Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions

Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions

Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions

Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions


Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are by definition not part of the state. Rather, they are an element of civil society, the strands of the fabric of organized life in countries, and crucial to the prospect of political democracy. Civil society is a very recent phenomenon in East African nations, where authoritarian regimes have prevailed and human rights watchdogs have had a critical role to play. While the state remains one of the major challenges to human rights efforts in the countries of the region, other problems that are internal to the human rights movement are also of a serious nature, and they are many: What are the social bases of the human rights enterprise in transitional societies? What mandate can human rights NGOs claim, and in whose name do they operate?

Human Rights NGOs in East Africa critically explores the anatomy of the human rights movement in the East African region, examining its origins, challenges, and emergent themes in the context of political transitions. In particular, the book seeks to understand the political and normative challenges that face this young but vibrant civil society in the vortex of globalization. The book brings together the most celebrated human rights thinkers in East Africa, enriched by contributions from their colleagues in South Africa and the United States.

To date, very little has been written about the struggles and accomplishments of civil society in the nations of East Africa. This book will fill that gap and prove to be an invaluable tool for understanding and teaching about human rights in this complex and vital part of the world.


Makau Mutua

THE PHENOMENON OF the modern civil society is a recent development in East Africa. The emergence of the modern civil society in the region is directly traceable to the imposition of the colonial state in the nineteenth century. But this modern phenomenon is to be distinguished from the civil society that existed in precolonial Africa. Originally, civil society in Europe traditionally referred to societas civilis, and was coterminous with the state. In this tradition, which stretched back to ancient Greece, “to be a member of civil society was to be a citizen—a member of the state—and, thus, obligated to act in accordance with its laws and without engaging in acts harmful to other citizens.” In contrast to the contemporary usage of the term, civil society denoted the complete obedience, dependence, union, and fealty to the state. It was not until the early nineteenth century that civil society and the state became distinctly different spheres. It is an irony of history that this distinction would develop on the cusp of the colonial conquest of Africa by European imperial powers.

Within the African colonial state, only the colons enjoyed the full rights of citizenship because they were recognized as the sole members of civil society. As Mahmood Mamdani correctly notes, in this order Africans were not citizens but subjects without basic freedoms. It is precisely the exclusion, exploitation, and degradation of Africans by the colonial state that led to the anticolonial struggle. A key motive of the anticolonial struggle was the deracialization of civil society. Simply put, Africans sought the full gamut of citizenship rights enjoyed by the white settler classes. Mamdani writes that the “anti-colonial struggle was at the same time a struggle of the embryonic middle and working classes, the native strata in limbo, for entry into civil society.” Paradoxically, Africans had to struggle against the state to become a part of it. But the deracialization of civil society and the colonial state—through its replacement by the postcolonial state—did not result in a free society. Throughout Africa, the postcolonial state . . .

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