Chuck Parnell explores how the relative strength of civil society is the key to successful political transitions.

President Joyce Banda
President Joyce Banda of Malawi sits next to US President Barack Obama after his meeting with African leaders at the White House in Washington last week. (Credit: Reuters)

In recent times, southern Africa has witnessed a series of game-changing economic and political upheavals, followed closely by government transitions that have either produced good results or failed to live up to the promise of a new broom.

Civil society occupies that nebulous space between the formal institutions and political edifice of the state and the general population. Its composition varies from country to country but generally civil society is made up of charitable organizations, cultural movements, faith based groups, 'professional' service delivery organisations and the dappled mosaic of non-governmental organisations, or NGOs.

Civil society in developed countries has quite a different makeup to its equivalent in the developing world. In poor African countries like Ethiopia or Malawi, civil society is comprised of literally thousands of NGOs that provide services to fill the gaps left by underdeveloped state infrastructure.

They compete for external donor funding to implement projects predominantly aimed at improving health services, reducing poverty and improving the efficiency of agricultural practices. Some also try - where possible - to promote human rights, democracy and good governance.


In this way, most indigenous NGOs have become dependent on donor Dollars and Euros for their survival. This funding structure provides African governments and political parties with a convenient stick to beat civil society with. There is no doubt that the "you take Western money, so you must be agents for their interests" argument dents civil society's legitimacy but because these governments also accept large amounts of free money from the West, it often falls flat.

Despite finding themselves sometimes in a tight financial corner, civil society movements across Africa have shown their worth time and time again as a means of countering runaway political ambitions, shining a light on corruption and pressurising regimes to respect the rule of law.

Around the turn of this century, the incumbent presidents of Zambia and Malawi attempted to amend their constitutions to allow them to rule for a third term. Such longevity in office is not rare in Africa, with some leaders elected in the 1970's and 1980's still in office today.

It was not to be however for the presidents of Zambia and Malawi as vigorous and vocal civil society coalitions emerged in both countries to force the ruling party to hand power over to a successor. Almost 15 years later, it is clear that both countries undoubtedly benefitted from these changes both in terms of economic and democratic development.

Testing resolve

Now however, Zambia and Malawi are facing renewed challenges that are once again testing civil society's resolve.

President Michael Sata came to power in Zambia following peaceful, free and fair elections in September 2011. Since then, his autocratic and often wildly erratic style of rule has set the country on a downward spiral characterised by government and police intimidation of civil society organisations, tightened restrictions on public gatherings, sustained harassment and repeated arrests of opposition leaders and political interference with the judiciary.

The government has also ramped-up its anti-Western rhetoric, with President Sata recently warning foreign diplomats that they should refrain from speaking governance issues to anyone but the government itself.

Although Zambian civil society has been damaged by the co-option of some of its most vocal leaders into government, a core of committed activists - both young and old - has the potential to combine their memory of past successes with the energy of a new generation who have far higher expectations of their government than their forebears had. Youth groups are particularly vocal - and therefore a big target for the government, who have sent some youth organisations threatening letters and banned them from holding public discussions on a new constitution.

Human rights abuses

The situation in Malawi is equally fluid. President Joyce Banda assumed office a year ago following the sudden death of President Mutharika, who had been accused of serious human rights abuses and restricting civil and political space in the country.

Banda is a former civil society leader herself, and was thus seen as a great friend of the multiple human rights and pro-freedom organizations that Malawian civil society is home to.

The initial months of her rule were marked by some good progress, the repeal of several pieces of repressive legislation and an openly constructive attitude towards meeting with and taking on board the views of civil society.

As elections approach in 2014 however, the damage done to Malawian civil society during the transition is becoming apparent. Having coalesced in the face of a common enemy under Mutharika, civil society in Malawi now finds itself directionless, splintered and conflicted. Like in Zambia, many of the best civil society people now hold important government jobs.

The remainder struggle to find a new identity under a government that has made some progress but that has failed to address some key rule of law, human rights and judicial independence challenges. This is a worrying trajectory ahead of the tripartite polls next year.

The story of civil society in Malawi and Zambia reveals the ease with which a watchful civil society can go into hibernation shortly after a political transition - and particularly a transition to a party or leader perceived as 'friendly' to the NGO world.

In both cases the transition was welcomed as a victory for civil society and without doubt their views have been taken on board more openly than they were under the previous regimes. Nonetheless, civil society now finds itself more under pressure and in need of a compass than it once was.

Safeguarding civic space

What civil society in both countries should now focus on - and what their funders should encourage - is the safeguarding of the civic space that does exist. This entails fighting against repressive new NGO legislation, pushing for the greater freedom of information, calling for media freedoms and the repeal of outdated criminal defamation and public order laws.

Without that space, civil society will lose its ability to stand up against real repression, if and when it comes.

Civil society experienced this in Ethiopia, where the government essentially shut off any foreign funding for organizations that wanted to advocate for greater freedoms, human rights and democracy. That has had a devastating effect on the country and effectively removed any space for independent oversight of the government.

The global financial crises has also reduced funding available to civil society, thus further weakening their voice, not just in Ethiopia but across the African continent.

Those with an interest in managing turbulent political transitions in any part of the world could do well to take heed of these experiences and react accordingly to recognise the undeniable value of an independent civil society - in good times and in bad.

Chuck Parnell works on civil society development in southern Africa and writes in his personal capacity.