The Civil Society Landscape in West Africa – Challenges and Opportunities

The Civil Society Landscape in West Africa – Challenges and Opportunities

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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


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Fiifi is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Communications and Information Officer at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. He joined the Institute in December 2020.


Nancy is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Programme Officer in the Knowledge Management unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. She joined the Institute in January 2021.


Agnes is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Head of the Administration unit in the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2021.


Doris holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social sciences (Economics and Sociology) from the University of Cape Coast. She is passionate about impacting young lives hence co-founded Impart Foundation. A non-profit organization which seeks to empower young lives through education, technology and entrepreneurship.


Prince Akowuah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Assistant in the Translation Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Maxwell Apenteng is a Ghanaian and joined WACSI in September 2010. He provides gardening and janitorial services at the Institute.


George Adu-Mintah is a Ghanaian and currently the Protocol Assistant/Driver at the West Africa Civil Society (WACSI). He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Ibrahim Kwaku Gbadago is a Ghanaian. He joined the Institute in 2008 and provides janitorial services and assisting the institute's errands. Before joining the Institute, he worked at the Palestinian embassy in Accra, Ghana.


Ruth Yakana is from Cameroon and currently the Receptionist at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Bethel is a Ghanaian. He provides technical and IT related support to the Institute. He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Whitnay Segnonna holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Management from the University of Benin. With 2 years of experience, she has a strong knowledge of organizational and project management. Combined with her bilingualism, she is very passionate about her work. She joined WACSI as Project Assistant on Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) for the Capacity Development Unit.


Stella Yawa Wowoui holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation Studies. She has a perfect grasp of both French and English, as well as an intermediate level in Spanish. She is currently working as a Project Assistant on the Techsoup Project.


Kwame is an experienced IT Consultant/Software Developer. He is skilled in Web Applications Development, Digital Security, Database Management, Digital Marketing and Brand Management. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Information Technology and is a Microsoft Programme Alumni. He is currently serving as a Marketing and IT Officer on the Techsoup Project.


Grace Akpene Ziggah is a Togolese and currently the Logistics Officer and also assists in administration duties at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in June 2009.


Lilian Dafeamekpor is a Ghanaian and currently the Assistant to the Executive Director at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


John P. Frinjuah has expertise and interests in civil society, international development, democracy and governance, conflict, crisis, and security. He has extensive experience working with civil society and international development organizations where he supported and managed research, programmes, and provided technical assistance on a variety of themes around public policy, governance, and development. He is an alumnus of the University of Ghana and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - Tufts University in the United States, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from two institutions respectively. John speaks English, French and several Ghanaian and regional West Africa languages.


Gervin has extensive international development experience, including 5 years of policy advocacy and capacity building of grass root organisations. He has implemented over the years a combination of agriculture value chain, livelihood, food security and governance and rights programmes.
Prior to joining WACSI, Gervin worked on two USAID projects focusing on agriculture value chain development and governance in northern Ghana
Gervin holds a master’s degree in development & Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany as well as a Masters in Global Studies from the Universities of Vienna (Austria), Leipzig (Germany) and California (Santa Barbara), USA. He is passionate social justice and inclusion.


Leandre Banon, Beninese, joined WACSI in September 2014 as Capacity Development Programme Assistant. Since then, he has worked in various units within the Institute to support operational and institutional capacity strengthening programmes for civil society in the region. Currently serving as Capacity Development Programme Officer at WACSI, his main responsibilities involve designing, planning, implementing and monitoring capacity development programmes for civil society constituents and grouping across the West Africa. Leandre is a certified Change the Game Academy Programme Trainer. His background lies in the areas of economics and development planning.


Samuel Appiah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Officer in the Finance and Administrative Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in May, 2016.


Jimm Chick Fomunjong, Cameroonian, joined WACSI in May 2018 as the Head of the Knowledge Management and Communication Units of the Institute. He has over ten years’ experience as a journalist and a development communications expert. He has a vast experience in supporting African organisations to strengthen their internal and external communications, building and sustaining relationships with the media and, leveraging on the power of social media to promote their mission. He is also excellent at supporting organisations to set up and operationalise functional communications and knowledge management systems. He has a deep passion and expertise in supporting Africans and African civil society organisations to document their praxis, share and learn from experiences documented from the African civil society sector.


Franck Sombo is a development practitioner with the drive to lead self and others to influence productivity and efficiency. His work involves supporting organisations to develop strategic plans, design monitoring and evaluation systems, develop and use relevant performance measurement tools to track progress, assess organizational growth and institutionalise learning. Franck has eight years of experience working with WACSI where he currently serves as the Head, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. His academic qualifications include Masters in Organisations’ and Projects’ Management, and in Business Sciences and a High National Diploma in Finance and Accounting.

Franck is a Fellow of the International Program for Development Evaluation Training (IPDET) and a graduate of the Graduate Training Institute (GTI) - Ghana with specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Leadership. He has a rich experience in Project Management, Capacity Development, Strategic planning, Data Analytics, Monitoring and Evaluation, Training and Facilitation, Mentoring and Coaching among others.


Omolara is a development practitioner and advocacy strategist with over 15 years of progressive experience in development programming targeted at strengthening civil society in West Africa.

She joined WACSI in November 2009 as a Regional Advocacy Consultant and later became the first Policy Advocacy Officer of the Institute in 2010.

She was promoted to Head of the Policy Influencing and Advocacy (PIA) Unit in 2015. As the Head of the PIA unit, Omolara offers strategic direction to the Institutes’ ambitions to connect and convene groups of organised and organic civil society actors; and influence regional and global discourses on crosscutting policy issues including—civil society regulations, sustainable development goals, civic space and enabling environment, aid effectiveness, gender equality, and civil society accountability.

Previously, Omolara served as a Programmes Associate with the Women in Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), where she worked with her team to design and implement pan-African programmes on—multidimensional peace support operations and gender mainstreaming in security sector reform in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

She also served as a Service Development Marshal at TVQ Consulting Group, a customer service firm focused on designing strategic customer relationship and business growth plans for private and public financial institutions in Nigeria.

Omolara is a social justice advocate, a network weaver, and a convener. She has a postgraduate degree in Peace and Conflict Studies; a degree in International Relations and History, from the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria respectively.

She also holds executive certificates in Behavioral Science in Public Policy from Harvard University Executive Education in Cambridge and in Citizen Advocacy from the Coady International Institute, St Francis Xavier University in Canada.


Kwabena Kroduah is a Ghanaian and currently heads the Finance Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in January 2008.


Charles currently serves as the Head of the Capacity Development Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). Charles has over 10 years of experience working in international development and social justice issues in Africa. Charles has expertise in strengthening civil society and public agencies including the design and implementation of governance and leadership programmes, development of knowledge pieces and policy advice. Charles was the founding Board Chair of Innovation for Change (i4C)-Hub Afrique, as well as the founding member of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Space (iCon), an initiative of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. Charles currently serves as the Member of the Governing Board (Coordination Collective) of Africans Rising. He is a Member of the Development Studies Association, United Kingdom. Charles is a 2017 Stanford University Fellow for Nonprofit Leaders and a certified Change the Game Resource Mobilisation Trainer.


Nana Afadzinu is a Ghanaian and currently serves as the Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2010.