In Africa, 'little guys' help bring big changes

Grass-roots activism is bolstering democracy in places such as Zambia and Malawi.

The hallway leading to Bishop Paul Mususu's office here is piled high with secondhand furniture and handmade clothing in bright yellows and greens. Mr. Mususu says that it's the makings of a rummage sale that will raise a few dollars for church projects.

Those projects include more than just feeding the hungry and helping the poor, although his Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia does that, too. This church leader has bigger plans – to change the lives of Zambians by changing the way their leaders do business.

"Too much of the wealth of Zambia has gone into private hands," he says, referring to allegations against the former president and his administration. "Civil society is pushing the government into [doing something about] this."

In Zambia and elsewhere in Africa, church groups, women's organizations, labor unions, and professional associations – known collectively as civil society – are increasingly challenging their country's leaders, demanding accountability and respect for the rule of law. This groundswell of civic activism, admittedly uneven and not always successful, is nevertheless playing an unprecedented role in strengthening African democracy.

"Civil society around the continent is where the commitment to democracy and good governance is. Not in the leadership," says Masipula Sithole, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe.

A decade ago, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Western politicians and academics determined that the development of strong civil society would be key to the success of democracy there and elsewhere in the developing world. A free press and civic watchdog groups, they said, would help keep leaders in check and ensure respect for countries' newly minted constitutions and laws. Now, those predictions are starting to bear fruit.

Much of the prodemocracy agitation going on in Zambia falls under the banner of the Oasis Forum, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and church groups, most of which have purposes other than democracy-building. Last year, the forum led a successful campaign to block then-President Frederick Chiluba's attempt to change the Constitution so he could run for a third term. Now they're fighting to have him prosecuted for corruption and drug-trafficking. Zambia's high court ruled last month that Mr. Chiluba's presidential immunity could be lifted and he could stand trial.

In Malawi, when President Bakili Muluzi decided in July that he, too, wanted a constitutionally-barred third term, church leaders took to their pulpits and held prayer protests. Parliament ultimately refused to amend the Constitution.

In some countries, civil society continues to battle as-yet unrepentant regimes. In Zimbabwe, homegrown networks of NGOs and unions have been among the loudest voices calling for fresh elections following those in March that they say President Robert Mugabe stole. In Swaziland, unions are demanding reform of Africa's last absolute monarchy.

"[Civil society] is a very new thing for Africa," says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, a professor of political science at the University of Ghana. "It's so new that many public officials in African countries simply don't know what to make of it."

Mr. Gyimah-Boadi, who is also director of Ghana's Center for Democracy Development, says improvements in cellphones and the internet has made it possible for previously isolated NGOs to network. Gyimah-Boadi says that in his country, civil society is working to strengthen Parliament and has succeeded in liberalizing the press.

Mr. Sithole says that since the end of European colonial rule in the 1960s, improved education throughout Africa has created a new class of citizens unwilling to accept corruption from their leaders. In Zimbabwe, for example, it is largely well-educated urbanites with access to the independent press who have spoken out against the ruling party.

Over the past decade, the US and other Western nations have poured millions into developing civil society in newly democratic states; numbers of new NGOs have skyrocketed. In many countries, though, it is organizations with existing community bases, such as Mususu's church group and unions, that have been the most effective.

"Donors have been in too much of a hurry to see the numbers of these organizations grow, and we have supported quite a lot of organizations that are very ephemeral and don't have much substance to them," says Marina Ottoway, codirector of the Democracy and Rule of Law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Larry Diamond, a researcher at the Hoover Institute for War, Peace, and Development at Stanford University, says that even environmental groups and women's groups can play an important role by educating and involving the electorate in the political arena.

Despite the challenges, however, many say there is much reason to hope. "It's been difficult to be an African dictator over the last 10 years and I think it will be difficult to bottle that up," says Gyimah-Boadi. "I don't expect the progress to be even. There will be setbacks. But you can see a forward march."

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