5. From decisions by centralised elites to decisions by active communities
The AU’s 2063 Agenda envisions a continent with good governance and democracy, where institutions are at the service of their people (Aspiration 3) and development is people-driven (Aspiration 6). These principles of inclusive decision making and participation are echoed in the constitutions and national laws of all 54 African countries – but there is a gap between what’s written and what happens on the ground. We are in a season of change, with new technology and challenge to hierarchical systems; this is a moment to empower citizens with the tools and connections to engage in the decision making that shapes their lives.
Our history is characterised by centralised and authoritarian colonial governments, and in many places the liberation governments that replaced them have continued old elitist governance practices. African society historically has a tiny middle class with a powerful elite and a large percentage of relatively powerless citizens. Elites are driving corruption and making decisions that are self-serving rather than for the benefit of their nations.
When governments or leaders consult as merely a box-ticking exercise, they break their social contract with the people they claim to serve. And yet, citizen participation in Africa is often meaningless, or non-existent. Most citizens do not feel they have a voice in government processes119 with some groups particularly side-lined, such as young people, women and rural communities. Freedom for civil society and activists is weakening across the continent; over the past 10 years, governments in 27 countries have restricted the participation of civil-society groups in political processes, harming the delivery of essential services for African citizens. While the last decade seemed to be on a trajectory of improving governance, by 2015 that growth was slowing and in 2020 it declined for the first time in a decade.
This is a season of disruption. Crumbling traditional hierarchical systems are scrambling in the midst of change. New technology is allowing communities to collaborate more easily and new systems to develop that are based on the involvement of all citizens. People, particularly youth, are responding to closing civil-society space with alternate forms of participation, such as the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa, the 2019 demonstrations in Sudan, and the #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria.
We know that we need to move from decisions made by centralised elites to active democratic communities, particularly including those most likely to be left behind like women, young people and ethnic minorities. This is vital for achieving the global goals of reduced inequality (SDG 10), particularly for women (SDG 5), and justice and strong institutions (SDG 16). Meaningful participation goes beyond just public consultation; it is about people being able to take part in the processes, decision making and activities that affect their daily lives. Meaningful participation increases the legitimacy of processes and their outcomes, reduces conflict and cost delays, creates trust between governments and citizens, and strengthens goodwill for future decisions. It is a mainstay of democracy that the government is of the people, by the people and for the people.
The book of Acts gives a good example of a community making decisions together. No longer just hearing God’s voice through a handful of leaders; now God’s Spirit is present in all his people. The church in Acts shows us how we can all hear and discern God’s voice, taking co-responsibility for his creation and his mission.
In an increasingly polarised ideological world it is more important than ever that we emphasise our togetherness. Decentralising power is an issue that can be supported in different forms across the political spectrum: the left emphasising cooperation and grassroots engagement; and the right emphasising freedom from government control and family. This should start at a local level, where it is about relationships with people we know, and not through debates about ideology or stereotyping perceived enemies.
We believe in the community cry, “Nothing about us without us”. We propose devolving as much power as possible to the people so they can determine their own lives through participation, planning, budgeting, implementation and tracking at a community level. An active citizenry must be equipped with the tools, models and collaborations to engage in decision making.
Abundant ideas to grow decisions by active communities
We therefore call on…
Churches to identify keystone institutions125 locally, in cities and nationally for deliberate discipleship or disruption. Churches should do this through united advocacy, by supporting individual members who work in these institutions, and by investing in organisational development teams.
Inclusive institutions should be helped to remain true to their core values, implement development objectives for the public good, and prevent capture by extractive forces. Extractive institutions must be disrupted to either change or be replaced with new inclusive institutions. Where none exist, inclusive institutions should be established by churches.
Churches to build the capacity of church and community members to participate as legitimate stakeholders in the governance system. These should model transparency and inclusion, particularly of women, the elderly, young people, people with disabilities, Internally Displaced People, and refugees. Churches are one of the most organised and widely spread grassroots organisations in sub-Saharan Africa,126 and are trusted by both communities and governments. This makes them well placed to use social accountability mechanisms such as the African Monitor’s Citizens Report and Tearfund’s Bridging the Gap Report to build the capacity of citizens to identify issues in their community and unite them to demand accountability beyond elections from their duty bearers.
Governments to integrate digital strategies to engage citizens in direct democracy for inclusive decision making. Digital technologies are changing the landscape of citizen participation, presenting new opportunities for countries with limited resources and capacity. National and local governments can directly poll citizens on specific policy issues, particularly given the high uptake of digital technologies among young people in Africa. These online systems need to be integrated with physical relational spaces that are open to all (such as markets, co-working spaces, incubators and art studios) and curated in ways that encourage the emergence of new voices while connecting leaders from all walks of life.
Governments to measure civic participation in national and local policy processes as part of the performance management mechanism of the state and its leaders in the same way that budget expenditure is monitored.
Governments to create national and local multistakeholder dialogues, which rebalance power between citizens, the state and business, and make them mutually accountable to each other. The SDG Councils being set up in many African countries could serve as such platforms. Churches could still play a key role in this as they are often trusted by both local communities and national governments.