On August 4–6, 2014, NED seized the opportunity provided by the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit to host a major African Civil Society Conference, bringing together nearly 100 leading democracy and human rights activists from over 30 African nations to discuss how to address the most critical challenges to democracy in Africa today. Watch the video summary.
The ambitious conference, titled “Toward an Action Plan for Democracy,” consisted of a day of intensive private consultations by civil society task force groups, followed by a day-long public conference in the U.S. House of Representatives where each task force presented its findings and recommendations to an audience of more than 300, including many from the African diaspora, policy experts, and members of Congress.
The meeting received generous support from Facebook and was planned in cooperation with NED’s four core Institutes (IRI, NDI, CIPE and the Solidarity Center) as well as the Constituency for Africa, the Paris-based International Center for Human Rights, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, Freedom House, The Bridges Institute, and The Foundation for Democracy in Africa..
On August 5, the African participants met in six different working groups at NED to discuss and agree upon recommendations covering the following areas: human rights, good governance and accountability, elections, free media, conflict and security, and civil society challenges. The process was participatory and inclusive, and at the public conference the following day in the U.S. Congress, each of the working groups presented and discussed its recommendations and responded to questions and comments from the audience.
The public conference on August 6, which was attended by several hundred members of the African diaspora and others interested in Africa policy, was opened by NED Chairman Martin Frost, and was address by four Members of Congress: NED Board member Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who played a pivotal role during the entire African Leaders Summit; House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD); Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chairs the HFAC Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights; and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), also a member of HFAC.
The recommendations in the Action Plan were addressed to African governments, the international community, and the U.S. government, as well as to African civil society, and stressed the importance of respect for human rights, good governance, peace, and freedom of speech and assembly. They underscored the intrinsic value of democracy, as well as its importance in enabling economic development, trade, security, and the other issues that were the focus of the President’s Summit. A long list of concrete actions was proposed, including the mobilization of a pan-African network of civil society activists to carry forward the recommendations of the conference. NED president Carl Gershman closed the conference, appealing for solidarity with the many courageous activists whose lives and freedom are sometimes endangered due to their work.
Immediately following the conference, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a reception in partnership with CSIS and Freedom House to honor civil society in Africa.
The Conference was a significant boost for African civil society activists, with many commenting on how it strengthened their collective voice in Africa and gave needed balance to the trade-and-investment focus of the governmental Summit. Many associated themselves with the World Movement for Democracy’s Africa Democracy Forum (ADF), and efforts are already underway to build and reinforce the ADF, strengthen its secretariat, and find financial support for it. The conference also expressed its strong solidarity with the Angolan journalist (and former NED Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow) Rafael Marques de Morais. Morais was at the conference despite being indicted in Luanda two weeks previously for defamation because of his book Blood Diamonds, which documents the corruption by senior military leaders in the diamond mining areas of Lundas Norte in Angola. His trial is expected to take place in September, and democracy supporters everywhere will be following closely. The conference closed with participants cheering, “Hands Off Rafael!”
Although there is considerable follow-up work to come in the months ahead, the conference has already made an impact. It greatly heightened the discussion about democracy and human rights in Africa around the Leaders’ Summit; it galvanized a pan-African network of civil society activists; and it produced a plan of action that will serve as a benchmark and blueprint for future democratic efforts in Africa.