Closing civil society space in East Africa

(Above: Working groups discuss trends within the East Africa region and their effect on CSOs operating space: funding, legislation, freedom of information and human rights)

It has been said that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Good governance is rarely bestowed; it must be demanded and defended by active citizens participating in democratic processes. More often than not, the channel for this participation is through civil society organisations (CSOs), which give citizens the opportunity to engage constructively with government on a wide variety of issues.

But all across the world, civil society is under pressure. In many countries, both democratic and autocratic states are systematically restricting the work of civil society. These developments, collectively known as “closing space”, have become a global trend.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in collaboration with the East African Civil Society Organisations’ Forum (EACSOF), hosted a two-day conference on 13 and 14 March in Nairobi, Kenya, to explore opportunities to create a consistently open legislative environment for CSOs at the regional level. The event brought together CSOs, CSO Standardisation bodies, Government and academia to formulate draft principles toward the development of a regional bill to promote and protect CSOs.

Within East Africa, crippling legislation has been passed that severely limits the remit of CSOs. From the need for CSO activities to be approved by the government in Burundi to the inappropriate utilisation of the Cybercrimes Act (2015) in Tanzania, it is a challenging time for civil society. Davis Malombe, Executive Director at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, asked critical questions about overcoming negative legislation: “How do we consolidate the space for CSOs and show governments’ the space is ours and our inalienable right, how do CSOs organise themselves better?” he said.

As Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan work toward regional integration as part of the East African Community (EAC), the region’s parliament – the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) – presents an opportunity for CSOs in the partner states to articulate their needs and interests as a block. Advocating nationally for supportive legislation and joint advocacy for harmonised legislation for CSO regulation within the partner states provide two options.

Zaa Twalangeti, Program Manager at Tanzanian CSO TAANGO, highlighted the importance of CSOs’ ability to promote and mobilise resources domestically to secure a power base within society: “CSOs assume they are representing citizens but has this been tested? What are we doing as a sector to ensure that we are entrenched as the voice of citizens and so that citizens demand our [CSO] space?” Jimmy Gotyana, South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO), asked: “How can CSOs ensure their struggles are expressed within Parliaments and reach the right audience?”

Concerning trends emerging from the research paper and discussions included:

  1. Restrictive definitions of CSOs to only those concerned with service delivery and not advocacy;
  2. Lack of clarity and unreasonable conditions surrounding the registration processes of CSOs;
  3. Increasing regulation limiting funding to CSOs;
  4. Utilisation of various pieces of legislation i.e. cyber security, anti-terrorism, to undermine progressive CSO legislation;
  5. Lack of independence of CSO regulatory bodies and challenges with self-regulation and standards;
  6. Limited access for CSOs to participate in government or legislative processes, especially around the budget and policy;
  7. Lack of protection of CSOs and human rights defenders.

At the end of the two-day conference participating CSOs agreed that regional solidarity is needed and eight draft principles were agreed upon to form the basis of a draft regional bill. Stakeholders must now collaborate across borders and take proactive steps to engage with EALA in order for the draft regional bill to materialise.

This bill can ensure that CSOs operate in a more enabling environment with a dedicated framework for human rights defenders’ that will promote greater accountability from respective governments. The East African experience has the potential to contribute to the global discourse and provide a practical example of how this issue can be overcome.

This conference was organised by WFD’s Kenya Team, based in Nairobi, contact maureen.oduori@wfd.org for more information. 

The WFD-EACSOF Commissioned Research on this topic which triggered this event will be available in coming months and is part of WFD’s wider research around this topic.

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