleviate government influence on local civil society organizations.

Having become protagonists in political life and in supporting democracy, CSOs in Central Africa still require collaboration and united support from various local, regional and international partners.

What “Partnership” to ensure the sustainability of Civil Society actions in Central Africa?

These last decades, CSOs have become largely professionalized, and have increasingly invested in political and technical processes. Some CSOs have specialized in specific technical areas, where they carry out monitoring or lobbying activities on certain themes (environment, child soldiers, Human Rights, elections, etc.). Their growing importance, however, raises several questions around their identity. How to maintain democratic legitimacy in delicate political environments? They are often constituted de facto and, rarely, formally by following all the legal steps. They are committed to specific causes of justice or democracy or focus on various issues such as reducing inequalities and reducing poverty, respect for human rights, gender equality and climate justice.

Note also that the square of the Catholic Church remains a reference in supporting democracy and in its involvement as a social partner – education, health and solidarity – in the region. Recently CENCO, in DR Congo, has just launched a new call against social inequalities, for national cohesion, justice and peace: “… We recommend to the government to rebalance the expenditure of institutions in proportion to the needs of the population, to promote social projects which strengthen national integration, respect for the electoral cycle, a guarantee of democracy, [7] ".

The current coronavirus crisis has once again revealed the place of CSOs and the relevance of the counterbalancing role that they should play in daily life in Central Africa. Shaken by the preventive measures following the spread of the virus: confinement, deconfinement and re-confinement, ... CSOs try to adapt by reconfiguring their actions but also, must work more to avoid taking on the role which is not theirs and insistently empower political decision-makers as CENCO has clearly just done. CSOs need the support of donors not only to stem the crisis but also so that once the crisis is over, the situation becomes better than that before the arrival of the Coronavirus.

The donor community often steers the debate on the real causes of global inequality. They most often condition the continuity of aid through good governance, the establishment of democracy and respect for human rights.

The political contribution of Civil Society in Central Africa

The right of free association is becoming universal while limitations on the freedoms of independent civil society are observed almost everywhere in the world under the pretext of the fight against terrorism and defense of governmental sovereignty. Faced with this situation, LThe Human Rights Commission established the mandate on the situation of human rights defenders in 2000 which was extended in 2020 by the Human Rights Council in its decision 43/115 and his resolution 43/16.

In such a context, not only were CSOs either considered to be collaborators with governments as long as they went their way, or  as foreign agents, economic saboteurs and even instigators of violence through their activities[8].

To be effective in their role, CSOs must recognize that the fight for respect for human rights has a political character. The mere fact of being apartisan – not to support any political party – is not enough to be neutral. Also, what places human rights within the political sphere is only adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[9]. The latter criticizes that man must not be put in the condition of having to revolt as a last resort against the tyranny, authoritarianism and oppression of a State.

Any struggle for social justice would then be considered above all as a political struggle aimed at better situating subjects in relation to their rights.[10]. Human Rights education would therefore be a political action because it allows the participation of citizens from an enlightened point of view.

We then saw in the DRC several leaders emerge from civil society and become political figures (the current president of the Senate, for example, was one of the pioneers of civil society).

A civil society open to the globalized world

The international environment has been transformed, international solidarity must follow suit and adapt to current socio-political developments. It contains the seeds of present and future revolutions in theoretically postcolonial societies. “to democratize ". Will it be rubbed off by any Western hegemonic dose? Will international solidarity supplant criticisms that reduce it to the prolongation of paternalism?

Belgian citizens should bear in mind this cultural disparity and the divergent hierarchy of morals in order to better understand the partnership of international solidarity with CSOs active in Central Africa. Contemporary debates call for decolonize current development cooperation. 

In Central Africa, individual freedoms and human rights do not have the same connotation as in northern societies. It is in this difference that lies the reasons for the discord between the vision of CSOs in Central Africa and the place of the average citizen in the conscience of governments. In this region, shouldn't this place be the same as in the rest of the world? What is substantial for the citizen of the European Union, is it necessarily also substantial in Central Africa? Reciprocity is synonymous with the independent appropriation of the notion of global and united citizenship.

It is for all these reasons that African CSOs are calling with all their strength for radical change that goes beyond the superficial measures proposed by current development policies. They will thus constitute a political balance against authoritarian regimes in response to the bankruptcy of States. This is their contribution to the advent of democracy in Central Africa. 

The OECD also advocates inclusive dialogue that reflects diversity: One of the major challenges will be to find the right balance between activities relating to the pan-African dialogue and those to be carried out at the regional or national level. Furthermore, it will also be appropriate to organize activities in such a way as to involve representatives of civil society[11] (NGOs, unions and private sector).

Tracks such as contemporary analysis historical relationships privileged of Belgium with Central Africa as well as examples of participatory inclusion of unions, mutual societies and large NGOs in the design of the response plan to the crisis: “ the Corona coalition » are inspiring. L'expertise and proximity as partners in international solidarity can help promote the strengthening of CSOs in Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo.

Patrick Balemba

[1] MINANI R. and MABALA R., Vademecum of civil society actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Editions CRONGD/RODHECIC, Kinshasa, January 2010

[2] Poncelet M. and Pirotte G., The African invention of civil societies: theoretical denial, imposed figure, empirical proliferation, De Boeck Supérieur, “Developing world”, LLN, 2007

[3] NGOs, depoliticization of resistance to neoliberalism?, alternative south, CETRI, 2017

[4] Traoré A., The rape of the imagination, Actes Sud-Fayard, 2002.

[5] Addis Ababa 2001

[6] Nduwimana F., African civil society: issues and prospects for awareness, Africa Canada Partnership, Oct. 2004

[7] Message from 58th CENCO Plenary Assembly: Call for National Cohesion “Let’s Be United” (06/21/2021)

[8] CETRI, NGO-Depoliticization of resistance to liberalism, idem, p. 132

[9] Bromley MK, “The International Human Right Law Group: Human rights and access to justice in post-conflict environments” dams Welch CE, NGOs and Human Right: promise and performance, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001

[10]Boulie J., “Putting the voluntary sector back on map in The development agenda and the voluntary sector”, Quarterly Journal of the South African NGO Coalition and Interfund, 1, 1997

[11] The New Partnership for Africa's Development (www.oecd.org).


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