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How Civil Society Influences Politics in Africa

Many forces have contributed to the gradual opening up of political spaces in Africa. Key to these forces is the civil society. The Civil society has been widely recognized as an essential ‘third’ sector.
Its strength can have a positive influence on the state and the market. Civil society is therefore seen as an increasingly important agent for promoting good governance like transparency, effectiveness, openness, responsiveness and accountability.
Civil society can further good governance, first, by policy analysis and advocacy; second, by regulation and monitoring of state performance and the action and behaviour of public officials; third, by building social capital and enabling citizens to identify and articulate their values, beliefs, civic norms and democratic practices; fourth, by mobilizing particular constituencies, particularly the vulnerable and marginalized sections of masses, to participate more fully in politics and public affairs; and fifth, by development work to improve the wellbeing of their own and other communities.
Political accountability means regular and open methods for sanctioning or rewarding those who hold positions of public trust through a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Citizens’ voice in society and participation in politics connect them to the people who represent the state — the policymakers and politicians. In principle, poor people as citizens contribute to defining society’s collective objectives, and they try to control public action to achieve those objectives. In practice, this does not always work.
Either they are excluded from the formulation of collective objectives or they cannot influence public action because of weakness in or absence of the electoral systems. The latter is the case in non-democratic governments.
Accountability is the willingness of politicians to justify their actions and to accept electoral, legal, or administrative penalties if the justification is found lacking.
Accountability must have the quality of answerability (the right to receive relevant information and explanation for actions), and enforceability (the right to impose sanctions if the information or rationale is deemed inappropriate). One complication is that voice is not sufficient for accountability; it may lead to answerability.
In summary, empowering poor citizens by increasing their influence in policymaking and aligning their interests, to the extent possible, with those of the non-poor can hold politicians more accountable. Elections, informed voting, and other traditional voice mechanisms should be strengthened, because these processes — and the information they generate— can make political commitments more credible, helping to produce better service outcomes.
Civil society can help to amplify the voices of the poor, coordinate coalitions to overcome their collective action problems, mediate on their behalf through redress mechanisms, and demand greater service accountability. It needs to be kept in mind that participatory, transparent and accountable governance does not come easy. Nobody wants to open up or relinquish power easily — be it the politicians and bureaucrats at the helm of power or the traditional elites.
Social forces must be created that would compel them to countenance sharing of power. An essential part is, therefore, social mobilization like in Burkina Faso whereby consistent though gradual effort is required to establish, organize, strengthen and empower civil society, so that they can, one, increase in number and, two, convert their numerical strength into genuine bargaining power. Furthermore, better information — through public disclosure, citizen-based budget analysis, service benchmarking, and program impact assessments — and an active, independent media can strengthen voice.
The sweeping wave of democratization from the mid 1970s has generated tremendous African transformation especially at the national levels.
For example, the experience of the Kenyan non-governmental organizations (NGO) community collectively challenging the NGO legislation introduced by the government in 1990 reaffirms the vision of civil society as directly engaged in action to force political change in African countries.
As this particular case shows, NGOs were organized, resourceful and conscious actors contributing to political reform movement in Kenya. The Kenyan experience underscores what most analysts have argued is the potential of Civil society to contribute to political reforms, that is, to organize, mobilize, and act against state repression and force political /social reforms from within civil society.
Civil society in Senegal, Ghana, and Tanzania are amongst the few worth emulating in Africa in effecting meaningful political change.
Democratic consolidation in Africa requires that interests find corporate, institutional expression that incorporates them in decision making. Recent happenings in the Arab world(the Arab Spring), to Burkina Faso ,Gabon, Togo, Congo Brazzaville etc as tyrants attempt to change their constitutions with stiff resistance from civil society is a positive hope for Africans. The struggle definitely continues.

Mukete Tahle Itoe *
Judge (Cameroon)

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