Assessing the Effectiveness of Civil Society Organisations in Checking the Exercise of State Power: the Case Study of Human Rights Consultative Committee (hrcc)

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In the early 1990s numerous observers of African politics celebrated the potential for civil society organizations to play transformative roles in African states. Nowhere was such attention viewed as more important than in those countries where dictators had fallen and novel challenges of democratic deepening and consolidation had emerged (VonnDoepp, 1998: 123). For while civil society organizations had been integral to the undermining of authoritarian regimes, they could also play a central part in shaping the survival and quality of new democracies. In Malawi Civil Society Organisations also took an active role in the transition to a democratic despansation. The birth of democracy saw the increase in the number of civil society organizations which were heralded for the consolidation of democracy. However, there have been several undemocratic government actions and decision that have required civil society action. How have civil societies reacted to such unlawful exercise of power? Have the CSOs been effective. Thus this study seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of civil society in checking the exercise of state power.

Most Malawians tend to hold the mistaken view that civil society institutions are new in their country. However history tells us that civil society institutions date back to the colonial period (VonnDoepp 1998; Mwabulunju, 2007; Chirwa, 2000). During the colonial period a vast array of native associations, welfare societies, cultural associations, trade and workers union, producer and consumer cooperatives, and independent religious organizations emerged. These were aimed at pursuing the social, economic, political, cultural and religious betterment of the people. Though elitist in nature, they made considerable impact on the colonial legislative, political and economic processes. From the 1940s, through the 1950s, these more or less autonomous organizations and institutions were incorporated into the nationalist movement, and thus shaped the countrys political future (Chirwa, 2000: 92).

In the post independence period, civil society organizations were hegemonised into the one party political regime. Their autonomy was undermined, though not completely destroyed, and civil society was thus weakened. The political party played, albeit poorly, all the major functions of the institutions of civil society. As Minnis (138: 1998) unfolds that the Malawi Congress Party took maximum advantage of an under developed civil society by claiming for itself the role of sole, legitimate representative of the people. Despite the questionable logic of this claim it followed that all social movements came under the umbrella of the MCP. Consequently, the post colonial state sought to eliminate any form of urban based civil or political opposition. Trade unions, student movements and professional associations to mention just a few felt the sting of state opprobrium (Minnis, 1998: 138). In this era, the government sought to stifle all forms of opposition. In which case, no institution of civil society that could check the government was allowed to exist. The institutional framework allowed only those civil society institutions that could not question decisions and actions of the state and whose rationale of existence excluded political participation. Thus Chirwa (2000: 92) argues that despite the hegemonisation the NGO sector remained resilient, though weak. The most resilient were those that were engaged in the provision of a variety of developmental, charitable, and relief agencies and social services with varied degree of autonomy and success. The most successful were those attached to religious organizations and relief agencies. In this Scenario, it is evident that civil society was defined along the lines of the above activities and its domain excluded checking the exercise of state power. It is also important to note that the relationship between these and the state was characterized by mistrust, fear and dishonesty.

This state of affairs began to crumble as winds of change blew across the African continent in the late 1980s. With the end of the cold war most governments that were autocratic in nature faced both internal and external pressure to change their political regime to one that was democratic (Kanyongolo, 1998). Thus .most African governments, Malawi included, went through a transition to transform from one party state to a democratic one. In Malawi it was during this period that institutions of civil society assumed a political role in which they criticized the government on massive violation of human rights and poor governance. This period saw the emergence of the political movements presaging a multiparty regime (Mwabulunju, 2007: 273). Thus activities of civil society in this period included, but were not limited to, advocacy by the church and strike action. It is also important to note that in the period between the referendum and the general election civil society institutions were included as co-managers of the process of political transition. They were involved in civic educating the masses and participated extensively in the constitutional drafting process by the NCC. They also engaged both the state and society in a dialogue on the countrys political future and acted as conduit for grass root articulation of political demands.

With the incoming of the democratic era, the change in political regime opened up space for citizen involvement in political processes which was evidenced by the influx several civil society institutions. The institutional framework gave civil society the space to perform its role. For the first time in Malawi CSOs could work in areas beyond charity and service delivery and begin to be active in the social and political arenas. Thus the resurgence of institutions of trade union (Mwabulunju, 1997: 275). Other prominent CSOs in this period include Malawi Institute for Democratic and Economic Affairs (MIDEA), Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Malawi Centre for Education and Rights (CARER) and Public Affairs Committee. These institutions, however, initially lacked the necessary skills because they were new to the field but later they were on there feet. Thus they started performing there different roles. Among there many roles one includes checking the power of the state. This essay aims at making an evaluation of how civil society institutions have performed this function from 1994 to date.

The democratic era has seen the birth, survival and crumble of civil society organizations

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