Africa needs a radical overhaul of government-civil society relations if the continent is to eradicate corruption and establish the rule of law necessary to attract the investment needed for economic growth and reducing poverty, a major conference heard yesterday.
“Across Africa, a middle class is rising, activists are building democratic institutions, and nations once torn by hatred are making progress through cooperation,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer told the African Civil Society Conference, organized by the National Endowment for Democracy and its partners. “From Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam, from Cairo to Cape Town, Africa is changing. Much of that change has been the result of greater cooperation among nations to maintain security and promote the rule of law.”
The forum brought together civil society activists, democracy advocates, journalists and members of the US Congress at Capitol Hill in a parallel event to the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Six panels on Human Rights, Good Governance & Accountability, Elections, Media, Conflict & Security, and Civil Society Challenges contributed the drafting of an Action Program for Democracy.’ But NED president Carl Gershman warned that some of the activists faced threats to their lives and livelihoods on their return home.
“Some of the activists here today return to Africa to uncertain fates; we need to stand with them and ensure they have the global spotlight,” said Carl Gershman, highlighting the case of journalist-campaigner Rafael de Morais, who faces trial in Angola. He also paid tribute to Floribert Chebeya (left), the Democratic Republic of the Congo rights advocate murdered in 2010.
Conference delegates stressed the need to build the capacity of women to exercise leadership in public space; called for greater cooperation between US and African civil society organizations to share experiences and solidarity; demanded that African governments stop the stigmatization of civil society organizations; to democratize the African Union by ending the “system of mutual back-scratching between the AU and African governments;” and called on the US government to tell African leaders to “walk the talk and stop stealing elections.”
Henry Maina, Director of East & Horn of Africa for Article 19, highlighted media repression in several African countries and cited the current plight of Ethiopia’s Zone 9 bloggers who he described as “just using mobile phones and websites: ” He added:
Recommendations by the media task force included encouraging international media organizations to have more comprehensive coverage of news in Africa and to “move away from the narrative of Africa as the hopeless continent.” The task force would also like African governments and leaders “to establish independent media regulation mechanisms as well as clear and transparent criteria” so that media organizations are not stifled.
“Media is a mirror where leaders can perceive themselves,” one panelist stated, without which “journalists find themselves in situations of self-censorship and leaders may be going the wrong way.”
Africa is experiencing a profound transformation, said Hoyer, delivering his closing remarks. “But much of that change has come from people power – the undeniable force of ordinary men and women who stand up and say ‘enough’ to corruption and ethnic divisions,” he said.