Civil Society and Peace building in Africa? Are NGOs cracking under the whip?

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have been known to play an important catalytic role in promotion of collaboration across the spectrum of peace building. The past decade has witnessed a significant contribution by CSOs in peace building and democratization process. Exponents and critics of this thinking will definitely have more to say on this subject that I can dare attempt, yet the major question today is no longer ‘whether’ CSOs have a role to play in peace building but ‘how’ they can be more effective in doing so.  Thus contemporary debates seem to dwell around challenges, opportunities and limitations of civil society organizations in exercising this right.

To mitigate some of the now only too familiar trajectory of conflict between the state and CSOs, many African governments have written and re-written legislation to ‘guide’ and control activities of CSOs, lest they forget their mandate. Of recent, the Ugandan media have been awash with explosive headlines such as “Government orders NGO to desist from politics” (Monitor, 23rd June 2012); and the apologies of Oxfam and Uganda Land Alliance for their claims over state land grabbing in the country. Although the two NGOs had previously made a strong case for their local sources on the land confiscation affecting some 20,000 people in Mubende and Kiboga, later developments saw them quickly shrink following threats of de-registration by government. Yet it remains a reality among locals that in September 2011, several families were forcefully evicted from the said land to pave way for a British forestry company to use it for planting trees. The said investor has since then withdrawn his bid when the matter became too controversial.

Such developments are not akin to Uganda or Africa for that matter, save that they are becoming too familiar. State after state seems to be grappling with the definition and actual limitation of the Civil Society; so then what is a CSO and what are its limits? Here I cannot help but take a peek into one out of a cluster of scholarly definitions: “an arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values” (World Bank, 2006). This definition suggests Civil Societies as a public domain where citizens and voluntarily organized groups freely commune to pursue interests pertinent to their aspirations. But when we are confronted with a shift in concept to that of civic engagement such as in Uganda’s “Citizen Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda” and “Civil Society Coalition on Oil” then we see the state becoming agitated and swiftly moving in with restrictive legislation. The question is; do we think the NGOs are biting more than they can chew, is the state getting unrealistic in its requirements or is there something fundamentally wrong with the whole understanding of the Civil Society? It would be nice to hear what you think.

Readings.

World Bank (2006) Civil Society and Peace Building: Potential Limitations and Critical factors. Social Development Dept. Report N0. 36445 GLB

Omara, A. and Ackson, T. (eds) 2010: Civil Society and Good Governance in Burundi: Promoting inclusiveness and people participation in the East African Community. A fact-finding report.

Rettbag, A. (2004) Business-Led Peace Building in Colombia: Fad or future of a country in crisis? Crisis States Programme, Working Papers Series No. 1.

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