African governments must prioritise civic education

Sunday March 28 2021
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Voters queue to cast their votes at Nakinyuguzi polling station, Makindye Division in Kampala, during the recently concluded presidential elections. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

By Guest Writer

The year 2020 will remain etched in our memories for a long time as the year when the world came to a halt after the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, engulfed the world. The pandemic has proven to be a major health crisis as well as a social, political and economic threat. Besides undermining fragile social safety nets, Covid-19 also disorganised global trade.  
The Covid-19 pandemic also reinforced inequalities, discrimination and revealed breaks in current governance, development and safety models. As countries like Uganda took measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic, poverty and violence against women deteriorated while in countries with elections, civic tensions increased as the world raced to understand this new threat while women and youth lost their income and livelihoods. 
In this new Covid-19 world, countries have an opportunity to redefine models for good citizenship, good governance and sustainable development while retaining local values of universal relevance. It is time for African states to renew public understanding of local and universal values as the basis for a new generation of citizens and civic education. 
The UN Charter calls on Member States to place people at the epicentre of their efforts to pursue the elimination of poverty and to sustain peace regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity or age. The African philosophy of Obuntu bulamu calls on us to recognise our shared humanity and to exercise our rights and responsibilities as good citizens. Obumu-Unity, Obwesimbu-Integrity, Obwerufu-Transparency and Okufaayo-Empathy are core values, which reflect the principles behind the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and are enshrined in Uganda’s Constitution.
Africa and Uganda in particular are grappling with the creation of a democratic tradition that responds to the local context and universal aspirations; one that is home-made. To indigenise such a culture, governments need to commit to raising awareness around African governance values and their international commitments. 
Governments must work with civil society and other influencers to help citizens appreciate national values and their constitutions as well as the role that these play in regulating the symbiotic relationship between citizens and the State. 
Good governance is anchored in Obwesimbu-integrity, which enables citizens to see the law as a tool protecting their rights and enabling prosperity with justice; it also enables law and order to become a facilitator of wealth creation rather than an obstruction to descent livelihoods and public safety. 
Developing a knowledgeable citizenry that effectively contributes to national development in Africa raises questions that lie at the heart of the civic competence debate. What structures of civic consciousness do we need to enhance the civic competence of African citizens and public servants? 
How can we promote public understanding and awareness of civic rights and responsibilities as a life-long learning endeavour that nurtures active citizenry in Africa? How can we ensure that the State provides the safety and security required for sustainable development without violating the rights of those it is meant to protect? Who can help define emerging threats to peace and development in Africa as a basis for emerging solutions?
In the 21st Century Africa, civic education remains a pressing concern as a growing number of citizens are unwilling to engage in peaceful and constructive discussions about the development of their countries and are increasingly willing to serve as violent disruptors, displaying worrying levels of intolerance and bias. 
To transform the current citizenship in Africa, civic education must drive effective participation in the social, economic and political participation of people regardless of ethnicity, religion, age or gender. To attain an Africa at peace with herself, capable of successfully redefining her role in the global value chain, inter-generational nation building must become a priority. 
Sustainable Development Goal 4 seeks to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.” Fittingly, this goal calls our attention to civic education through its target 4.7 “by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” 
Civic education provides a vehicle for citizens to become enlightened about their rights and responsibilities and to also acquire the knowledge and skills necessary on justice, democracy, tolerance, development, respect for authority, freedom of expression and respect for the rule of law. 
Civic education can inspire citizens to play active roles as defenders of democratic values, inclusive prosperity and justice. Educational curriculums should include civic education as a pathway to developing competencies that advance critical thinking and rational decision-making.  
A persistent challenge among African democracies is inadequate funding for civic education. In 2016, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission cited low civic education and poor funding as the reasons for poor voter registration for the August 2017 elections. This is an experience shared in many other countries in Africa. In addition, many governments in Africa lack the requisite legal architecture to regulate civic education and ensure it remains a safe space for society to regulate good citizenship. 
There are a few good practices. Ghana’s National Council for Civic Education (NCCE) remains at the heart of socialising civic values. Ghana has one of the most engaged and conscious citizenry in Africa. Neighbouring Kenya’s National Civic Education Programme, Uraia, aims to promote citizenship from a rights and responsibility perspective. Through workshops, lectures, plays, community meetings, Uraia has consolidated a political culture in which citizens are more aware of and fully exercise their rights and responsibilities and participate effectively in broadening democracy. 

In 2019, the National Initiative for Civic Education in Uganda was launched, informed by the experience in Ghana. Currently hosted by the Ministry of Information and National Guidance, it relies mostly on volunteers who have worked closely with the Youth Coalition for SDGs, CCEDU and the United Nations to supported an emergent awareness about a national civic education platform for the country. This initiative provides a safe space for Ugandan society to contribute to a robust civic education programme for an eager citizenry and create jobs for youth, women, cultural leaders, religious leaders and the State among others.

Until governments and citizens appreciate their respective roles in promoting the values of democracy, justice and prosperity, only then will African states be able to successfully uphold and defend their constitution and sustain enabling environments for business without resorting to violence. It is such conscious citizens who will promote inclusive political participation, protect the rights of the marginalised, empower the economic participation of all people and meaningfully participate in electoral contests. 

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has complicated electoral processes, many countries have been able to conduct elections and must continue to do so. In 2021, African countries must redouble their efforts to inform the citizenry of their civic responsibilities, encourage the independence of the judiciary, and ensure security forces exercise their role, peacefully.  As the experience of Ghana and Kenya shows, if court rulings are based on application of facts, citizens are likely to accept those decisions and resist the temptation to engage in violent mobilization. 

This year, African governments must work hard to guarantee that their governing processes provide for safe citizens participation, independent judiciary, free press; as well as free, fair and credible elections. Equally, this year, political leaders and their supporters have the duty to abide by the rule of law during electoral processes particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

This article was co-authored by Ms Rosa Malango, UN Resident Coordinator to Uganda, Dr Miria Matembe, chairperson CCEDU, and Mr Crispin Kaheru, National Initiative for Civic Education in Uganda.

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