African Civil Society: Between a Curse and a Plague? By Njoya Tikum

2016-01-08 11.44.55 (2)The only thing that holds a nation together is not its brilliant policies, constitutions, institutions, and sound economy but rather the values and principles upon which all these are founded. The problem of our political culture in Africa lies in our readiness to abandon principle and values Under the pretext of pragmatism. Clearly, real politick requires pragmatism, sophistication and not dogmatism. But pragmatism should never be equated with naked opportunism.

The removal of dictatorship does not necessarily result in democracy.Often, the demise of a dictatorship creates a severely contested political vacuum, a space upon which a people can either build another dictatorship or construct a democracy. History teaches us that those who bitterly fight present dictatorship are not always necessarily democrats .It is ‘therefore, important to grow a robust culture and habit of dissent, accountability and transparency especially in a pro-democracy movement. It is possible when fighting an intransigent incumbent to degenerate into an authoritarian politics of opposition that lacks the flexibility and open-ness to see-let alone accommodate- dissent and difference. In other words, pro-democracy activists must always ask the question “do we epitomize the change that we want to see?”. I assume that the primary business of NGOs and the broader civic movement is fighting for a more democratic,accountable, just and peaceful social order.

Incumbent regimes the world over and particularly in  Africa  do not just fold up and hand over power and privilege without a fight. Fighting for change is inevitably, a bruising game replete with many dangers, frustrations and contradictions.NGOs are the only business that continues to be in business when it has run out of business. They are also the only sector that believes that change will come at absolutely no personal cost.

Reality is sadly the very opposite, all change comes at a very great personal cost. As a result of poor mental, moral and ideological orientation, some tire, others sell-out, others become cynical and yet others degenerate into kleptomaniacs, fanatics, xenophobes and political criminals. Psycho-social support is very important If the struggle is to be sustained and won.

If civil society is to serve any meaningful role,we also have to deal with questions of personal integrity and the personal political-economy; as School fees, rent and other obligations have to be met even as we struggle. The first real test in a Struggle for change is clearly the sacrifices we are willing to make and the next equally important is how we innovate to stay alive, rather how we deal with our personal livelihood issues in the course of struggle. This is different from a neoliberal concern with creating a civic-bourgeoisie, a military bourgeoisie or for that matter administrative bourgeoisie.

The process of unseating incumbency or transforming the status quo (which is an American phrase that means ‘the mess that we are in’)is often long and protracted thereby creating a career for some and a personal political-economy for others. This paradoxically creates an internal movement incumbency whose logic is that it is unstrategic to change leadership before the broader struggle is complete. Our history is full of instances of institutional capture both at the state level and within civil society either by founder patriarchs, populists or usurpers who at some opportune time assume leadership in such institutions. In the ultimate analysis, the greatest struggle for freedom, for democratic practice and culture is always within and by the rank and file of the pro-democracy movement itself..

Fighting for change in economic contexts that are as depressed as those that subsist in many African countries , often raises serious issues about the role of money and patronage within the civic movement. As well perhaps the role of donors, INGOs and the corporatist culture. The difference between out-of-pocket expenses and sheer patronage is a very fine one. The absence of a framework or ethical basis for managing this issue often means there grows clientalism within civil society similar to that which exists in political parties. This ability of civil society leaders to dole out benefits to scores of unemployed citizens creates a complex set of relations that sometimes assume ethnic undertones or some form of personality cults that feed on dependency politics. So you end up with scores of poor or unemployed for whom mobilization meetings, demonstrations and workshops are income-making activities. They insist on being paid for the very effort they put into their own liberation.

This behaviour can not be solely blamed on the decadence of Citizens or lack of critical consciousness.The leadership of pro-democracy civil society often portrays itself as a fairly well paid and comfortable class of elites, a ‘civilocracy’. A self-selected and self-legitimating group of friends bound.

With this state of play, how do we progress?. Eloping from this state of decadence  demands  legislative enhancements and moral navel-gazing in most of our countries. to begin with, the  funding edifice of civil societies must mutate from internationally driven to nationally construed.

Part two of this blogpost will elucidate simple steps and methods necessary to  transforming African civil societies into one that is responsive  and true to its watchdog stature..

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