top of page
  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Claiming Continental Rights within African Nation-States

This paper presented to the Oslo Governance Forum, October 4, 2011 by Irũngũ Houghton, Pan African Director, Oxfam

Abstract Two important trends inform the future of Africa. Firstly, the continent is currently experiencing greater economic growth and more effective governance than the previous decade. Secondly, the power and influence of African multi-lateral institutions, most notably, the African Union is on the rise. Whether these two trends lead to a more prosperous, just and democratic Africa depends on the capability of its citizens to claim freedoms and rights now enshrined in a raft of progressive continental human rights instruments and policy standards.

This paper examines these issues and offers three recent examples of attempts to realise these rights by CSOs and their coalitions. The African experience could offer lessons for colleagues working in other regions with multi-lateral organisations.

A Rapidly Changing Political Economy

Africa could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago.… Alongside the acceleration in [economic] growth, progress on the MDGs has been sufficiently rapid that many countries (such as Malawi,Ghana and Ethiopia) are likely to reach most of the goals, if not by 2015 then soon thereafter. Africa’s poverty rate was falling at one percentage point a year, from 59 per cent in 1995 to 50 per cent in 2005. Child mortality rates are declining; HIV/AIDS is stabilising; and primary completion rates are rising faster in Africa than anywhere else. Africa’s Future and the World Bank’s Role in it, 2010

A range of both African and non-African institutions have pointed to the sustained economic growth, social progress and relative peace within the continent even during a global economic crisis. One has even gone as far as speaking of Africa’s economies as “lions on the move”. While the global economy contracted, bringing a number of countries to their knees and an average of 0.6% growth rate, Africa is currently the second fastest growing regional economy after Asia. The majority of African economies are experiencing between 3-5% growth-rates with Sudan, Angola and Libya being among the ten fastest growing economies in the world in 2010. At current rates, Africa could become a US$13 trillion economy by 2050. This would be larger than North America or Europe in 2010.

From the time when Africa was racked with no less than 186 coups and 26 armed conflicts (1960 – 2000) to less than four major conflicts and five coups in 2011, it would seem that Africa has transformed itself. More than two thirds of Africa’s citizens now regularly hold elections to elect Governments of their choice. Seven citizens out of ten prefer electoral democracy as their favoured system of Government and two thirds feel it is their responsibility to hold their Governments accountable.

Yet, these achievements mask perverse inequalities and tremendous challenges for the majority of African citizens in terms of political, social and economic rights. These challenges can be captured in the context of progressive continental human rights instruments and governance standards agreed over the last decade.

Continental policy standards and the reality for African citizens

New Continental Standards Progress since the nineties

Right of citizens to participate in governance African Charter for Popular Participation for Democracy and Human Rights (1990), African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007)

Progress: From 49 to less than 5 states ruled by the military, one party states and de jure Life Presidents with 1/3 of countries have competitive elections, Justice sector reforms legalise information and association freedoms, Over 500 million own mobile phones. New and mass media multiples citizens choices with one in five people owning radios and one in ten communicating through the internet.

Challenges: Public revenue worth seventeen times more than aid financing routinely lost to capital flight and corruption, New laws outlaw/restrict organizational and information freedoms in Ethiopia among others, Violence and political intolerance accompanies one in four elections

Freedom from Discrimination and Violence Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003), African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child(1990), Post Conflict, Reconstruction Development Policy (2006) Progress: Ten countries have seen significant improvements in the representation of women in national assemblies, New laws criminalize early marriages, widow disinheritance, violence, female genital mutilation and other harmful cultural practices,

Challenges: Arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings most notably Nigeria, Guinea, Egypt, Eritrea and The Gambia, Armed opposition and Government security forces commit abuses in Libya, Central African Republic, Chad, DRC, Somalia and Sudan, Rise in ethnic, homophobic, patriarchical and religious fundamentalism, domestic violence

Economic rights realisation Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Plan (2003)

Progress: Eight of the 20 fastest growing economies in Africa with average growth rates set to return to 5%, Doubling of public agricultural investment

Challenges: Urbanization without industrialization leaves many without jobs, 44 countries import 25% of food needs, 313 million people denied right to food, recent price food hikes push 28 million people further into poverty, Corporate exploitation denies community livelihoods, fuels conflict

Social Rights Realisation Dakar Framework for Action-Education For All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments (2000), the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Other Related Infectious Diseases (2001), the Maputo Plan of Action for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights 2007-2010 (2006), the Africa Health Strategy: 2007–2015

Progress: Universal primary education and health-care provision, Improving child and adult mortality rates, HIV infection rates are falling 80% enrolment rates for primary education in 15 countries, Girls comprise of 45% primary schools students in 29 countries

Challenges: Huge inequities exist between urban and rural, rich and poor, Ten of thousands in urban areas without security, water or sanitation, Two out of every five men and women die of infectious diseases, One in sixteen women die at child-birth, Retention of girls and overall quality is still weak, One in three children out of school, Average teacher/pupil ratio in SSA is 45:1, above recommended 40:1 ratio

THE EXPANDING INFLUENCE OF MULTI-LATERALISM The choice before Africa is, therefore, not so much whether to unite or not to unite – that, indeed, is already a settled historical issue. The real options centre on a set of starker choices: collective self-reliance or perpetual foreign dependence; collective autonomy or continued foreign domination; a continent with one voice or a latter-day tower of Babel; a people-centred union or a high profile members’ club…. Audit of the African Union – The High Level Panel, 2008

In 2008, the High Level Panel to Audit of the African Union correctly situated the emergence of the African Union within the context of a historically hostile global environment that has consistently sought to strip Africa of its labour and raw materials for the development of Europe. The Panel further noted that birth of African Union was also an admission of the failure of African states to respond effectively to the needs of its own citizens in the nineties.

The founding documents of the African Union most notably the Sirte Declaration (1999) and the Constitutive Act of the African Union (2000) fundamentally widened the space for active citizenship and peer state accountability in Africa. Since 2000, African Governments have gone on to adopt over thirty treaties, conventions, strategic policy frameworks and declarations that boldly raised the bar for standards of governance and development. Combined, they significantly alter the normative framework for public participation and human rights as well.

Elsewhere, I have argued that Africa has experienced three distinct models of nation-state sovereignty in recent times. During the colonial period, Africans were subjects of a colonial state that subordinated them to other populations and states. The post-colonial period saw Africans claim the right to vote, own property and confer citizenship within representative national democracies.

The adoption of the Sirte Declaration and the Constitutive Act by African States expanded the notion of citizenship with clear references to a “people-driven African Union” and an “Africa driven by its citizens”. Also significant, was the abandonment of the Organisation of African Unity principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a Member State in favour of the AU principle of non-indifference in the face of gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity and unconstitutional seizures of power.

It is within this context that several citizens, civil society organisations and their coalitions have begun monitoring and challenging the performance of both the organs of the African Union and African Governments against these principles, declarations and agreements. By avoiding the traditional silos of demand and supply, these campaigns support citizens to raise their voice and make claims, hold power-holders accountable for their actions and inactions and directly influence formal institutions.

Case-study 1: The State of the African Union Coalition

Established November 2009, this is a collectively branded coalition of ten CSO members including the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Egypt; Centro de Aprendizagem e Capacitação da Sociedade Civil (CESC), Mozambique; Citizen’s Governance Initiatives (CGI), Cameroon; FAHAMU, Kenya; La Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO), Senegal; Le Collectif des Ligues et Associations de Défense des Droits de l’Homme au Rwanda (CLADHO); Oxfam, Southern Africa Trust, South Africa; The Institute of Democratic Governance (IDEG), Ghana; Center for Advanced Social Science (CASS), Nigeria

Despite the adoption of progressive normative policy standards, poor ratification and implementation track records, weak national inter-ministerial coordination and public awareness and compliance oversight constrain progress. AU Organs most notably the Commission were not mandated to monitor and challenge Governments progress. Consequently, citizens denied freedoms and rights.

Over next five years, the project seeks active citizenship, effective national governance and the realization of freedoms and rights contained in key AU standards. It intends to inform and empower citizens to act to claim key rights and freedoms, influence the African Union and African States to ratify, popularise and implement key standards and building inclusive continental and national platforms. Research framework adopted and focus on four policy standards and ten legal instruments , bi-annually continental and national compliance reports, national advocacy, community mobilisation, country ranking and naming and shaming during AU Summits, mass media impact New multi-country coalition emerges committed to supporting citizens groups to hold Governments accountable for their performance against their own standards.

Two days after Government delegations and African Union staff received the 2010 continental report, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs present at the Executive Council meeting of the AU in July 2010 made the following decision;  Explicit request to specific AU organs, RECs, International and Regional Organizations and Civil Society to “assist with advocacy and sensitization of member states to expedite the process of ratification of/ascension to OAU/AU Treaties….”  Requested from the commission a regular reporting mechanism to the Executive Council on the implementation of this decision Ex.CL/Dec. 571 (XVII)

Executive Council/Dec. 571 (XVII) : Decision on the status of signature and ratification of OAU/AU Treaties.

Case-study 2: Making an Electoral Issue out of the Lack of Medicines in Malawi Campaign started in 2007, two years before the 2009 General Elections. Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN), National Association for People living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi (NAPHAM, Malawi GCAP coalition, National Organisation for Nurses and Midwives, Word Alive Commission for Relief and Development (WACRAD) and the Development Communication Trust (DCT), Oxfam among others

This advocacy initiative sought to realize equitable access to essential medicines by placing this issue at the centre of the electoral campaigns Despite its commitment to the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria, Malawi has some of the worst health indicators in the world.

Life expectancy is 46 years. The infant mortality rate remains high and on average one woman in every 100 will die in pregnancy or childbirth. Over 14 per cent of the population has HIV, making Malawi the ninth worst affected country in the world. Access to life-saving medicines, HIV test kits, and insecticide-treated nets is insufficient. Stocks of vaccines had run dangerously low. Although officially free, poor households can spend up to 10% of their budgets on health. Malawi also had a chronic shortage of health workers, with only 127 doctors for the entire population of 13 million. National advocacy with 6 district lobbying of incumbent and aspirant MPs and strengthening of local drug committees, twice yearly client satisfaction surveys, budget tracking, dispensary monitoring, capturing of stories for the mass media, radio listening clubs, public mobilisation during international days such as World Health and World Poverty Day

The campaign has had tremendous impact with mobilisation of 14,000 people at events many of them women given their central role as care-givers, 1,000 petition signatories, over 25% participation by MHEN members in high-level and grassroots lobbying, budgetary allocation to health increased from 8 to 21% of total budget at height of campaign, public acknowledgement by Minister of Health and campaigning MPs and mass media coverage

Case-study 3: The first 20 days of Africans Act 4 Africa Established in August 2011, this is an alliance of 12 regional NGO Councils, pan African coalitions, individual African organisations and 1,500 citizens. 12 million African citizens on verge of starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, US$1 billion humanitarian funding gap, pathetic and disinterested initial African Government response. Principle of non-indifference requires pan African solidarity.

Alliance forms to mobilise African Governments to raise US$50 million, declare this Africa’s last famine and accelerate national adaption and investment plans by AU convened Pledging Conference

A policy brief identifies specific financial responsibilities for each Government based on AU Schedule of Assessed Contributions, simultaneous multi-location press conferences, outreach to African musicians and public, lobbying of Addis based Ambassadors and AU staff, scorecard kept of Government’s contributions, mass media briefing and digital media leading to Nigerian Head of State being repeatedly tweeted by musicians fans US$43 out of 50million with specific financial asks for each African Government,

The Alliance has had remarkable impact in a very short period of time. 12 Regional, national and Pan African coalitions and Councils come together, 35 African musicians voluntarily participate, AA4A video shown to the Heads of States, AA4A become the first choice for media, 1500 FB Friends within 2 weeks, Policy-brief publicly recognised by AUC Chairperson and AU Envoy for Somalia and AA4A frames what becomes the benchmark for financial success (US$50m)

These three case-studies demonstrate the promise of building capability of citizens and citizens groups to claim freedoms and rights now enshrined in a raft of progressive continental human rights instruments and policy standards. In their own way, they are helping to build accountability and bridge relationships and processes between the continental, national and local levels


bottom of page