In May 2000, The Economist magazine splashed a damning headline across its pages, indicting the African continent as having failed – politically, economically, and socially. “Hopeless Africa,” screamed the headline of the 11 May edition. The article focused on Sierra Leone, which was engulfed in a never-ending dreadful civil war.

“Indeed, since the difficulties of helping Sierra Leone seemed so intractable, and since Sierra Leone seemed to epitomise so much of the rest of Africa, it began to look as though the world might just give up on the entire continent,” noted the article.

The symbolism of Sierra Leone could not escape the attention of the average reader. Former slaves from the Americas birthed the country; and by the 19th century, the West African nation was touted as a beacon of hope.

In May 2002, Sierra Leone steadfastly began its journey towards a democratic country. It held its second democratic elections after a peace settlement had been reached, ushering in a new dispensation. Indeed, in 2018 we witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another.

The Economist article might have been harsh, to say the least; but what it missed was the 1990s renaissance that set the stage for the opening of the civic space, as evidenced by the multipartyism wave that swept across the continent.

The 1990s saw the media, citizens, women’s groups, civil society organisations and opposition groups clamouring for change and urging governments to open up civic space and respect human rights, freedom of expression, and association, among a litany of other civil liberties.
Pressure from the international community also forced authoritarian leaders to abolish obstructionist government policies and start opening up the civic space.

Niger, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Cameroon, Benin, Togo and Mali are some of the sub-Saharan African countries that ushered in multipartyism, following pressure mounted by civil society organisations and the media, among others. And 11 February 1990 will remain a memorable day for Africa, as former South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. One year later, the Africa National Congress won an electoral majority in the country’s first free elections, and Mandela was elected South Africa’s president. Activists, the media, and many other players helped in toppling South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.
And in 2011, The Economist ran a cover story under the banner “Africa Rises,” which noted that the continent’s economic exploits were on the upswing, with improved governance.
February 11, 1990 will always remain a memorable day for Africa, as former South African leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. (Photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The long road

How had this come about? The 1960s marked the end of colonialism for many African countries. Over the decades since, the media and civil society organisations have proved to be critical actors in ensuring that Africa’s civic space is safeguarded. They have played an essential part in connecting government institutions, policymakers and the general public, and have played the critical role of watchdog when accountability is needed.

These two key players – the media and CSOs – played a significant part in the push for reform. The latter provided a narrative, while the former delivered a channel for the narrative. And they continue to do so: for example, they ensure that necessary checks and balances are imposed on the government or powerful ruling elite; and they promote social and economic growth and democracy, promote freedom of speech, and protect and strengthen civic space and participation, among other goals.

It is no wonder that journalists and activists suffer the most in the fight to open up civic space in Africa. On the verge of holding its presidential elections, Uganda is an excellent example of this.

But there are many examples of the power of journalism and activism. In Kenya, for instance, the agitation of political pluralism began in earnest in the 1980s. In 1991 the late Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi capitulated and forced the repeal of Section 2A, paving the way for the first multiparty elections in 1992. This constitutional change also allowed the introduction of term limits for the Presidency.

How did this happen? Following the abortive 1982 coup, Moi had tightened his grip on government, and launched a massive crackdown on government critics and dissidents. He undermined the rule of law and respect for human rights in Kenya and completely stifled the civic space, eventually becoming a ruthless dictator.

But ad hoc social movements were cobbled together, made up of the opposition, the clergy, media intellectuals, CSOs, and academia. They applied pressure on the government to open up the civic space.

One such successful coalition was the Ufungamano Initiative, a powerful movement involved in the push for constitutional reforms between 1999 and 2005. The media, activists and the clergy were at the forefront of this initiative. It ushered in a new era, which saw civic spaces opening up for democratic engagement in the constitutional reform process. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution is now considered among the most progressive constitutions in the world in terms of guaranteeing basic human rights.

The media and CSOs played a critical role in the constitution-making process. But despite their massive success, such coalitions always have limitations; the Ufungamano Initiative saw most of its leading lights co-opted by the government.

    The 1960s marked the end of colonialism for many African countries. Over the decades since, the media and civil society organisations have proved to be critical actors in ensuring that Africa’s civic space is safeguarded.

In his 2012 thesis titled ‘The power and limits of social movements in promoting political and constitutional change: the case of the Ufungamano Initiative in Kenya (1999-2005)’, Jacob Mwathi Mati, a senior lecturer at Sol Plaatje University, aptly notes: “While holding so much power and promise, movements are limited in their ability to affect fundamental changes in society. Even after substantial gains in challenging the state, the Ufungamano Initiative was vulnerable and agreed to enter a ̳coerced merger with the state-led process in 2001. The merger dissipated the Ufungamano Initiative’s energy.”

From this account, one can safely deduce that the media and CSOs only coalesce when their interests are threatened. Indeed, the media and CSOs view each other with suspicion; each accuses the other of pursuing different agendas, partly because of their business models.

While externally funded CSOs may advocate for the opening up of civic space, the media care about the bottom line. Secondly, the media always accuses CSOs of advancing a foreign agenda. The CSOs, on the other hand, blame the media for not clearly understanding their role in the CSO ecosystem.

It gets even more complex: the majority of the media houses are owned by the political class, further undermining the impact of such media houses in fighting for or safeguarding the civic space.

What works

But despite these challenges, all hope is not lost. The advent of social media has seen the emergence of people journalism, or citizen journalism. A good example is how social media played a part in the recent ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings: the fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were attributed mainly to Facebook and Twitter. Networks formed online were crucial in organising a core group of activists, specifically in Egypt.

However, traditional or legacy media still has some advantages over the new media; fact-checking remains the most significant.

The Innovation for Change (I4C) Africa Hub’s vision is to protect, respect, strengthen, expand, and recover civil society space. The Hub’s vision for success is to build a support and referrals system that is more demand-driven, from the field and the various organisations, individuals, and groups – whether they are community-based, networks, grassroots or technical organisations – who might require specific support or services.
The Africa Hub has begun a collaborative initiative of working closely with media across the continent. This strategic partnership encompasses a range of initiatives – such as facilitating media data festivals, which involve journalists training on how to harness data in their work and how to combat fake news during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2020, despite the pandemic’s challenges, we encouraged journalists to participate in the thematic webinars we facilitated across the continent, and to participate as partners. We are also planning to facilitate interviews with leading human rights activists across the continent’s five major regions. As we advance in our mandate, we are in the process of identifying areas of more resonant and meaningful collaboration.

The partnership may be amorphous; however, we feel that in the future these nascent steps may help to define a well-organised and structured coalition.

In conclusion, there is still an opportunity for the media and CSOs to coalesce and pursue common interests. it should not escape us that the two together are a central pillar of a country’s civic space. They still research, advocate in the public interest, and speak out regarding civic threats.