Civil society as a corner stone for democracy in Central Africa

The 50 European member organisations of EurAc share a common understanding of development and partnership, one which addresses the structural causes of underdevelopment of the people and supports or accompanies local initiatives. The identification, implementation and evaluation of development activities are primarily done by our partners and by the local communities we support.
Supporting Central African civil society organisations as well as policy and lobbying work have become increasingly important priorities for EurAc, as civil society organisations have often been the only actors providing essential services to the people, due to the weakening of the state and the departure of the international community from the scene. This support has been accompanied by a wish, clearly advocated by local organisations, to support the establishment of institutions which aim to promote the rule of law.
By civil society EurAc understands: the combination of social forces organised independently from the state. Among these forces are: the Churches, media, non-profit organisations or/and common interest groups, such as the women’s movement, trade unions, development NGOs, human rights groups, etc.. Civil society can and should be a key player in the peaceful, democratic, political, social and economic development of each country and of the region, because of its roots within the local population and its active contribution to the establishment of a democratic rule of law based on principles of non-violence, transparency and accountability.
Central Africa is emerging from a long period of crisis and political, economic and social instability which has led to the almost complete dismantling of the state, the political institutions, the justice system, and all administrative structures. The socio-economic infrastructure has been greatly weakened and in many cases totally destroyed. For decades the three countries of the region have been without proper governance which has, for the most part, been the cause of the collapse of the state and the ensuing crisis.
The crises in each country respectively occurred in the context of the extremely problematic regional and international situation leading to a conflict in the 1990s which has been called «The first African World War». The main issues in the conflict were border security and competition for the natural resources of the Congo.
Since then the three countries have undergone periods of transition culminating in elections.  However, the elections will not bring about true democracy unless they are accompanied by a new culture of good governance, including mechanisms by which government representatives can be questioned, forced to be transparent and able to justify their actions.

Some areas where we see the role of the civil society as crucial:

1) Civil society has an important role to play in the organisation of local elections: the complex nature of the political concepts and the fact that democracy is only at an embryonic stage make grass roots mobilisation and awareness raising vital, through civic and electoral education. EurAc believes that the organization of free and fair elections on the local level is an important step in the development of democracy, and continues to plead together with the Congolese civil society to organize the local elections in 2010. We will also support the civil society in its efforts to organize the independent monitoring of the elections.
2) We believe that the decentralisation process in Central Africa is very important. Decentralisation should consolidate democracy from below by creating a framework for participative governance. It will help to reconstruct the state and restore its credibility. It will also be a school for democracy where citizens learn how democracy works. It will facilitate the renewal of the political landscape and the emergence of new leadership and at the same time it will encourage a more harmonious economic development based on local initiatives rooted in the community. Civil society has a contribution to give in the preparation, implementation and follow up of the decentralisation process.
3) Governance is about the way public activities are carried out and how public resources are administered. The extent to which authorities are effective and accountable has a great influence on local development. We emphasize the importance of citizens’ involvement in a process of national reconstruction and the establishment of citizen control at grass roots level to strengthen responsible governance from the lowest to the highest level in the political system. Essential is the creation of mechanisms and principles of transparency and liability for the management of mineral and forest resources, the illicit exploitation of which has become a major reason for the continuing impunity.
4) Civil society organizations are in an excellent position to establish and reinforce the links between communities in a divided society, so they have a key role in reconciliation projects and peace building activities at the local as well as the national level.
5) EurAc strongly believes in the interdependency of the different countries in the region. No country will find sustainable solutions to its problems if these solutions are not part of a coherent global regional approach. Different initiatives have been made to overcome the different gaps between the countries in the region and to install mechanisms of regional collaboration.. For instance the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, led by Ambassador Mula Mula. We strongly believe in the relevance of such initiatives and we will continue our advocacy to reinforce the International Conference. But at the same time, we notice that it is not yet a reality felt by the common citizen. We see an important role for civil society to raise awareness about the ICGLR  and the Nairobi Pact at local level in the different countries. A better connection between the Secretariat in Bujumbura, the various national committees, and the field could further strengthen this.

Concluding remark

A strong and well structured civil society can play an important role in a process of peace consolidation, reconstruction and sustainable development. EurAc pleads for an important investment in favour of its work and structures, in terms of finances and expertise, and pleads for the creation and protection of the political space for civil society, including the press, to play its role independently.
Kris Berwouts, director EurAc
Central Africa Conference Konrad Adenauer Stiftung
October 5th, 2009

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