For political scientists, one of the major concepts in the discussion of democracy is the idea of "civil society groups." Defined roughly as non-governmental, non-business organizations that promote "common good" within the broader society, they can encompass a whole host of institutions, ranging from charities to individual families. While the definition is vague, civil society groups share a common characteristic: they exist to provide independent assessments on what society should look like and how it should be run in order to maximize benefits to the largest number of people within the given society.
The prerequisite for the successful civil society group, then, requires each and every member of the same group to think critically and independently about the ills and problems that ails the society. To formulate views and perspectives that are independent of private businesses and governments, civil society groups must assess and evaluate issues in ways that not simply a repeat of the viewpoints presented by the mainstream media, which, unfortunately, tend to prioritize attention for profit or towing the government line.
By providing independent opinions, civil society groups act as an important element for the healthy functioning of democracy. A democratic system exists to ensure the rights and interests of all citizens, not just the elite, powerful politicians and businessmen, are considered and acted upon. With political and economic institutions disproportionately influenced by these elites, interests of the common people must be clearly enunciated by civil rights groups in order for democracy to stay true to the original idea of guaranteeing equality among all members of the society. While it is inevitable that those in power and with resources control democratic institutions at an operational level, it is important that civil society limit the influence to a level that is not debilitating for grassroots participation in the overall system.
Unfortunately, examining African democracies, the pivotal role of civil society groups is not being satisfactorily fulfilled. Popular selection of national leaders, the hallmark of democratic systems, remains largely monopolized by the wealthy elites through the act of vote buying, with the common people electing leaders with the deepest pockets rather than those with the policies that best reflect the interests of the common people. Behind the people's willingness to trade their votes for money is a lack of confidence that any elected leader can speak for them, so it is better just to get some money from the leaders before they are even elected. That lack of confidence in political leaders, in some ways, reflect the lack of influential civil society groups that can push the same leaders to behave in ways that truly benefit the common people.
The absence of effective civil society groups in democratic Africa is rooted in several interrelated factors. One is the lack of civic education within the general populace. A large segment of the citizenry is not educated in a way that encourages them to think in a critical way about larger issues on how to improve their society. They neither knows nor cares about what policies the government can enact to improve their lives in a fundamental, structural way. Much of the nonchalance comes down to lack of exposure to how governments work and make decisions, but also the lack of any person, including schools, friends, and family members, all critical parts of the civil society, who can teach them and make them care about governmental actions that can potentially change their lives.
The other is the government's often systematic suppression of civil society groups that can potentially affect what the citizenry think about how their political and business leaders behave toward the common people. Understandably, the elites do not like others talking about how they should do things differently, in a way that can detrimentally affect their personal benefits and image. So they use various methods, including restrictive laws and political persecution, to ensure that civil society groups that are critical of the current government and its allies with vested interests remain marginalized. If the groups' activities are unknown to the broader population, the logic goes, their stances will not be influential enough to subvert existing government policies.
The lack of education and the suppression of civil society groups are interrelated. Education, after all, extends beyond the classroom. When young minds are trained to think freely and independently through school, they are capable of interpreting current events for themselves, formulating their own opinions on the role and behaviors of their elected and unelected leaders. Civil society groups are both the result of such opinions and the promoters of further critical thinking. For political and business leaders seeking to avoid criticism, such groups are the instigators of a vicious cycle that increasingly portray the elites in a negative light. Thus, governments design curriculums and media coverage to discourage free thinking as well as blind acceptance of both the reality on the ground and the official message that things will get better under the watch of the current elites.
True democracy can only thrive when the common African people know better. They should go beyond accepting government cash and acquiescing with existing government policies through the tamed ballot box, instead looking at real alternatives to the current reality. Simply accepting the current political and business leaders' viewpoints without questioning their underlying motives give the same people a carte blanche to forego what benefits the common people in order to advance their personal interests.
Civil society groups are what stand in the way of the elites simply exploiting collective resources for personal benefits. But the same groups can only exist and function properly with the support of common people who are aware of the elites' failings and are willing to put their voices forward, pushing them to do better for the citizenry and not just for themselves. But for the civil society groups to have teeth, first the common people of democratic Africa must be willing to put in the effort and think for themselves.
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