Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

COMMONWEALTH: Over to CHOGM. Anyone Listening?

Ferial Haffajee

ABUJA, Dec 5 2003 (IPS) - As the Commonwealth People’s Forum heads toward the finish line, attention has shifted to the organisation’s Heads of Government meeting which begins in Nigeria today.

A hectic week of discussions, a people’s market and networking in the capital, Abuja, ended in a statement from the forum warning the Commonwealth that it needed to make itself relevant to the world by matching its principles more closely with practice.

The Commonwealth represents one third of the world’s nations. Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) from 45 of the group’s 53 member states were at the forum, which was a summit for civil society, run alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM).

In their message, NGO’s said that pledges made by Commonwealth governments should be audited by the group’s secretariat – to ensure that leaders lived up to their commitments.

Civil society groups also turned the scrutiny on themselves by examining what was needed to ensure that NGO’s remained accountable and responsive to those they claimed to represent.

This process was given added impetus by the people’s market. In addition to selling the usual fare of flowing fabrics, intricate baskets and books, it also put lessons about solidarity, gender equality and grassroots activism on show by bringing together NGO’s to learn from each other.

The Country Woman Association of Nigeria, faced with a banking sector blind to the needs of rural women, has begun to pack a female financial punch. Its African Traditional Responsive Banking project takes deposits as small as one naira – less than one American cent. Members save and then borrow from the fund.

"It works," said Alhaja Agoro, a spokesperson for the association. "These women could not talk and look someone in the face before. Now see them! They are talking confidently with hands on their hips because they know who they are, what they are worth – they don’t beg anybody."

Every day, NGO’s met to discuss how to merge the twin imperatives of democracy and development, which jointly form the theme of the CHOGM.

The feeling amongst many was that for democracy to lead to development, it was essential to give people a broader understanding of what democratic rule was all about – that it went beyond putting a tick next to a candidate’s name on a ballot sheet.

For this to be brought about, the right to information had to be assured. Civil society also had to become more active, particularly in countries where repression was acute. NGO’s were at pains to emphasise that these countries did not only include nations suspended from the Commonwealth, like Zimbabwe and Pakistan – but also states that were regarded as functioning democracies.

As the forum got underway, Human Rights Watch issued a report on Nigeria which found that political tolerance in the country was low. "President (Olusegun) Obasanjo’s promises of democracy mean little as long as people are being detained, tortured and shot simply for expressing views critical of the government," said Human Rights Watch representative Peter Takirambudde.

Over 50 civil society leaders also wrote a stinging open letter to the CHOGM imploring it to "give renewed priority" to repression in Zimbabwe. The country was suspended from the Commonwealth 18 months ago for being in breach of the organisation’s Harare Declaration. This sets out the Commonwealth’s principles on democratic governance.

"We express grave concern at the Zimbabwean government’s continued violation of the Harare Declaration and Commonwealth principles reflected in its continuing repression of civil society, the media, human rights defenders and the opposition," they noted.

The leaders said the Commonwealth had to ensure that the array of repressive laws which President Robert Mugabe has assembled to give a veneer of legality to his actions should be repealed. Harare also had to be persuaded to enter into "genuine dialogue" with the opposition about restoring democratic rule to the country.

But, will leaders pay heed to these demands? A theme that bubbled tensely beneath the surface of the people’s forum, was the growing conviction that civil society is cut off from the centres of power in the Commonwealth, because it has no direct interaction with the heads of government.

This sense of alienation was given physical expression when it transpired that civil society’s access to the CHOGM will be limited.

Responding to Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon’s statement that access was determined by member governments and that the issue needed to be aired in each country, a civil society leader said: "The truth, Mr. Secretary-General, is that I find it easier to meet my government at meetings like CHOGM."

McKinnon promised that he would compare NGO representation in the core decision-making structures of the Commonwealth with that of other inter-governmental fora. Earlier in the week, leaders of the people’s forum said that they were given a far louder voice at institutions like the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank.

Nonetheless, a glance through one of the key CHOGM documents, "Making democracy work for pro-poor development", reveals that civil society has already had a noticeable effect on the thinking of the Commonwealth.

Not only is Third World Network leader Martin Khor a co-author of the document. The report also begins the painstaking work of attaching concrete action plans to terms like "pro-poor" development.

"It is possible to learn from history and challenge the pessimism of those who question the association between development and democracy," say the authors. As this weekend’s talks get underway, Commonwealth leaders may try to side-step that association, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to avoid it altogether.

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