Imagine you are an everyday citizen, living in a country with a history of over three decades of state violence and authoritarian rule, with widespread poverty still persistent. A nonviolent civic coalition played a significant role in displacing the old regime. The fledgling democracy inherited a thirty-year armed conflict that resulted in thousands of deaths, dysfunctional state institutions, security force impunity and gross malfeasance. Yet amidst these challenges, an anti-corruption commission has been created that has begun to expose illicit behavior and relationships among the local and national governments, parliament, administration, police and private sector. Not surprisingly, it has become a target of these corrupt forces, and commissioners have been jailed on trumped up charges.
Alternately, imagine you live in destitution, in a slum, with little or no formal education. Ethnic violence has wracked your country, most recently after national elections. You feel frustration, hopelessness and anger at the lack of concern of local officials and your elected representative, who receive funds to improve your community while you see no beneficial results. Yet, you also have little confidence you can change things, and believe that in any case, it’s ultimately out of your hands and is the responsibility of others.
What could you actually do, in either situation? One option is to remain acquiescent and suffer. A second option is to resort to violence, perhaps by joining a gang or extremist group, or venting through riots or mob aggression, though this is highly unlikely to result in positive change. But there is a third option. You could get together with others sharing the same grievances, and take up civil resistance to make your collective voice heard, articulate grievances and demands, put pressure on authorities to force action, and achieve results. This is exactly what happened in the above two stories.
In the largest social mobilization since the Reformasi movement, which ended the brutal Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, the 2009 CICAK campaign made history. CICAK has a dual meaning. It’s an acronym for ‘Love Indonesia, Love Anti-Corruption.’ It’s also a gecko lizard, referring to a derogatory wiretapped comment by the Chief of the Police’s Criminal Department, who likened the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to a gecko fighting the crocodile (police). One hundred civic organizations soon joined CICAK; a graduate student independently created a Facebook group which rapidly grew to 1.7 million members; and local groups formed in 20 of the country’s 33 provinces, with well-known public figures coming on board.
CICAK organized actions in Jakarta, while local chapters and high school and university students spontaneously initiated events throughout the country. A variety of creative nonviolent tactics were used, including banners reading “Say no to crocodiles,” anti-corruption ringtones, stunts, street murals, wearing of symbols, solidarity visits to the KPK, as well as demonstrations, concerts, sit-ins, leafleting and hunger strikes. CICAK demanded an immediate independent investigation and called on the President to save the KPK. As civil resistance escalated, he agreed to the investigation. The Commission recommended the charges against the KPK officials be dropped.
The second case is ongoing in Kenya. Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) is empowering the poor in Mombasa to fight poverty by gaining access to information about budgets, curbing misuse of constituency development funds, demanding projects actually wanted by communities, and gaining accountability of local officials and members of parliament. Since 2007, through a pioneering collaboration with the International Budget Partnership and veteran activists from the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) movement for the ‘Right to Know’ in India, it has developed a defining nonviolent method, the ‘five-step social audit’, designed to pressure legislators to confront corruption and mismanagement:
The first step consists of information gathering - records from the local Constituency Development Fund (CDF) office. The second step is training local men and women to become community activists who decipher documents and budgets, monitor expenditures and physically inspect public works. The third step involves educating and motivating fellow citizens about the CDF and their right to information and accountability. Community activists and MUHURI use nonviolent tactics to attract attention, directly engage people, and encourage them to attend a ‘public hearing’. This includes puppet plays, musical processions, street theatre, and leafleting. The fourth step is inspecting the CDF project site. Finally comes the public hearing with CDF officials, the media, and in some cases, the member of parliament. MUHURI first leads a procession through the community, replete with chanting, a youth band, theatrics and dancing children. During the forum the results of the investigations are presented, CDF officials are questioned and remedial measures are identified. Follow-up monitoring tracks progress.
In virtually every part of the world over the past 15 years, citizens have been proving they are not passive onlookers of elite-driven, anti-corruption initiatives, but rather, drivers of accountability, reform and change - all-the-while expanding the application of civil resistance tactics originally honed through more visible anti-dictatorship and anti-occupation struggles. People power may be well-suited to a systemic approach to curbing corruption. Traditional, top-down strategies are based on the assumption that once anti-corruption structures are put in place, illicit practices will change. Institutions accused of corruption are often made responsible for enacting change. But those benefiting from graft are much less likely to stand against it than those suffering from it. It’s not surprising that even when political will exists, it can be thwarted, because too many people have a stake in the crooked status quo.
In contrast, people power has a strategic advantage: it consists of extra-institutional pressure to push for change, when power-holders are corrupt or unaccountable, and institutional channels are blocked or ineffective. In ongoing research, this author has found that grass-roots campaigns and movements targeting corruption often complement and reinforce legal and administrative mechanisms, which constitute the anti-corruption infrastructure needed for long-term transformation of systems of graft and abuse. They can disrupt vertical and horizontal systems of corruption. Citizen mobilization has also bolstered the efforts of honest individuals within the state and other institutions and sectors attempting reforms and change, even to the extent of defending them.
Aruna Roy, one of the founders of the MKSS movement in India, characterizes corruption as “the external manifestation of the denial of a right, an entitlement, a wage, a medicine…” In bottom-up approaches, corruption isn’t considered in a vacuum; it is linked to oppression and other forms of injustice, from violence to poverty, human rights abuses, substandard social services, authoritarianism, unaccountability, and environmental destruction.
Consequently, when people develop their own channels of power, the priorities of fighting corruption often shift from grand corruption, such as massive embezzlement, to those forms of graft and abuse that are most directly harmful to the public, particularly the poor. An active citizenry is at the heart of accountability and justice. In the words of Hussein Khalid of MUHURI, “If people are able to be encouraged to go out, today it’s CDF, tomorrow it’s something else, and another day it’s another thing. So CDF is an entry point to the realization of so many rights that people are not getting.”
The achievements of the CICAK campaign, MUHURI and many others not only set an example, but provide hope that people can do more than sit in quiet suffering or resort to violence. Often institutionalized, corruption in democracies and non-democracies alike will remain globally pervasive to the extent that we, the people, have not yet become a nonviolent force for fighting the injustice that it causes. Civil resistance is a means by which citizens can become that source of change.
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