The Commission for Human Rights in Shivji’s eyes

What you need to know:

  • What about the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance? The commission, among other things, receives complaints about violations of human rights and abuses of power and investigates the same.

Most recently, I took to task the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance for glaring failures in their core responsibilities. I had earnestly hoped that one of their officers would have felt compelled to come out of their comfort zone to share what they feel they are doing right for the sake of the reading public.

That aside, I thought of sharing a derogatory position on the Commission by the illustrious Prof Issa Shivji (pictured) from many years ago in his book. I wish other readers may offer their views on this critical area after assessing the Commission since its inception.

This is how Shivji lays it out.

In Tanzania, we had first a ministry, headed by a full-fledged minister of good governance. Then, through donor pressure, the government was obliged to establish a Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance with aid from the Danish government. Among the first tasks was to build a gargantuan structure to house the commission and establish its infrastructure at a cost of over Tshs 1.5 billion (or roughly US$1.5 million).

(The people of Tanzania will never know the exact amount nor the conditions of the contract. It is a secret from them. The Danish people would perhaps be in a better position to know how their government promotes ‘good governance’ in Tanzania.)

Then another bureaucratic structure of civil servants headed by seven commissioners was set up drawing the usual salaries and numerous allowances.

Besides a minister of good governance and a commission, there was another ‘benefit the government received as part of ‘good governance’ assistance.

A couple of years ago, the distinguished Finnish diplomat, Martti Ahtisaari, paid visits to Tanzania as an ‘advisor to the president’ on good governance, sponsored by the World Bank.

Presumably, he made a report to the president (or the World Bank, who knows?) after consulting civil servants, a sprinkling of NGO representatives, academics, the private sector etc., as is the consultants’ custom these days.

How this consultancy represents the struggle of the people of Tanzania to construct a democratic state and polity, I cannot tell. And this is because, we are not even sure if ‘good governance’ means the same thing as democratic governance of, for and by the people of Tanzania. After all they were never consulted on the appointment of the advisor to their president.

What about the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance? The commission, among other things, receives complaints about violations of human rights and abuses of power and investigates the same.

This is precisely the kind of work supposed to be done by the mainstream judiciary and the former Permanent Commission of Inquiry.

The permanent commission was set up in the middle 1960s, modelled on the Scandinavian ombudsman, to inquire into abuse of power by state officials and report to the president.

True, both the judiciary and permanent commission had a lot of flaws. People have had lots of criticisms and grievances against these institutions and expressed them whenever they got an opportunity.

Both institutions cried out for reform. Both required the political vision, will and resources for reform based on the grievances of the people.

If the reforms had been internally generated and grounded in the struggle and demands of the people, they would have almost certainly taken a very different trajectory.

For example, the judiciary, in particular the lower judiciary, could be improved significantly by directing resources to train judicial personnel, providing reasonable benefits to the staff, such as housing, transport etc., and by innovative structures to institutionalise people’s participation in judicial processes. Yet, that is not how ‘good governance’ reforms are conceived. Structures parallel to existing ones are put up as a result of donor pressure.

The desirability and viability of such structures is hardly assessed within the countries concerned. One of the effects of setting up such structures is to undermine time-tested traditional state structures.

Worse, reforms from the top instigated by donor conditionalities undermine the right of the people themselves to struggle for and conceive their own institutional reforms and set their own priorities.

Furthermore, needless to say, such top-down reforms, conceived prioritised and financed by the erstwhile IFIs and donors, undermine the very basis of democratic governance, that is, accountability to the people.

The ‘governors’ are accountable to the ‘donors’ and their consultants and advisors on ‘good governance’ rather than the people. Where, then, is the so-called democracy, trumpeted so much, and in whose name political power seeks legitimacy?

After that stinging statement I find it curious though that Shivji was not equally critical of the origins of our existing multi-party system that Nyerere was at the forefront of championing following the end of the Cold War.