The 1990s marked a significant period for civil society in West Africa, particularly for formal associations, mainly non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, it is crucial to recognize that there were different groups that advocated for the independence of the countries in the region from the clutches of colonialism. Many of these were national associations, but there were also regional associations, such as the West African Student Union and West African Youth League (Obadare, E. in WACSI 2015, pp. 13, 14). Nevertheless, the term “civil society” has predominantly come to represent formally-registered civic groups, many of which emerged during what scholars have dubbed the “second liberation” of West Africa in the 1990s.
In this period, a wave of democracy swept across the region, beginning with the ouster of Matthieu Kerekou in Benin. This period (1990s to early 2000s) can be described as the golden years for civil society (predominantly NGOs) in West Africa. This article will discuss the state of ‘civil society’ in West Africa today, the challenges and opportunities, and the definition adopted here is the CIVICUS definition of “civil society”, which is “the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market which is created by individual and collective actions, organizations and institutions to advance shared interests.”
The Golden Years
The global rise of liberal democracy during the 1990s provided a conducive environment for civil society in West Africa. Leading world powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom had considerable clout and gave the needed international backing to democratic missions. The United Nations member states adopted and ratified several human rights protocols within that period, with the active participation of civil society. In Africa, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights provided an active platform for civil society engagement. Across West Africa, military rulers handed over power to elected governments, and regional organizations such as the ECOWAS actively promoted good governance.
The administrative setup of the ECOWAS Commission, headed by Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas, supported civil society, and encouraged the interaction between civil society and ECOWAS. At this time, civil society actors came together and formed the West Africa Civil Society Forum (WACSOF) to act as a platform for civil society in the region to engage with ECOWAS. Civil society organizations (CSOs) and actors were invited by ECOWAS to formulate several policies and protocols. Civil society was an active participant in the ECOWAS election observer missions and mediation activities.
CSOs working on democratic consolidation, enhanced civic participation, social justice, human rights, and public service delivery enjoyed widespread support from local communities and citizens, many of whom lived under repressive authoritarian governments and appreciated the advocacy role of CSOs. They were seen as champions of citizens’ rights and voices, akin to the student movements and political organizations that played instrumental roles in the pre-independence era.
CSOs also received financial support during the “golden years” for their activities and institutions. Foundations such as the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) provided resources to support democratic consolidation efforts in West Africa. This support facilitated the establishment and growth of NGOs and gave them the flexibility to achieve their goals.
The status quo no longer remains.
Current Challenges Faced by Civil Society in West Africa
Shifting global geopolitics: The political landscape has evolved globally, with countries that once championed liberal democracy becoming more inward-focused and pushing nationalistic sentiments in their countries. Foreign policy interests shifted from multilateralism, human rights and social justice, to security and trade. In fact, the verdict reached is that “by 2022, democracy appeared to be in retreat worldwide” (Arriolazsaa & Rakner 2023, p.1).
Shrinking civic space: The above-mentioned geopolitical developments have also led to a constricted civic space, occasioned by the use of different measures by governments in the region. These restrictions restrict the operating space of CSOs, particularly those working on pro-democracy initiatives. The tactics used by governments include the detention of protestors, journalists and human rights defenders, censorship, harassment, intimidation, restrictive laws, regulations and policies, excessive use of force, disruption of protests and attacks on journalists.
Limited resourcing: Over time, foundations and donor organizations have become more transactional in their engagement with CSOs. Funding has shifted towards short-term projects with expected outputs rather than long-term institutional building and strengthening with expected outcomes. This shift has resulted in limited resources for core operational support, weakening the overall capacity of CSOs.
Weak governance and accountability: CSOs have also grappled with issues of weak governance and accountability. Upward accountability to donors often takes precedence over accountability to the citizens they serve. Additionally, limited self-regulation within the sector has allowed the infiltration and emergence of some unscrupulous organizations that undermine the credibility of civil society as a whole.
Divisive issues and lack of solidarity: Issues such as LGBTQI rights have become divisive within the civil society space due to cultural and religious differences and polarizing the civil society front. The lack of solidarity is also caused by unhealthy competition for resources. Civil society’s ability to speak with a strong collective voice on critical issues is, therefore, sometimes hampered by this lack of solidarity. Furthermore, the political manipulation of these divisions by governments undermines the collective strength of civil society.
Weak institutions: Civil society in West Africa today is, therefore, generally much weaker than it was 20 years ago. This has, to some extent, contributed to the retrogression in democratic growth and consolidation that the region is currently experiencing; with coups occurring in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, and the very recent threat of Senegal descending into chaos because of President Macky Sall’s insistence on extending his term in office. An attempt to amend the ECOWAS protocol on good governance to address the thorny issue of unlawful attempts to prolong the terms of governments has not received the necessary support from the ECOWAS heads of States and Governments.
Despite these challenges, there are still some opportunities for redemption.
Renewed ECOWAS support: The current crop of ECOWAS Commissioners is keen on reviving the relationship with civil society to push the agenda of peace, security, and prosperity of West Africa forward. They have been more open to civil society interaction with the Commission, and there are hopes that the shelved plan of establishing an ECOSOC, an organ within the ECOWAS to ensure formalized engagement with non-state actors, would come to fruition.
Active citizenship and broadening civil society base: West African citizens have become increasingly active, and NGOs are no longer the sole leaders in the demand for good governance and accountability in West Africa. In Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Guinea, social movements made up of citizens (including NGOs) protested against certain government actions and policies, and in some countries, pushed to get authoritarian leaders out of office. The challenge in the latter is to ensure that democracy is restored and maintained, but the heightened awareness of social action is one that CSOs can take advantage of to re-engage citizens and broaden the civil society base.
Technology: It remains a very effective tool for mobilizing, education and advocacy, and this is a tool that civil society needs to get adept at and employ effectively. It also calls for advocacy for the right policies to regulate technology. The opportunity to do so currently exists and must be taken advantage of.
Shifting power in international development: The clamor for shifting power in international development to ensure that there is an equitable distribution of resources, strengthening CSOs by providing core funding, and valuing knowledge from local organizations working in places like West Africa, is another opportunity that CSOs can take advantage of to address some of the issues with resourcing.
Thus, supporting organizations to build strong institutions remains critical. The devastating effect of COVID on CSOs in West Africa exposed the weakness of organizations that had long been neglected and deprived of the resources that they needed to build their institutional structures. More donors have now recognized that strengthening CSOs is critical to sustaining any gains that are made through projects and programs.
Local philanthropy: Connected to this is the opportunity that currently exists to build the local philanthropic infrastructure to support work on social justice, accountability, protection, democracy, and human rights. There are more indigenous philanthropic organizations in West Africa, and high networking individuals (HNWI) in the region can channel some of their resources to support work towards peace, security, and prosperity in West Africa.
Solidarity: Civil society in West Africa needs to come together again and rebuild solidarity, going beyond the usual network of NGOs to include social movements, professional associations, faith-based organizations, creatives, and individual activists. A strong, collective voice needs to be built to speak as citizens of West Africa to power and deal with threats to civic spaces. That voice is weak now. Attempts to organize the region through platforms such as WADEMOS must be encouraged and supported.
Accountability and self-regulation: Despite the current threat of closing civic spaces through government regulations, policies, and laws, an opportunity presents itself for civil society to introspect and address accountability issues, as well as develop their own self-regulatory mechanisms.
While the 1990s marked a period of immense growth and influence for civil society in West Africa, the current landscape presents new challenges, and overcoming these challenges requires the aforementioned adaptive strategies. By addressing these issues, civil society in West Africa can regain momentum and continue to play a vital role in shaping the region’s future.
Arriola, L. R., & Rakner, L. (2023). Democratic Backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, Resilience, and Contention (p. 320). Oxford University Press.
WACSI (2015) Civil Society and Development in West Africa: Practitioners’ perspective. Accra, Ghana.
Nana Asantewa Afadzinu is the Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).
Source: EPIC Africa – African CSO Platform