Strategic Repositioning of the East African CSO Forum

Published By UNNGOF |  July 16, 2013

Opening Remarks

By Richard Ssewakiryanga,

Executive Director, Uganda National NGO Forum

and President East African CSO Forum

Strategic Repositioning of the East African CSO Forum

14-17th July 2013

Hilton Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya

It gives me great pleasure to offer some opening remark at this meeting.  I want to thank Commonwealth Foundation and EACSOF secretariat for making it possible for us to meet here in Nairobi.

Let me start by noting that East Africa is a region with lots of opportunity for its citizens.  It has a total land area of 1.82 million sq. km, a population (2010) of 133.1 million and a GDP (at current prices) of $79.2 billion with an average GDP per capita of $685.  There are minerals in several parts, some of the best tourist spots in the world – from Kilimanjaro, to the Gorillas and memorable rivers.

As a region we are blessed but also have gone through several challenges that stand in the way of progress.  Integration therefore offers promise and opportunity to the people of East Africa.     The East Africa is also a region with several similarities and complementarities. Some of these include;

  • Comparable demographic transition – one of the youngest populations in the world
  • Similar challenges to education systems and job markets
  • Economic growth constraints arising from infrastructure and energy challenges
  • Private sector led and market-based development policies with slow investment and employment gains
  • Failure to attract sufficient private capital and expertise into agriculture to transform the livelihoods of the poor

In terms of the political character of the region, one can also see several interesting strands that include;

  • State systems that differ but have similarities – with countries with varying level of multi-partyism – Kenya with its recently peaceful but contested election, Uganda with its victory of the incumbent and never ending demonstrations, Tanzania with spurts of violence and multipartism and Rwanda with a strong government and that focuses on delivering to its citizens and Burundi trying to recover from the realities of conflict.
  • Deep political motivations still prevail in the region and we know that this is one reason that has hampered the achievement of a political federation.
  • Ethnic loyalties still endure and are expressed several especially at election time
  • Short term thinking of politicians that breeds incomplete economic liberalization has been a hallmark of many parts of East African.
  • Business still flourishes in protected niches where rents can be extracted – with some countries guarding their new found mineral resources jealously – oil business is now oily in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and prospects for other minerals in other places.
  • Unfavorable climate for long-term, large-scale investments because policies are unstable, and risks as well as transaction costs are still high

Yet as all this happens the East African region is increasingly becoming connected; with both political and social flux represented by more progress towards integration.

On a social level, citizens are taking integration in their own hands. For instance, today musicians from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are collaborating a lot more. They are singing in their local languages and in Swahili, to create an all-inclusive and boundary-less listenership in the region. Many parents across East Africa are choosing education systems in neighboring countries for their children. In Uganda several schools and universities have got significant student populations from Tanzania and Kenya.

Many of the service providers like telecom companies are providing services that are reaching across all the five East African countries. In government, the national budgets are being read on the same day in all East African countries. There are several opportunities for security forces to jointly plan regional security initiatives across the region. The East African Legislative Assembly is designing ways of playing a more prominent role across East Africa even with the ongoing threats to reduce its powers. There are several laws and protocols being reviewed today to try to respond to the opportunities arising from the integration process. For example, the immigration laws are under review, a common market has been established a monetary union and a political federation are being planned. All these aspects indicate that government and citizens across the region are working towards processes of integration.

On its part, civil society is also looking at ways in which it can reposition itself. The East African Civil Society Forum has been formed to bring together civil society actors from all the five countries with the objective of strengthening the work of civil society across the region and supporting collaborative work. This platform provides an opportunity for civil society actors across the region to find mechanisms that allow then to organize differently and meaningfully.  Although this is currently a young structure, it offers opportunities for civil society to work together in a manner that can eventually provide meaningful leadership and impact of civil society across the sector and across the region.  As Uganda we now have the presidency of EACSOF and we see this as an opportunity for us to contribute meaningfully to deepening citizen-led integration.

On the political front, most of the governments in East Africa are faced with an active citizenry that is working under stringent conditions. In Kenya the 2007 political alliance that was formed after the election violence is faced with a global inquiry in the International Criminal Court. We saw the peaceful transfer of power in Kenya, albeit under contested conditions.  Here in Kenya, the political landscape is one that is driven by citizen energy, with citizens upbeat about the new Constitution and its prospects. In Tanzania the ruling political party has had to contend with a narrower margin of victory and now the Parliament is populated by a younger group of politicians. In Uganda, as mentioned before the President won with a large majority but in probably one of the most contentious and contested Presidential elections that have been accompanied with numerous strikes, riots and protests following closely in the heels of the post-election victory. What we see in all these different countries is unprecedented levels of economic and political flux with citizens in various forms standing up to state failure to manage the economy and public funds, and to deliver services, as well as agitating for the development of effective governance mechanisms.

What citizens in East Africa and all over the world seem to be showing us, is that, if the world is going to change then people must become agents of their own development.  This is easier said than done. But what it calls for is a radical shift in democratic thinking so that while we continue to celebrate and enjoy ‘representative democracy’, mediated through institutions like Parliaments and other forms of representative governance, time has come for us to move on to another type of democratic culture known as ‘participatory democracy’.

While participatory democracy may seem like a ‘wooly’ term – the crux of this kind of democracy is that it should be one where as citizens we shift from the mode of only voting, paying taxes and then hoping to hold our leaders to account.  We should be moving to a democracy where citizens participate in civic life as co-creators of the country they want.  The Government in this type of democracy should be acting not as a provider of development but as a catalyst that helps citizens achieve what they want.  For participatory democracy to be effective it should be anchored on people power.  In a participatory democracy, the state needs to enable the social and political construction of places and processes where differences engage rather than collide. Multi-stakeholder forums should be the hallmark of this kind of democracy.  A space like EACSOF is an important space for the promotion of participatory democracy.

It is also important to note that participatory democracy is not a new idea but one that has to be resuscitated in East Africa because of the failures of our governments to live up to the promises of democracy. The words of Mahatma Gandhi, “we must be the change we want to see in the world”, should become our buzzwords.

Faith in the state as an absolute – that assumes that the state is the source of all services, to all citizens, is certainly naïve. While the state serves people, it sometimes has to be compelled by the people it serves.  It is important to underscore that while challenging the state is an important factor in participatory democracy, providing alternatives is equally important.  Citizens have the responsibility to ensure that every challenge on the state is followed by a set of citizen-alternatives that do not relieve the state from its duties but indeed promote new forms of solution seeking since citizen organizations are the space for the construction of this reality.

Let me share on best practice – in Uganda we have decided as civil society that we shall pursue 12 citizen led campaigns over the next few years as a way of making sure that we change the way citizen engage with the state.  The flagship campaign has kicked off and is code named the Black Monday Movement.  The Black Monday Movement is a social movement that depends on health workers, teachers, clergy, homemakers, cab drivers, trade unionists, business owners, civil servants, boda-boda riders, hawkers, policemen and women, soldiers and several other people.  In this Black Monday Movement we recognize the civic potential of all citizens of Uganda and are aware that our liberation as citizens is not only in one action but also in larger meaning and increased civic energies this work generates.

Let me finally submit that what we make of the future is up to us. Yes, in East Africa we operate in the difficult terrain, with many temptations and obstacles on the road to transformation. We could complain about the bad governance, aid fatigue and many other things gone wrong. But we could also focus on the positive forces around us so that they can expand – we are alive, there is citizen energy and we are a mature region.  What is clear is that we can’t afford doomsday scenarios or self-fulfilling prophecies. The future needs a dose of optimism and creativity coupled with a can-do attitude to make things happen!

“A luta continua, vitória é certa”!  – [translated] – The struggle continues, victory is certain!