African Union: Mandating Democracy, One Ratification at a Time

How do you get a political class that has long been ambivalent about democracy to accept a binding commitment to implement it? That was the challenge in 2011 facing Open Society Foundations advocates and their civil society partners who wanted to see the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) come into force. The Charter was adopted at an African Union (AU) summit in 2007 but nearly four years later, only four countries had ratified.  Without 15 ratifications it would never come into force.  A multi-level campaign was launched to get more countries to ratify and make the Charter operational and binding on AU member states.  Just over a year later they had succeeded; the fifteenth ratification—Cameroon’s—coming on January 16 2012.  Open Society Foundations African Foundations, AfriMAP and African Union advocacy team played a key role in the campaign. How was it done?

There was a lot of skepticism about the ACDEG ratification campaign because the standards and values prescribed in the Charter posed an explicit challenge to the way politics was conducted in many African states. The doubt was reinforced when the first two countries ratified ACDEG. The first was Mauritania, which ratified in July 2008, only to experience a military coup eight days later. The second ratification in January 2009 came from Ethiopia, at a time when this highly authoritarian government had just adopted a repressive anti-NGO law and was carrying out military incursions into Somalia.

If these two countries were happy to ratify the charter, cynics observed, then what was the point? Bad habits seemed likely to continue as usual, in spite of the Charter. That cynicism may be one reason why, by 2011, only four countries had ratified and the magic number of 15 ratifications looked a long way off.  It may also be because ratification seemed likely to draw attention to poor governance and expose governments to criticism.

Open Society Foundations Africa community discussed the slow pace of ratification at a number of meetings and decided to mobilize a major effort towards ratification, relying on its own relationships with the African Union Commission and member states, and talking with other peer organizations and partners about how  best to mobilize support.

Charter supporters might have hoped to draw on an earlier experience—the effort to ratify the Protocol on Women's Rights first adopted by the African Union in July 2003. In that case, an energetic name-and-shame campaign by civil society meant the Protocol got its fifteenth ratification within only two years, allowing the protocol to come into force in November 2005.  In practice, however, the campaign to get the Democracy Charter ratified could not take a confrontational path when states were already cautious.

The African Union advocacy team led by Ibrahima Kane began working with the African Union Commission's Department of Political Affairs (DPA), offering themselves as technical experts to African Union regional ratification and implementation meetings so that they could motivate and strategize with African Union staff. They also worked with Open Society Foundations African foundations to produce practical assistance to the African Union in support of ratification.  At the African Union’s request, for example, Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) funded the production of small, well-designed kits made up of copies of the Charter with explanations for general audiences explaining the Charter and its goals.  Both OSISA and OSIWA, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, funded partner civil society organizations to do advocacy on the Charter in countries seen as likely to ratify.

OSISA also teamed up with the Open Society Justice Initiative to support the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in Africa and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, to hold meetings around the continent with government and civil society on the value of the Charter and its freedom of information provisions.

The Open Society Foundations Africa Regional Office supported a continent-wide network of pro-democracy groups, the Africa Democracy Forum, to do advocacy on the Charter.  The Open Society Foundations Youth Initiative held consultations with youth groups across the continent on the relevance of the Charter to young people and its linkages with the African Union Youth Charter.

One elegant piece of advocacy was developed by AfriMAP with OSISA and other partners targeting the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) based in South Africa.  The  “11 before 2011” campaign to increase the number of Charter ratifications focused on a key premise: the Pan African Parliament is an organ of the African Union and its members are legislators from AU national parliaments nominated to join the Pan-African Parliament.  The Parliament has struggled to demonstrate its relevance so some of its members seized on the idea of advocating for the Charter with their parliamentary colleagues back home.

Meanwhile the South Africa-based Institute for a Democratic Alternative, (IDASA), worked with partners at national level in 12 countries, an effort that contributed to five of them ratifying the Charter.

This multi-layered approach to advocacy was a demonstration of how separate teams in the Open Society Foundations network can achieve a collective goal when they combine advocacy, grant-making, provision of technical expertise and capacity building towards a single goal.

Looking at the 15 countries that ratified, it might seem surprising that some are in no way champions of democracy.  “Convinced” democracies include South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana, with Niger, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso close behind. But it might seem harder to explain how countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Rwanda and Guinea Bissau were among the early adopters, not to mention the aforementioned Ethiopia and Mauritania.

Yet from meetings held with governments who might ratify, it usually emerged that logistical and knowledge constraints, rather than political hostility, were delaying ratification.  Coming up with the idea of a model law for ratification in national parliaments was one response to that discovery. But the primary challenge was to overcome inertia and bureaucratic caution.

Even if individual governments might feel no great enthusiasm for domesticating the standards in the Charter at home, many were, on a regular basis, dealing with the fall-out from bad governance and unconstitutional transfers of power in other African countries.  For members of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, for example, charged with reversing coups and mediating post-election crises, it was vital to have a clear standard of practice to which all could be held and which would justify and standardize sanctions.  This was one of the reasons that the African Union summit in January 2011 expressed a strong call on member states to ratify. But Open Society Foundations and civil society strategies and persistence were critical to the ultimate success, as were their capacity to apply pressure in multiple settings and contexts.

The work is not over.  At the time of the fifteenth ratification there were still 24 countries that had signed but not ratified the Charter, and a further 14 that had not even signed; the effort on these fronts, however, needs primarily to be domestic.

A challenge that non-governmental groups can take on is implementation.   OSISA is working on a manual on ways to give practical meaning to the Charter's provisions and they hope to get help once again from the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in Africa and the Centre for Human Rights in Pretoria to deliver related training. Meanwhile AfriMAP and the African Union advocacy team are working with the African Union Commission’s Department of Political Affairs to develop monitoring mechanisms and tools for the states that have ratified. Such tools will no doubt also be useful to civil society organizations that intend to monitor the behavior of their governments in the light of the Charter and press for greater compliance and accountability.

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