Citizens Must Push Their Governments to Sign Charter

Cape Times (South Africa), February 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

Citizens Must Push Their Governments to Sign Charter


BYLINE: Steven Friedman

WHILE it is easy and understandable for people in those parts of Africa where human rights are not respected to conclude that prospects for recognition and protection of these rights are bleak, the pressure for the recognition of human rights in Africa is far greater than it has ever been and the prospects for democratic breakthroughs are greater than ever.

Two processes unfolding in Africa are opening doors for democracy. First, there is only one superpower. The era of dictators maintaining themselves in power by choosing sides in the Cold War is over and it is not possible for rights abusers to protect themselves by playing off one superpower against another.

Because the West can now afford the luxury of advocating democracy in Africa, it has become useful for authoritarian governments to embrace at least democracy's form, if not its essence. "Virtual democracies" have been established, whose rulers played the international system by embracing democracy in principle and introducing democratic political rules, whether or not they supported democracy.

Whatever their motives, this means that people in charge of governments have experienced mounting international pressure to be seen to be democratic. The effect of this has been to open up space and possibilities in many parts of Africa. Civil liberties and basic freedoms for citizens to express themselves, as well as freedom of association, are more prevalent in Africa than they have ever been.

This leads to a situation where people are freer to speak and act, but it does not mean that they have a say in how their governments work and function. People cannot necessarily express themselves in a way that has an impact.

It is also important to stress that this situation may prove to be temporary. First, the United State's War on Terror has created some space for authoritarians who are seen to be on America's side. Second, the world is fast moving into a situation where there is no longer only one superpower - the rise of China is imminent. China has already made it clear that it will not press African governments to respect human rights.

But, at present, changes in the international climate have opened important space for people seeking to win greater respect for rights in Africa.

The second change is internal to African countries. The key reason why we have not had effective democracies in Africa is that citizens have not developed the muscle and organised power to hold their leaders to account.

Africans do not need to be taught to understand democracy's merits - all the evidence shows that Africans want governments that respond to their people and respect their rights. The problem is not that people do not know that they should hold their governments to account, but that they lack the power to do so. Everyone needs to have the power to challenge their governments and ensure that their governments serve them.

How does democracy develop? It is rarely grassroots people who start the process.

It is, rather, professional or business groups, activist groups composed of urban and middle class people, who initiate such a movement by seeking to press governments to account to them. As they do this, they force governments to concede rights and to allow citizens a say in decisions that affect them.

In many African countries over the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a growth in organised groups able to demand that governments account for their actions. The effects are not always healthy because power holders often fight back when citizens try to hold them accountable and the result can be intense violence and the suppression of citizen opinion. …

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