Civil society organisations can remain politically active yet balanced
The objective norm of civil society organizations not being “partisan” seems to have been taken to a bewildering level. Today, most civil society groups spend a lot of time trying to dispel allegations of being “partisan” or “political”. They shy away from the fact that they operate in a political environment. This is a waste of time especially if you are working in a highly political milieu like present day Uganda. In fact, theoretical underpinnings by Greek philosopher Aristotle put it clearly, ‘all human beings are political in nature’. Politics is broader than political parties or the leaders we elect to hold public offices or even the day-to-day operations of the state. Politics incorporates people’s dealings right from the smallest unit – whether at home, school, garden, office or any other part of the eco-system.
In one way or another, an individual interacts with politics and he or she is affected by politics on a daily basis.
From the 1970s until very recently, many civil society organizations would never want to be associated with any political institution – be it political party or government. To many of them, this has been the definition of being ‘non-partisan’. Even though this label is beginning to change, many organizations are still trapped in this sort of thinking. Those organizations working on democracy and governance issues continue to tread so carefully on contentious issues and even sometimes negate their advocacy role simply because of the fear to be branded ‘partisan’ or ‘political’.
It is however also true that sometimes the government or the opposition political parties have used this card to honor or harm the reputation of civil society organizations.
To civil society organizations, it is not wrong to be political but it may be undermining to be partisan or lopsided during the execution of respective programmes.
Prior to Uganda’s independence, we had very vibrant civil society initiatives like the Uganda National Farmers Union and the Buganda African Motors Drivers Union (BANU); from the very start, these were highly political civil society organizations that effectively responded to popular discontent at that time. Even though one would argue that with time these became partisan, it is important to note that these civil society organizations effectively delivered on their mandate to mobilize the citizenry to petition for independence without attaining the label of partisanship.
Lately the trend in Uganda has been for civil society to recede from leading advocacy on highly political or ‘sensitive’ issues. The number of voices from civil society championing reforms in elections, security sector, constitution, land laws etc is steadily decreasing. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons to account for this phenomenon is fear of being branded partisan or political.
In other parts of the world such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, civil society organizations have taken on the mantle of staging effective resistance to authoritarian governments and advocating for democratic change. In this way, these organizations have been seen as promoters of democratic polity; and also as institutions that have the ability to mobilise citizens to have their say on critical issues. Today, these civil society organizations have won themselves a place as an essential ingredient in the democratization process of their countries.
Civil society organisations by all measures must be strong in defense of the citizens’ social, economic and political interests.