Why is active citizenship under attack and the space for civic engagement closing?

Earlier this month, I travelled to Zanzibar to attend a workshop on strengthening the capacity of rights based CSOs and women human right defenders in East Africa. The gathering that attracted 25 participants representing various CSOs across the horn of Africa was organized by the office of the high commission for human rights, East African region. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the participant’s presentations pointed at the challenges, insecurities and the closing space for CSOs in their home countries.

Civil society represents organized groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This includes non-governmental organizations, independent mass media, think tanks, universities and social and religious groups. One role for civil society organizations is to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors, and youth among others.

However, civil society organizations globally have been increasingly subjected to threats and excessive scrutiny by government officials thus restricting the functioning of the civil society. We talk of democracy and citizen participation but how will that be possible yet the civil society space is slowly by slowly dwindling?

Reports indicate that over 63 countries passed restrictive laws, shrinking civil society space and increasing the criminalization of and discrimination against CSOs worldwide. This is attributed to many reasons but in Africa, some countries see CSOs as drivers of the western agenda, forgetting their major role of advocating for people’s rights and needs and the fact that they represent citizens and give them a stronger voice. There is an increasing number of laws and bills across Africa, intended to regulate the activities of CSOs, directed at restricting the access to funding, particularly when sourced from abroad, yet NGOs have the right to access funding. This entire legal arsenal is aimed at stifling all forms of promoting and defending human rights by the CSOs.

May be, let’s talks about the reasons why many donors prefer often times to channel their overseas development aid through CSOs: it is because they can easily maximize the impact of the scarce development aid. It is easy to ensure good service delivery at CSOs. Logically, CSOs look at the funds as their source for survival and the path to the realization of their vision. I am not ignoring that there are some CSOs that swindle funds but the trend is very common among government institutions across Africa that do not care to efficiently use the funds.

Also, have we thought about how CSOs act as beacons of democracy, since they ensure direct citizen participation? CSOs work with citizens at the grass roots, they tackle the main challenges that people face and they are able to touch the lives of the people in the simplest forms, either by providing them spaces to talk about their day to day challenges or even facilitating their economic development.  Civil society actors have also increasingly become vital forces in discourses, initiatives and programs that foster peace and security across the world.

So question is: Why exclude the civil society yet it plays a pivotal role in democracy consolidation of any given nation? Why is active citizenship under attack and the space for civic engagement closing?

The civil society is enormous in its size and diversity, its members of the media, for-profit businesses, volunteer associations, political parties, trade unions, faith communities, private foundations, and nonprofit organizations. But because the space we need for this work is closing, we must come together, understand our mutual dependence and interrelatedness, and support each other in this work. We must forge a new solidarity and thrive through to realize our mandate and change every life we can reach

 

 

 

Women are not your Property, they are your partners to live with and respect

Fostering gender parity in the socio-economic and political arena in Rwanda has been a successful endeavor, however, some reports still hint at a gloomier picture in the success stories of women empowerment in the country. As Rwanda joins the rest of the world to mark the international women’s day, we have to recognize that the government of Rwanda has relentlessly strived to promote women’s economic empowerment in a number of ways. All the ways have been aimed at fighting all forms of injustice including gender based violence, ensure women economic empowerment and break the barriers that hinder women to reach their full potential in adding their contribution to national development.

Due to government’s unwavering efforts, in 2015, the Inter-Parliamentary Union updated its database to reveal that Rwanda had more women than men in parliament at 63.8%. Still in 2015, the Global Gender Gap Report named Rwanda as the best place to be a woman in Africa, also the sixth in closing gender gaps world-wide. All these achievements indicate a strong commitment for advancing and sustaining gender equality and empowerment.

However, we can’t blindly ignore the few cases that still impede the development of women. The Rwanda National Police in one its periodic reports indicated a decline in rape, defilement and physical abuse cases, but even the few victims of GBV are inexcusable. The ordeals narrated by the women who fall prey of the shameless men in the society reveal a permanent damage on the victims. Studies have indicated that some women in our lives are either sexual-assault victims or survivors of domestic abuse and these life experiences leave life-time pain and trauma. Some women sustain permanent physical injuries, others live miserable lives while others lose their lives.

Scanning through the regional or global scene, women are still trafficked and sold as sex slaves. Women and girls are ensnared in sex trafficking in a variety of ways: some are lured with offers of legitimate work as shop assistants or waitresses in developed countries, while others are promised marriage, educational opportunities or even a better life. Worse still, many are sold into trafficking by boyfriends, friends, neighbors or even parents. When the protector becomes the betrayer, just for an extra coin! The victims are physically and psychologically tortured, deprived of food and sleep and forced to start a new and degrading life.

One thing that I have always asked myself but failed to get an answer is, “they are our mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters, friends, spouses, nieces and cousins, but why do we hurt or abuse them to an extent of even killing them, why beat them up simply because we want to feel more powerful, why plot deviously against them for a few minutes pleasure?” Well, this still boggles my mind, but maybe I am not alone. Either way, I believe that the best way to eliminate violence against women is not only speaking out but having the men’s voice strongly backing them. #BeBoldForChange, stand up and fight injustices against women!

Freedom of Speech misused

Last week, videos and images from South Africa during President Jacob Zuma’s state of nation address showed chaotic scenes as some members of parliament were literally dragged out of the chamber by the guards. Those ejected were opposition deputies who could not let the South African President start his address, denouncing and labeling him all sorts of names from “scoundrel” and “rotten to the core” because of the ongoing corruption allegations. One of the MPs called President Zuma “an incorrigible man which means hopeless. Really? Is this the freedom of speech that we keep referring to as our right? For a citizen to stand up to the president and call him all sorts of names in the name of opposition or the fact that he has a right to speech is appalling. This is the worst state of abusing our rights. What legacy are these leaders passing on to the young generation, “tomorrow’ leaders”? Does it always have to be confrontational and violent? Our continent deserves better leaders, our youth deserve better mentors and our rights deserve better respect.

The intricacies of relocating all businesses operating in Kigali’s residential facilities to commercial buildings

On the 5th January 2017, Rwandans woke up to the news that all businesses (including NGOs), operating in residential houses, have three months to relocate to commercial buildings.[1] In the article, a city official said that the city administration had given written notice to businesses to relocate by the 1st March or face closure.

The reasons, given by the City of Kigali official, for this directive include  the following:

  • Availability of commercial spaces
  • Low occupancy of the commercial spaces , leading to defaulting on the loans by the investors
  • Businesses operating in residential houses drives the rent rates up , making it unaffordable for anyone looking for a home and
  • It is against the city’s master plan to have businesses in residential houses.

Those reasons are the ones that sparked a conversation in the country, especially on social media; I will briefly look at each reason and its implications.

Availability of commercial spaces and low levels of occupancy

The first two reasons are interrelated and I will discuss them together. The government encouraged people to invest in commercial buildings as commercial spaces were lacking. Investors listened and fancy new buildings were built in the city, such as Kigali Heights and CHIC among many others being erected in the city. The issue now is the availability of those spaces but very low levels of occupancy. The City of Kigali is putting the blame on the residential houses that are cheaper to rent for businesses, but is this not the nature of business? Why would  business owners subject themselves to high rental tariffs when they can pay cheaper? Why is the city administration getting involved in this, instead of letting the market regulate itself? The City also says that as a result of the low occupancy, the investors can’t repay their loans, what about the owners of those residential houses who also have loans to pay and also the business owners who are trying to make a profit and can’t do that when they have high rental fees to pay. It seems like the directive is aimed at protecting the investment of a few at the expense of many businesses which I think also, has adverse effects on the economic growth of the country.

Residential houses are expensive as a result of them being used by businesses

This is a very valid reason, especially for many young people who are trying to be homeowners and are at the early stages of their careers. Although it is a valid reason, it is not a good enough as the City should have urged investment in affordable housing before commercial spaces. The solution is for the city to make those commercial spaces cheaper so that they can be affordable and be an incentive for businesses to move in without sacrificing their profit and growth … also urge investment into affordable housing.

The relocation is part of the master plan of the City of Kigali

This is also another valid reason, the issue is the implementation. The adherence to the master plan is very important in order for Kigali to become a world-class city, but that adherence should be organic, it should not be marked by knee-jerk reactions in forms of directives. The three months period is unrealistic as it doesn’t take into account the rental contracts that have already been signed for the whole year,  annual  plans that have been already made and didn’t account  for the increase in  rent (in case of NGOs)  and many other related issues.

President Paul Kagame in his  2017 New Year address to the Nation said that everyone has a right to ask for explanations in case they are not satisfied and also give input. So we are asking the City of Kigali  if  consultations were done and with whom, as ‘consultation’ is a big part of “agenda setting’ which is one of the step in policy formulation. Were all the stakeholders consulted and was a feasible study done on the implication of this directive?  In my view,  the City leadership  should  , reconsider this directive and conduct more consultations and dialogue with relevant stakeholders to ensure a win-win deal. Alternatively, the City administration should negotiate with the owners of those commercial buildings to set affordable rent prices to avoid  business operate in residential facilities.

And finally, is the City of Kigali willing to listen to the inputs of the people, as emphasized by His Excellency in his New Year address.

[1] The New Times No.4197 on http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/article/2017-01-05/206842/ accessed on 5/1/2017

POST ELECTION VIOLENCE IN AFRICA: WHERE IS THE RULE OF LAW?

“It is election time? Stock up and stay indoors, it is that time of the year again!” This statement may seem like part of a script in a fictional movie but it is a reality for a large number of citizens living within various countries in the African continent. It is an open secret that election periods in these countries are characterized by violence, intimidation, flouting of laid down procedures and a myriad of other illegalities perpetrated by those seeking positions of power and their supporters.

Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Ethiopia, Republic of Congo, Chad and Gabon, to name but a few, are testaments to the violence that takes place before, during and after the elections phase. A simple online search will present any curious information seekers with stories, pictures and videos of both victims and culprits of these acts of violence. WHY THEN IS POST ELECTION VIOLENCE ALMOST A NORM IN THESE COUNTRIES? WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?

There have been studies and researches that have been done, albeit a few, that give possible explanations for the “trend” of post-election violence. These include but are not limited to: poor governance, poverty, patronage systems in political structures, previous failed or flawed elections, electoral misconduct and weak or compromised institutions and laws governing the electoral process. All countries, the world over, are governed by laws that are aimed at ensuring that all possible injustices that could occur are prevented or dealt with so as to ensure that they do not re-occur.

The prevalence of post-election violence cases is therefore a demonstration of the absence of the rule of law in the respective countries within which they occur. The rule of law indicates that all citizens within the jurisdiction of the law are subject to it and abide by it. This means that all aspects of social, economic and political activities are conducted according to and within the confines of the law with no exceptions. Bearing these definitions in mind, it becomes apparent that there is a huge gap in the observance of the rule of law in the countries where post-election violence is rife and growing ranging from the laws themselves to the institutions charged with application of the law.

The inadequacy of the laws stem from the fact that they are not airtight i.e. there are many loopholes within the laws themselves that allow electoral malpractices to go unpunished. This is exemplified in cases whereby those who are suspected of engaging in electoral misconduct are set free based on technicalities rather than proof of innocence. Even in cases where the laws do exist, they are blatantly disregarded by those who are supposed to abide by them such as the electoral bodies, law enforcement agencies, the politicians and the voters themselves. Reported cases of harassment of opposition groups by police, misconduct by election officials and voter bribery (buying of votes especially from the poor sometimes even in exchange for a packet of maize flour) are just a few examples of well known “accepted” activities during electioneering periods that are against the law but seem to go “unnoticed”.

The lack of independence of the judiciary is also a huge impediment to free, fair and non-violent elections whereby bipartisan rulings in election petitions are the order of the day. This breeds distrust of the judicial process and as a result forms the breeding ground for frustration among those seeking redress from the courts. At this juncture where the aggrieved parties feel that their issues of contention cannot be fairly judged under the law, they tend to resort to violence.

All the issues discussed above are, in no way, meant to justify or excuse violence of any form, but are aimed at addressing the underlying issues so as to have lasting remedies to the challenges that exist within the electoral process. Apart from a review of the electoral laws, all the citizens need to have high levels of integrity so as to ensure that the electoral process is not compromised at any level; be it by the voters, politicians or the judiciary. There is need for a turnaround in the “normal way of doing things” to a progressive culture in which the focus is not only in the present but also in the future.

THE AFRICAN PUZZLE; AN ENDOWED CONTINENT BLEMISHED BY DEFICIENCY IN THE CORE AREAS OF NEED

It has been said that to whom much is given, much is expected. This seems to be a paradox in the African continent where a lot of resources abound but the continent does not seem to be reaping the benefits in the wholesome manner that it should.

Africa is classified as the richest continent in terms of natural resources ranging from a large percent of the world’s mineral deposits, vast land reserves, wildlife and most of all it is enormously rich in terms of human capital. These components alone are a testament to the capability within Africa and the potential that lies therein. Why then, one might ask, is Africa and by extension majority of Africans not living up to its/their potential instead languishing in a state of poverty? This poverty is not only financial but also in terms of knowledge, opportunities and facilities. Why haven’t the leaders who have been tasked with the responsibility of managing this great continent been able to guide it to the ‘promised land’?

A leader is someone who is able to determine the needs of those he/she leads and envision a way in which he/she can provide for those needs. So the pertinent questions are: what are the needs of the African people and what are the leaders doing to cater to those needs? Let us begin by the simple, most basic needs. Food (including water), Shelter, Clothing. Can all Africans say that these three basic needs are within their reach? Taking it a step further, we look at access to medical care, education and sanitation. Are they feasible? The answer to all the above is a resounding NO! Even those that are able to access all of the above, more often than not, have to outsource what they need from other countries; including the leaders!

Coming from a solutions-based point of view, it is important to determine what the gaps are and then find ways and means to resolve them. It goes without saying that the resources, without effective mechanisms to utilize them, are of little to no use. Farming tools and a fertile piece of land are useless without the farmer who is both capable and willing to till the land so as to enable crops to grow on it. Since we have established, based on the farming analogy, that the “land and tools” are present in Africa; the point of focus now becomes the “farmer” who represents the leaders both in the private and public sectors.

Africa needs visionary leaders who are forward thinking and development oriented in their decision making and in the programs that they implement for those that they govern. We must begin to think of a future where we will be self-reliant as a continent and in our own individual national capacities using our own home grown policies. We must invest in sustainable farming/food production (actual farming not the metaphor) methods, water conservation, suitable and safe housing, indigenous and affordable clothing, well equipped healthcare facilities and policies, quality education that is accessible to all and proper sanitation.

Putting all these systems in place will ensure that we, Africans, have all we need right in the comforts of our own countries and we do not have to take long journeys to look for what is right under our noses. This will also facilitate self-actualization where citizens who have all they need at the basic level are able to look beyond that and grow their skills and knowledge so as to reach their full potential and by extension bring Africa as a continent up where it belongs.

By Joseph Nkurunziza

Poor public service delivery slowing development in Africa

The consequences of corruption in Africa are evident in the poor standards of living and slow rate of development. Rwanda has come a long way in terms of development since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi that led to the loss of more than one million lives and dilapidated public institutions and structures. A lot has been achieved so far to rebuild the nation. However, more needs to be done to position Rwanda as a center of excellence on various fronts in Africa in line with the vision of the country.

The public service sector is a key driver for growth in any country. Substantial public funds and foreign investments are channeled through public institutions and some development programs are implemented in collaboration with these institutions highlighting the pivotal role of the sector. For Rwanda to achieve sustainable development it is paramount that corruption is stemmed out of public institutions.

While corruption leads to poor service delivery for citizens, the converse is also true. Poor public service delivery leads to frustration among the service beneficiaries many a times leaving them with little choice but to engage in corrupt practices to access services that they are in the first place entitled to. Corruption in the public sector has led many African states to experience stagnated growth.

Africa is not poor but poorly managed. The main reason Africa has lagged behind in development is not because of a lack of resources but rather mismanagement of resources. Many African states have rich natural resources in terms of minerals deposits such as gold and oil which should by now have contributed to advanced development. Mismanagement of resources leading to corruption is the greatest cause for underdevelopment. Developed countries with little or no natural resources have been able to overtake Africa in development simply because they have managed their resources and even managed our own resources to benefit themselves.

It is high time that Africa awakened to the fact that corruption can never be effectively dealt with if states do not invest in proper management systems and processes for effective public service delivery. Frustrations due to poor service delivery drives corruption when citizens do not get what they are entitled to.

A common frustration that many face with the public sector is delayed payments by public institutions for services rendered or goods sold. There are no systems in place to hold public institutions accountable for delayed payments. This has created a loop hole in the sector where public servants manipulate citizens to bribe them in order for their payments to be processed faster. In this case frustrated citizens are coerced to bribe so that they can beat the system that has refused to change to foster development. In the end, the service provider has not got the full worth of his work and has encouraged corruption within the sector so the next service provider will also be forced to part with his or her earnings. This cycle continues and has been repeating itself for many years. Such loop holes have fostered a culture of corruption that has infiltrated many areas in the public sector.

Public servants have also exploited the public tendering process where management systems are weak. Citizens and public servants in institutions collude to obtain inside information on how to win tenders. Such widespread corruption hurts the integrity of public institutions limiting their effectiveness in contributing towards development.

Certainly both citizens and governments are to blame for corruption. On the one hand governments for failing to put in place proper systems that do not frustrate citizens forcing them to engage in corruption and on the other hand citizens for not speaking up and demanding for action for these systems to be put in place.

Fighting corruption requires the joint effort of both citizens and the government whereby each effectively performs their duties.

By Dr. Joseph Nkurunziza