Civil society is made up of associations, mainly non governmental organisations (NGO) and trade unions that are distinct from the public sector, and are not part of political parties. Civil society is also composed of diversified groups concerned with issues related to development, and various aspects of human rights. In its nature, it is diverse, dynamic, and constantly changing because new members are regularly cropping up as new societal issues arise. The main role of civil society is to defend the interests of citizens, based on principles and values of justice, equality, and equity. It is supposed to ensure that these values and principles guide policy formulation and implementation in all areas of society to the benefit of all, especially the poor and disabled.
Civil society strengthens the state by holding it accountable and ensuring that the state involves and listens to the voices and demands of citizens. Civil society proposes, persuades, challenges, opposes, and even causes the reversal of policies that work to the detriment of the people. It is populated by groups that are usually described as “citizen voices” because they ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and participatory, so as to be competent to serve the interests of all the people.
These activities of civil society usually cause one-party and repressive regimes to consider them as voices of dissent that undermine the government. This is why during the one-party days in Cameroon, the regime acted like a vast refrigerator that reduced civil society to a stupor. This torpor replaced the habits of freedom with servitude, and the sovereignty of the people with the whims and caprices of administrative officials.
Events of the early ‘90s gave the impression that the refrigerator had broken down at last, and that the thaw was causing civil society to rear its head. The role of the bar council - which is part of civil society – in the Yondo Black affair left the impression that civil society would play an important role in the democratisation process in the country. Unfortunately, that has been the only significant thing that can be remembered of the bar council since then, although much has been crying out for their intervention, like extra-judicial killings, rampant acts of torture and other gross violations of human rights, haphazard registration of voters, repeated flawed elections, glaring cases of settlement of political scores using the law courts, and much more...
A look at the present legal dispensation in relation to civil society is further confirmation that the present regime in Cameroon is repressive, and is still guided by a one-party mindset. Whether it is law n° 90/053 of 19 December 1990 relating to the liberty of association as modified and completed by law n° 99/011 of 20 July 1999, or law N° 99/014 of 22 December 1999 relating to the organisation of NGOs as completed by Prime Ministerial decree n° 2001/150 of 3 May 2001, the effort is more to gag than to structure civil society and allow it to bloom. The legal framework gives overwhelming powers of life and death over civil society organisations to the minister of territorial administration and decentralisation. The existence of repressive instruments like obnoxious law no. 90/054 of 19 December 1990 relating to the maintenance of law and order, and the dissolution of Human Rights Watch and Cap Liberté in the early ’90, testify to this power.
Good governance programmes like those proposed by the HIPC-I, ACP-EU, and NEPAD recognise that democratic governance can only result from a serious partnership that includes government, civil society, and the private sector. Such partnership is supposed to make governance more inclusive, participatory, and democratic. To play its role effectively in such a partnership, civil society should be populated by countless citizen initiatives, campaigns, and movements with members that work hard, mostly on voluntary basis, to make contributions in every domain of society.
Citizens have rights and responsibilities. However, government is usually more interested in ensuring that citizens meet their responsibilities (like paying taxes), than enjoy their rights (like their right to vote their representatives). It is the role of civil society to organise citizens to stand up for their rights. Training, research, dissemination of information, lobbying, and advocacy should be the daily preoccupation of civil society.
In all countries where there has been change through people’s power in the ballot box or in the streets, civil society has always played a frontline role. Such change always fulfils John F. Kennedy’s saying that each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, a tiny ripple of hope is sent out; many of such ripples from different centres of energy and daring, build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Such centres of daring and energy are little advocacy groups of courageous individuals in society.
MINATD organised flawed elections under our watchful eyes, and walked away scot-free with its agents. NEO came and danced at the periphery of the circle, without ever stepping into the centre, while we watched it in amusement as if they were stage acting. Here comes ELECAM with the same methods, strategies, and tools unmodified, mesmerising us with fine talk without any convincing work, while the people again watch in frustration and apparent helpless. Will the real civil society please stand up and organise the people to channel their frustration towards confronting ELECAM for their electoral rights!
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