In 2013, musicians, artists and activists began what became one of Africa’s most successful grassroots political movements, The Citizen’s Broom (Le Balai Citoyen). Organized to fight corruption in Burkina Faso, the campaign brought thousands of people into the streets with brooms to “sweep them clean” and highlight longtime President Blaise Compaore’s illegitimate attempts to maintain power. The campaign ultimately contributed to his ouster and the establishment of a new national unity government. But not all anti-corruption movements are as creative and organized. The difference can determine not only whether a campaign works; it can also mean life or death for those involved.

Anti-Corruption box in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Marcel Oosterwijk
Anti-Corruption box in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Marcel Oosterwijk

With authoritarianism on the rise globally, opportunities for citizens to voice their opinions and advance the cause of human rights and justice are being curtailed, often through violent repression. That makes it more important than ever for anti-corruption activists to join forces and think strategically about how to achieve their goals effectively—and safely.

It’s a lesson that 17 Sudanese activists studied during a six-day training supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace. The aim was to strengthen their anti-corruption work with strategies and tactics that can successfully mobilize an entire movement.  

In the absence of the strategy and capacity needed to organize against a more powerful political entity, the efforts of anti-corruption groups often fail. Political maneuvering by government officials, for example, watered down legislation to increase access to information and sharpen accountability in Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Ukraine, leaving citizens frustrated and apathetic.

Even worse, in Sierra Leone, marginalized youth were unable to channel frustrations about corruption productively before the situation devolved into an armed insurgency, which resulted in a bloody, decades-long civil war.

Against the rising tide of authoritarianism, this is an urgent mission.

Fortunately, activists can deploy proven tools to effectively combat corruption through nonviolent means. Many of these are borne of lessons from the well-documented relationship between corruption and violent conflict. Trainings focused on nonviolent movement building can help activists design strategies and tactics that are calculated, inclusive and sustainable, to keep actions nonviolent despite the pressure to cross the line.

The USIP-sponsored workshop was designed to equip activists with skills in nonviolent action to decrease the level of corruption and violence in Sudan, which ranks nearly last in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption in Sudan ranges from petty to large-scale public embezzlement and political patronage. As a result, businesses must pay bribes to state officials to operate, state security personnel fail to provide public safety, and the government does not protect civil and political rights. These breakdowns fuel political instability. This culture of corruption exists in a context in which the government is actively engaged in an armed conflict with rebel groups in multiple regions of the country.

Strategic Planning

The 17 Sudanese activists were local leaders and organization representatives trying to shine a light on the impact of corruption in their own communities. Training topics were selected based on empirical research conducted by USIP Senior Advisor Maria Stephan, who directs the institute’s program on nonviolent action, and a University of Denver colleague, Erica Chenoweth, that shows the greatest determinants of success for nonviolent social movements are the diversity and number of participants, as well as the strategic selection of tactics.

Accordingly, activists built skills in strategic movement planning and coordination, including how to recruit volunteers, design a long-term campaign, and form and negotiate within a broad-based anti-corruption network. Participants learned the importance of varying their tactics and not relying solely on street protests. Activists elsewhere have found success with projects such as radio call-in shows, public murals, and political satire.  

One nonviolent tactic popular with the group is social auditing, a technique in which ordinary citizens use publicly available records to track government spending and expose instances of bribery. Social auditing has been fairly successful in places like Kenya. But however, the process of obtaining public financial records, educating citizens, investigating government expenses, and raising awareness of corrupt government spending is not easy and can even be dangerous if activists are not properly trained.

Activists also dedicated time each evening to forming strong relationships with other participants, who will be valuable allies when they return to their communities. Most participants said this training was their first opportunity to meet other activists working on anti-corruption issues in Sudan, and several had never heard of the movement-building tools and strategies they used throughout the week.

“I’m amazed of the creativity in the material,” one participant said.

In the socio-political context of Sudan, there is no quick fix to clear the country of its endemic corruption. However, grassroots action may yield localized results, like saving public funds, building personal savings and improving government service delivery – all critical components for defusing violence and spurring development.

Globally, more grassroots activists need to be better equipped to promote government accountability and transparency. Field-based training with an emphasis on the local context has demonstrated the ability to yield the tangible results necessary to empower nonviolent social movements. Against the rising tide of authoritarianism, this is an urgent mission.

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