Civil Society at Cross Roads

Published By UNNGOF |  June 24, 2013

On the 21st April 2011, 50 NGO Directors from across Uganda came together to reflect on the role of civil society in the post election era under the theme; Democracy Under Test: Reflections on the 2011 General Elections and possible scenarios for 2011.  Below are my reflection based on remarks I made at the beginning of the meeting based on a reading of the complexity of the context in which civil society both global and locally works.

Early definitions of democracy suggested that democracy is about citizens having an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. This definition went far and wide as an important objective in state building of the post colonial era with revolutionary leaders of the independence period seeing this is a vision to achieve across Africa.  Indeed leaders like Nkrumah who was seen as being ‘ahead of his time’ saw this time vividly when Africa could be ‘inhabited by people who are happy cheerful and resilient’.  But decades have come and gone and still the ‘happy-cheerful-African’ is still a mirage in many African states.

The decades towards the turn of this millennium were largely characterized by state repression, big men in power and squandering of Africa’s resources.  Indeed when we fast forward to today, democracy is becoming not only something that is hard to define but also had to see as it continues to exist as a moving target in a world where several African leaders are failing to shoot the target.  Indeed as the democracy target moves, citizens across the world are looking closely at their leaders and discussing them in ways that were never possible before and organizing themselves in forms that are closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want.

Uganda has just gone through several elections in February 2011, and is now in times where the political landscape is changing rapidly that it is no longer possible to speak about a country specific context without thinking about the regional and global context which influences all of us.  The ‘flat world’ in which we live is now offering several possibilities and perspectives.  Citizens are taking back their territories in ways that were never thought possible before.  Leaderless revolutions are now a possibility and web based social networking is making it possible for millions of citizens to acquire voice and take action in ways that were seen as theoretical and a façade of the elite a few years ago.

But with new possibilities also comes new realities.  Global economic meltdowns, and environmental disasters do not only shock us into remembering our mortal nature as humans but also make us remember that we have stewardship responsibilities in the world that if not taken seriously we have to account for heavily in the name of ocean oil spills, nuclear leaks, floods and earthquakes which make us quake to the bone marrow.  Indeed as citizens rise against dictators, nature rises against the dictatorship by humans.  Environmental degradation brought environmental disasters just as democratic degradation is bringing democratic disasters. Like penguins get stuck in slippery oil spills so do citizens in vulnerable communities get stuck in slippery democratic spills represented by hostile militalias.

Indeed electoral politics in Africa are located in such a context.  When we look at what ballots have delivered, they have delivered different things to different people across Africa – in Sudan, the ballot delivered a new nation, in Kenya – unprecedented violence and two big men, in Zimbabwe probably two Presidents and in Uganda a contested landslide electoral victory.

We therefore need to remember that elections as a moment is one that exists in a spectrum of governance regimes – with vote buying, vote selling, electoral music, empty promises and intoxicated voters, kilos of salt, sugar, meat and liters of malwa all becoming important repertories of our contemporary state and ‘democratic’ functioning.  Indeed these are times when adrenaline is always a constant feature in many people’s mouths as they wait anxiously for the next brutal move in the name of protecting our democratic elections.  All this can feel more like a sore throat than a breath a fresh air.

As NGO leaders, these are the times in which we live.  They are times that require deep reflection on what role we play as citizen’s organization and what purpose we exist for.  As citizens find new forms of energy to resist oppression, those of us who speak for and with citizens should find new forms of energy to engage the state.  Clearly the nature of embers that fire state building are no longer a preserve of the boardroom but a preserve of the street corner.  As one friend described the situation for me in an SMS after the first day of Walk to Work;

The situation in Uganda today is explained by interplay of three phenomena; unconscious incompetence, impotent rage and Antoinette comfort.