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Understanding Civic Space: A Vital Resource for every West African Citizen

In June 2016, I completed the Next Generation Internship programme, a youth leadership programme designed and organised by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). It was an amazing learning and sharing experience. After the internship, the institute approached me to work as a project officer on the CIVICUS monitor, a system which aims to track civic space violations across the globe and I was responsible for collating data on violations in nine (9) West African countries.  WACSI is the West Africa Research Lead for the project. The project’s philosophy is based on appreciating and understanding that open civic and political space is a core component of a strong and robust democracy. This is where citizens can freely enjoy their right to associate, peacefully assemble and freely express their views and opinions in addition to the state exercising its responsibility to protect. 

My task as the Project Officer was to collect data on violations of citizens’ freedoms from mainly secondary sources of information. I gathered this information from the institute’s regional network of organisations and from media reportage from across the region. What struck me was the scarcity of information related to violations of basic rights in various parts of the region. Even though my interactions with contacts on the ground helped me fill the gap on missing information, it was quite challenging to present this information without concrete, verifiable evidence. Effectively monitoring violations at the local level was a nightmare. This uncomfortable reality led me to ask myself the following questions: Are West Africans able to clearly identify situations in which their rights are being violated? And most importantly, are these violations adequately reported?

The process of tracking civic space violations in West Africa was a real eye opener, revealing there was an increasing threat on citizens’ freedoms and operations of citizens’ groupings. It was also clear that citizens needed to be empowered to fight back, to reclaim and expand their spaces for engagement. Clearly, civic education and evidence based reporting are tools that need to be deepened and utilised to empower citizens.

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, civic education is all the processes that affect people's beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities . West Africans need to be educated on their rights in a democracy. It is imperative that every West African citizen knows how to protect and exercise his or her freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. This is critical because before talking about violation of basic human rights, there needs to be awareness of those rights. An adequate knowledge of their fundamental human rights is the most powerful tool a citizen can use to protect himself from any violation.

The reinforcement must start from the lowest level of our education systems. The content of a countries’ Constitutions, international treaties and all the laws and regulations must be adapted and taught at each level.

Civic education is not for informational purpose; it is rather to galvanize to impact positive change! Therefore, evidenced-based reporting is key. Reporting is a crucial tool in monitoring human rights violations. Platforms such as the CIVICUS Monitor rely on reports on civic space violations to record, track threats and inform on ways in which human rights are challenged in order to spark dialogue and advocacy where it is needed.

Sadly, sometimes our cultural beliefs also prevent citizens from reporting violations of their rights. For example, in Ghana, there is a common saying, “Fama Nyame”, an expression in Twi meaning “Leave it to God”. Per this philosophy, we are expected to relinquish our God-given rights, expecting him to fight on our behalf when they are violated. This philosophy is just one example among a complex set of cultural beliefs in West Africa that promote a naïve, conflict-avoidance attitude which undermines the ability of members our society to report and defend its rights.

The time has come for West Africans to take their own destinies into their hands and demand that their fundamental human rights be recognized and respected. The CIVICUS monitor is an opportunity for civil society to empower citizens with the data and evidence they need to defend and expand their spaces of engagement and their rights to a dignified existence.

*The Author, Chamrid Kpadonou is WACSI’s Project officer, Drug Policy Reform Project and Former Coordinator of the Civic Space Project

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Chamrid Kpadonou