Yesterday was International Day of Democracy. This year, the theme is Spaces for Civil Society, underlining the importance of civil society organisations, also referred to as the oxygen for democracy. Our Features Analyst ARCHIBALD KASAKURA looks at their performance since the advent of multiparty politics in 1993. He writes:
The pressure that pushed for the introduction of multipartysm in Malawi from the year 1992 emanated from a wide range of sources-without a stroke of doubt civil society organisations (CSOs) played a pivotal role in the pursuit for democratic governance.
A combination of the faith community and trade unions formed part of the larger CSO community that pressed for political reforms to a country that had long been under the whims of authoritarian rule spanning over three decades.
Today, Malawi having clocked 21 years of democratic rule, perhaps it is time to take a stock of how CSOs in the country have performed more so as September 15 2015 marked the International Day of Democracy-themed on the importance of a vibrant civil society in the consolidation of democracy.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its guide to CSOs working on democratic governance of 2005, defined civil society as a third sector existing alongside and interacting with the state and private sector adding that CSOs are an important part of the democratic process, being an arena for both ‘collaboration and contention.
Over the past few years the country has seen a mixture of the two parts of state and CSO interaction, which has proved to be a double edged sword in that while on one side the state and CSOs seems to talk the same language of development, the two parties have always been at loggerheads when it comes to advocacy on good governance.
Memories are still fresh of the great antagonism between CSOs and the state which permeated into country-wide demonstrations that sent 20 Malawians to their early graves at the hands of the police in 2011.
Amidst the tussling and jostling over issues between state and CSOs, the masses lie in the middle, whose only hope is that their government would uphold civil liberties as enshrined in the country’s republican constitution.
Political commentator Chimwemwe Tsitsi, while acknowledging the gains made by the CSO platform in Malawi, demands some radical changes in the way the civil society in the country operates.
“To a greater extent, the CSOs in the country have performed better since the advent of democracy in 1993. While I am of this opinion it is good to consider the civil society in broader terms, that is to include the faith community, media, academia and the traditional non-governmental organisations,” he says.
According to him, the July 20 2011 nationwide demonstrations and the nine-month stand-off between government and the academia on the academic freedom remains some of the major success stories which sent a clear message to government not to take people lightly.
In his perspective, while gains have been registered during the past 21 years of democratic rule, gaps have also been noted which the CSO community must address if they want to remain relevant and add value to the country’s democratic process.
“It is obvious that some dissenting voices from the CSO platform have so far been muted by appointments into some statutory bodies. This affects efforts to strengthen and unify CSOs as most critical voices become absent whenever there are lapses in governance,” he explains.
Tsitsi also commends the role played by the private media in ensuring that the rights of the country’s citizens are fully protected by all, but cautions against the press sitting on its laurels and compromising its watchdog role for financial gain.
Taking stock of the overall performance of the civil society in the country, renowned historian Desmond Dudwa Phiri sums it up as ‘impressive but shaky.’
“From what we have seen since the advent of multiparty system of government in 1993, CSOs have defended well the country’s hardly won rights and liberties. The July 20, 2011 protests remain the summit of the resolve by the civil society to refuse political patronage by the ruling clique. Suffice to say there is still a big room for improvement,” he states.
Phiri cites anti-injunction laws, muzzling of the press, the modification of the national flag and the then licence given to the police to search citizens without any warrant by the former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) regimes as being some highlights the larger CSO community can boast of having achieved to stop.
Chairperson of the Council for Non Governmental Organisations (Congoma)—the umbrella body for all CSOs in the country, Mcbain Mkandawire, believes the past two decades of CSO work in the country has been but a ‘mixed bag’.
“The first role of CSO in a democratic dispensation is top play a watchdog role by providing checks and balances to government in a way of raising up voices when something is going wrong. In as far as we are concerned, CSOs have managed to do that perfectly,” he says. “A good example would be how CSOs stood up against efforts by former president Bakili Muluzi to introduce open and third terms of office.”
According to Mkandawire the country’s politicians still have a lot to learn on what the CSO platform stands for describing the relationship between the state and the civil society at times as ‘cat and mouse’.
“Some politicians think CSOs are part of opposition and that creates problems of its own. However as CSOs we have to maintain our neutrality at all times, an area I think we have not done very well and we need to change,” he adds.
Mkandawire’s sentiments are even corroborated by executive director for Public Affairs Committee (PAC) Robert Phiri who goes on to discuss the tension that has always been a dominant feature between the society and politicians in government.
“Of course, at different times, CSOs have been described differently by stakeholders depending on their interventions. When CSO advocacy intervention runs counter to what the state machinery wants, there are always suspicions that perhaps the CSOs are being influenced by donor partners or opposition parties. This is regardless of the fact that the activities being implemented could be traditional in nature irrespective of a government that is in power,” he adds.
Phiri cites PAC’s role in enhancing public dialogue, social cohesion and advocacy for policy formulation, among many others.
Currently , CSOs are involved in consultations surrounding issues of electoral reform, pushing for the effective tackling of Section 65, undertaking civic education projects and enhancing debate on contentious issues in order to come up with a minimum consensus.
Lately, PAC has led discussions on the country’s national vision and calls to establish a Permanent Planning Commission to insulate government policies which emerge from its conferences of 2012 and 2014.
But while the civil society points at their successes and the supposedly negative perception politicians have on them-those in politics also feel CSOs need to refocus.
“Some CSOs are more personalised and not necessarily institutionalised as organisations ought to be,” says UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga. “As such, they have ended up losing credibility because their actions are perceived to be ideas of an individual. The CSOs claim to be serving the interest of the people of Malawi however there are no properly set up mechanisms for accountability. Some CSOs tend to promote the agenda of their financiers than the people they claim to serve.”
However, Peoples Party (PP) spokesperson Ken Msonda thinks the CSO movement in Malawi has derogated their responsibility.
“During the1993 transition to multiparty democracy CSOs played their rightful role as a watchdog. They were very non-partisan and focused but during the 2014 Tripartite General Elections CSO members showed their political affiliations for monetary, tribal, regional and political gains. That has weakened the grouping,” observes Msonda.
In the final analysis, Tsitsi calls upon the CSO platform to consistently press for electoral reforms.
“The 2014 Tripartite elections exposed glaring inconsistencies in the country’s electoral laws. If left unaddressed this might not only result into voter apathy but also might be a recipe for post-election violence. Surely the country needs to upgrade to the 50 plus one electoral system and the civil society are in the right position to push for the same,” he says. n