What does our data say about civic space in Africa?

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By Sun-Min Kim – April 27, 2016, updated on August 18, 2016


This Monday saw the beginning of the International Civil Society Week 2016 in Bogotá, Colombia under the theme “Active Citizens, Accountable Actions”. We are not able to be there unfortunately, but are watching closely from afar and – by way of virtual participation – wanted to share some findings from our Africa Integrity Indicators (AII) initiative, an annual assessment focused on transparency and accountability mechanisms in all 54 African countries. Of particular relevance this week is the Rights subcategory that contains indicators focusing on civic and civil society space.

Concerns about shrinking civic spaces around the globe are growing and have increasingly been voiced (see blog posts of the Open Government Partnership here, of the Open Society Foundation here and of openDemocracy here). The AII Round 4 data, released on April 1st, 2016, sheds some light on relevant developments on the African continent between the period of September 2014 and September 2015.

Specifically, indicator 67 focuses on freedom of association and assembly, and the ability of citizens to gather to publicly express dissent. The following indicators 6869 and 70 assess the space within which NGOs operate. Continental averages of all four indicators remain between the ‘weak’ (21-40) and ‘somewhat weak’ (41-60) range on the Global Integrity scale, with indicator 67 showing the lowest average at 39 and indicator 70 the highest average at 60.

However, such averages mask the differences between countries, as well as very substantial information about deteriorations or bright spots found at the indicator level. For example, while citizens were able to freely associate in public in Malawi, and the registration process for NGOs was simplified in Liberia to facilitate their operation, no NGO has been able to operate in Eritrea ever since a general shut down of local and foreign NGOs between 2005 and 2012, and cases of arrests and imprisonment of NGO employees were reported in the case of Sudan. In fact, just six countries earned 100 scores on all four of indicators and four earned a 0 score across the set.

Here are some selected highlights:

  • Only in around one quarter of the countries did citizens enjoy a high level of freedom of assembly. While only 12 out of 54 African countries (24%) earned high scores of 75 or 100, almost half of the countries (46%) scored a 0 or a 25. This remains almost unchanged from findings of the 2015 research when 48% of the countries scored low on indicator 67, which assesses citizens’ ability to associate freely. Instances of closing space included among others Burundi and the Republic of Congo. In Burundi’s case, the country’s low score reflected the violent repressions of public demonstrations that erupted after the incumbent president had announced to run for a third mandate during the presidential elections of July 2015. According to the research, numerous protests were organized by political parties and civil society organizations against such a controversial third mandate, and only rallies in favor of the president’s candidacy were authorized. Similarly, in the Republic of Congo, demonstrations against a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for the incumbent president Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for an additional mandate also faced hurdles. The research reports that prior meetings by the opposition in October and November 2014 had also been dispersed and certain members arrested. In Cameroon, the already restrictive environment for citizens was exacerbated by the adoption of an anti-terrorism law during the study period.
  • In half of the countries, NGOs were able to organize freely. The government also did not put in place barriers for establishing new ones in these countries. However, in about one third of the countries (19), there remained major hurdles for NGOs. For instance, in Uganda, NGOs operate in a limiting environment as regulations in place are restrictive; as the research reports, under the Public Order Management Act of 2013, NGOs are required to inform the police of meetings that involve more than five people. Further, the national NGO board includes members of the government’s internal and external intelligence agency. In April 2015, an NGO bill containing requirements for operating permits for NGOs was before the parliament’s Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs.
  • In half of the countries NGO employees were able to operate freely, while in 24 countries (44%) more than one case of NGO employees being threatened or physically harmed as a retribution to their work was reported. For instance, in Tanzania, some NGOs were subject to governmental threats and intimidation. In December 2014, the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition voiced criticism against the government’s frequent intimidation and threats against 17 NGOs advocating the land rights of the Maasai in Lolindo, as reported in the research. This stands in contrast to the higher score this indicator received in the previous round of research, as during the 2015 study period no cases had been reported of NGO employees being killed, interrogated, threatened or physically harmed in retribution to their work.
  • 29 countries earned high scores of 75 or 100 on indicator 70, indicating that NGOs were free to operate without being shut down, or harassed with targeted administrative burdens, investigations or sanctions. This indicator saw an overall increase by 3 average points compared to the 2015 research. For instance, in Zambia, no particular incidents were reported. The research, in fact, saw a score increase from 0 in 2015 to 75 in 2016, as the government consulted NGOs regarding a review of the NGO Act of 2009. In effect since July 2013, the Act is deemed to be onerous on NGOs requiring a lengthy registration process. This is an improvement compared to the 2015 research, when NGOs had faced regular threats of deregistration from the government, unless they registered under the NGO Act.
  • However, in about one third of the countries, the low level of freedom remain unchanged. When compared to the 2015 research, indicators 67 and 70 show no change in 31 and 38 countries respectively. Among these countries, 18 and 21 countries maintained their low scores of 0 or 25. Examples include countries such as Angola, where independent activists were arrested for protesting against human rights violations and engaging in peaceful political activism.

The Africa Integrity Indicators is an annual assessment of key social, economic, political and anti-corruption mechanisms at the national level across the continent and has been the result of Global Integrity’s collaboration with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation since 2012. The indicators are divided into two main categories – Transparency & Accountability and Social Development – that examine thematic areas of rule of law, accountability, elections, public management, civil service integrity, access to information, gender, rights, welfare, rural sector, business environment, health and education.

The data is designed to be particularly fruitful in identifying both bright spots as well as areas where improvements are needed. To ensure that it is as useful as possible for users, Global Integrity is currently preparing country findings of its most recently published AII data. To see the first ones available on Algeria and Zimbabwe, access our website here. All others will be posted within the coming weeks as soon as they are available. Also, if you’re interested in working with this data to identify opportunities to support open governance efforts in your country, contact us at aii@globalintegrity.org.   


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