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OGP in Africa: Opening the door for Civil Society

Su Muhereza|

President Obama is scheduled to host a continent-wide US/Africa summit from 4-6 August 2014, an event where 40 African Heads of State will gather in DC to discuss trade and investment, peace and security, and good governance. The summit has been billed as an opportunity for the US to build a strategy together with Africa and in OGP land, a potential action forcing moment prompting more African countries to join the partnership and commit to providing access to information, promoting transparency and empowering citizens. Currently, only 8 African countries- Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, Tunisia and Sierra Leone are signed up to the Partnership.

This summit comes at a time of rapidly shrinking political and civic space in many African countries. The highlights have been Uganda, whose government enacted the Public Order Management Act, which grants broad authority to the government to regulate public meetings and requires official notice for gatherings of more than three people. As well as the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act which introduced a 14 year prison sentence for first time “offenders” and life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”. In Kenya, a law restricting foreign funding of NGOs was struck down at the end of 2013, but is likely to be reintroduced this year. There has been an increase in harassment, intimidation and arrests of journalists and opposition politicians from Swaziland to Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea. Many of the leaders from these countries will be at the Summit, however, despite calls for inclusion none of their civil society counterparts will be allowed to participate at the official Heads of State summit on August 6. The State Department is planning a separate side event with African and US civil society groups with Secretary Kerry on August 4.

The fact that civil society leaders are still clamouring to get a seat at the same table as heads of government and engage on equal footing at the Summit highlights a key challenge for Africa’s civil society organisations in engaging with governments at the national level. African CSO’s need to be more strategic about how they engage with governments: by building relationships with both political and technocratic reformers within government in countries where there is little political will to push openness. In OGP member countries, CSO’s have a critical role to play in amplifying citizen voice during the consultation stage of developing country action plans, popularizing action plans and commitments and monitoring budgets to ensure they reflect the values of OGP within the country and make it easier for citizens to hold government to account.

The OGP process has at its core, a model of inclusiveness and co-creation between civil society and government and there will be future opportunities for African governments and civil society to engage. The OGP is considering a proposal to run a regional working group meeting of 20 African presidents, CSO representatives and private businesses later in 2014 to hammer out an African agenda for OGP. Few African countries reach the minimum criteria to be admitted into OGP, CSOs that have bought into the spirit of the OGP are in a unique position to help trigger a race to the top in their individual countries by tapping into regional support networks for knowledge sharing, peer learning and improving communication between government and civil society and governments with each other.

Photo credit: “Africa satellite plane” by NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

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