Campaign Conference on Shrinking Global Civic Space By Okore Scheaffer

CampaignCon is an annual global skill-sharing event where activists, technologists, organizations and social movements share ideas, co-create and explore modern campaigning theory and practice. At CampaignCon 2017, 125 participants came together from across the world to explore how to build a more responsive civil society.

The continent needs robust CSOs that can mobilise and campaign more effectively in the digital era, facing growing authoritarianism, shrinking civic space and other threats. Siasa Place was one of the partners who got to represent the very dicey environment that Kenya is engaging in as regards to civic participation.

There are states grappling with life long serving presidents like Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea (35 years), José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (35 years), Paul Biya of Cameroon (32 years) among many others. Others are fighting for immediate regime change like Togo where thousands of Togolese are in the streets campaigning against the 50-year-rule of the Gnassingbe family, demanding the immediate resignation of President Faure Gnassingbe.

Then there are states like Kenya in the middle of a democratic transition and actualization of election credibility amidst many odds. Neighboring states like Rwanda that does not allow the questioning of the presidency neither does it condone any kind of contest of the presidential position. Uganda standing up against the law that seeks to change the age limit of the president, Burundi in the hands of a real time despot and South Sudan hanging on for dear life.

In these states and others unmentioned, the civic space is shrinking rapidly. Freedom of speech is heavily curtailed and respect for human rights remain extremely wanting. This is what many in civic space tried to find solutions to because what can’t be done is to allow the already existing silencing via state machinery and other external actors prevail.

Issues around supporting those in already existing civic space are vital because we must practice self-care as CSOs, activists and so on in order to be able to serve better. The networks we build ought to elevate the various works being done no mater how small. “It is obvious that many of us are going through a bad presidents moment” says Lerato, one of the participants from South Africa.

The reality we are facing is operating on hostile ground dealing with different kinds of censorship all the time. Any kind of dissent is criminalized and punished with unnecessary force as seen in various states. It emerged that the civic space itself wasn’t accommodating to everyone, it wasn’t being guided by the people’s agenda but by few individuals and that the struggles however similar the demographics in which they play out are different.

It requires that everyone in civic space right now be able to understand that the only way civic spaces became more inclusive and non-conforming to external agendas is by opening them up to new voices. The voices of these new activists, NGOs and CSOs need not be sidelined. Identifying the various tools being used to silence the marginalized is also a key element of understanding the spaces we operate in.

Poverty is one of the most effective tools being used by autocratic regimes to silence the masses. Anyone who feeds you controls you and so is the one who denies you the opportunity to feed yourself. Ignorance is yet another tool being used heavily to completely delude the masses from knowing what they can and cannot ask for. The lack of knowledge or how to use the knowledge is a gap intentionally created to mask bad leadership.

Persons in civic spaces have upon them the duty to educate, contextualize the various struggles and be able to connect these same struggle so as to create broader ownership amongst people. CSOs should move from boardrooms and be on the ground literally as that is where their impact and purpose is. Bassey a community mobilizer from Gambia said, “CSOs cannot claim to represent the community if they aren’t in communities.”

The mediums of engagement are also something we must all be thinking around when it comes to engaging in civic space. “The role played by technology is too important as we’ve witnessed in Tunisia where social media is leading in effective transfer of knowledge” says Mouna Ben from Civicus. Australian online satirical videos around political figures have been a great way of stirring consciousness amongst the people.

In Uganda as narrated by Scovia-a social justice champion- they built alliances with their progressive parliamentarians to stop the signing of the age limit bill. They got all their parliamentarians contacts, which they used to send them messages every two hours reminding them not to sign bill. This influx of messages from thousands of constituents got the parliamentarians worried that if they let the bill pass their constituents were watching meanwhile in the streets they wore red to symbolize solidarity.

“We are at a place where fighting for social justice is extremely challenging yet what got us here isn’t enough to take us to the next level” Michael Silberman moblab. The challenges we are facing now need new ways of response and those new ways are our challenge as social justice fighters. We must create links and a connectedness that is beyond borders, if our goal is singular.

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