The Nigerian Civic Space: The Journey so far

The Nigerian Civic Space: The Journey so far

Nigeria’s journey with civic space legislation has undergone significant evolution over the years, transitioning from the struggles against military rule to the current democratic era. Throughout this transformative process, legislative frameworks have adapted to align with the fundamental principles of democracy. The bedrock of this evolution today, lies in the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which serves as the cornerstone of civic space legislation. 

The constitution expressly guarantees the protection of freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.  Freedom of expression is protected under Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to express their views, engage in dialogues and convey dissent on any issue through any communication channel.  

Individual freedoms are protected by these constitutionally guaranteed rights from forceful intrusions and discrimination in the face of entrenched political interests. These provisions are meant to facilitate citizens’ interactions and engagement with the government.  

The state of the civic space plays a crucial role in Nigeria’s democracy, serving as the platform for citizens to exercise their rights, voice concerns, and engage in democratic processes. Civic space legislation, comprising legal frameworks for civil society organisations (CSOs) and citizens, defines the boundaries of free expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Despite constitutional protections, recent proposals and bills pose threats to civic space, highlighting the need for a delicate balance between regulation and freedom. 

Challenges and Controversies  

According to CIVICUS, when the civic space is open, citizens and civil society can organise, participate, and communicate without hindrance. However, the Nigerian civic space presents some challenges and controversies, particularly concerning civil society operations and media rights.  

Restrictive Regulations  

In several ways, CSOs are faced with increasing restrictions when accessing international resources. The impact of these constraints is that it reduces the ability of CSOs to respond creatively to the increasing humanitarian needs of Nigerians. Under the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), there is a potential threat of government intervention leading to the takeover of CSOs. The provisions within the Act empower the government to control the activities and operations of these organisations, including the removal and replacement of their trustees with government-appointed individuals. This contradicts the very essence of non-governmental organisations, as it compromises the autonomy and independence that CSOs inherently represent. 

In a 2021 report on Civic space in West Africa by Spaces 4 Change, Ibezim- Ohaeri highlights concerns regarding restrictive measures that hinder civil society, restricting their operational flexibility and autonomy. These measures include regulations imposed by government agencies like the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) and the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), including the Special Control Unit Against Money Laundering (SCUML), Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), Federal Reporting Council of Nigeria (FRCN), and Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). These agencies primarily undertake regulatory oversight through various methods and restrictions such as the requirement for periodic financial reports, submission of currency transaction reports (CTRs) and Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs), filing of annual returns instead of tax exemptions, and surveillance of financial inflows. 

Violation of Digital rights and press freedom 

The foundation of Nigeria’s civic space thrives on freedom of expression and the liberty of the media. These critical elements shape the platform where citizens articulate their views, disseminate information, and maintain a watchful eye on government actions. A surge in the use of social media has been witnessed in recent years, serving as a lively forum for political dialogue, social activism, and citizen-led journalism. 

In June 2021, the Nigerian government implemented a ban on the social networking site Twitter, which had played a pivotal role in facilitating communication and coordination, particularly during the #ENDSARS protest in October 2020. The government cited concerns that the platform was being used to undermine Nigeria’s corporate existence. This ban had profound implications for the digital rights of Nigerians, raising serious concerns about censorship and freedom of speech. It also underscores broader issues regarding government control over digital spaces and emphasises the importance of upholding fundamental rights in the digital age. The government’s use of national security as a justification raises concerns about its potential misuse as a pretext for suppressing dissent and curtailing civil liberties. 

In 2023, Nigeria ranked 123 on the World Press Freedom Index, with Reporters Without Borders describing it as “one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists,” who often face monitoring, attacks, and arbitrary arrests, as witnessed during the 2023 elections. In the same year, CIVICUS reported that at least 14 journalists and media workers were detained, threatened, harassed, or physically attacked while covering Nigeria’s presidential and federal elections on 25 February 2023. 

Despite the guarantee of freedom of the press in Section 39 of the constitution, one must question if this aligns with the reality faced by journalists in Nigeria. Contrary to the constitutional provision, the prevailing situation suggests otherwise. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, the most prevalent violation documented in the last 24 months is the detention of journalists. These detentions frequently occur in response to journalists covering sensitive topics, such as corruption and conflict, which may be considered provocative or insulting by authorities. 

In regions affected by conflict, such as the Northeast and Northwest, the presence of armed groups and the proliferation of violence create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens face heightened risks as they navigate these volatile environments, often becoming targets of attacks, abductions, and intimidation tactics. The breakdown of law and order further exacerbates the shrinking of the civic space, as state institutions struggle to uphold democratic principles and protect the rights of citizens. Likewise, the government’s response to insecurity, characterised by heavy-handed tactics and restrictions on movement and expression, can further curtail civic freedoms under the guise of maintaining stability.  

Disruption of Public Protests 

Protests are frequently suppressed by state governments, employing the army or police, under the pretext of restoring order to the state without formally declaring a state of emergency. This misuse of authority is exemplified by the government’s response to the #EndSARS protests in October 2020. Despite the largely peaceful nature of the demonstrations, security forces deployed excessive force, resulting in numerous casualties and widespread human rights violations. Such actions not only violate the rights of citizens to peaceful assembly but also undermine the principles of democracy and freedom of expression. 

Similarly, on 6 September 2023, two student activists of the University of Lagos were arrested and forcefully detained by law enforcement authorities. The students were exercising their fundamental right to protest the proposed hike in tuition fees. However, their peaceful demonstration was met with a heavy-handed response from the police, who apprehended the activists. The incident substantiates the challenges faced by activists and protesters in Nigeria, where the right to express grievances is often met with intimidation and repression. 

Forceful Abductions  

In Nigeria, forceful disappearance due to criticism or dissent remains a grave concern, reflecting the ongoing challenges to freedom of expression and human rights. Individuals who criticise government policies or express dissenting views often face intimidation, harassment, and even disappearances at the hands of state agents or non-state actors. These disappearances are often perpetrated with impunity, leaving families and communities in a state of uncertainty.  

The targeting of activists, journalists, and political opponents undermines democratic principles and stifles public discourse, perpetuating a culture of fear and silence.  In 2019, Abubakar Idris, popularly known as Daiyat, a vocal critic of the Nigerian government and a prominent social media activist was abducted from his home in Kaduna State. His disappearance sparked widespread outrage and raised serious concerns about the safety of individuals who speak out against the government. Despite calls for his release and demands for accountability, Daiyat’s whereabouts remain unknown. 


Amidst the increasing challenges, the question lingers: How can civic actors ensure the safeguarding of Nigeria’s Civic Space?  

In this endeavour, both the media and civil society possess crucial roles in safeguarding democratic principles and protecting fundamental rights. The media serves as a watchdog, responsible for scrutinising government actions, exposing corruption, and amplifying the voices of marginalised communities. Through investigative journalism and balanced reporting, the media can hold those in power accountable and inform the public about threats to civic space.  

Similarly, civil society organisations act as advocates for citizen participation and societal change. By mobilising grassroots movements, raising awareness about civil liberties, and engaging in advocacy efforts, civil society can push back against attempts to restrict civic space and uphold the rights of individuals and communities.  


It is therefore imperative to strike the right balance between regulation and freedom to nurture a civic space where citizens actively contribute to the nation’s progress. As Nigeria continues its democratic journey, the evolution of civic space legislation will remain a crucial narrative in shaping the nation’s democratic identity. There is a need for the government to ensure it carries CSOs along in its operations and allows for their input. The government needs to view CSOs as partners in development and not antagonists. Civic space legislation in Nigeria is not merely a set of rules but a foundational aspect of the democratic framework. 


About the author

Maryam Bappah

Maryam Bappah is a Program Officer and Researcher at the Centre for Policy Research and Development Solutions Nigeria with an academic background in International Relations and Development. Her interests include addressing Conflict, Civic technology, and Social Justice through advocacy and research. Maryam Bappah has experience collaborating with Civil Society Organisations to address threats to civic space; particularly in the Northeast and Northwest regions of Nigeria.


WACSI Communications

Maryam Bappah is a Program Officer and Researcher at the Centre for Policy Research and Development Solutions Nigeria with an academic background in International Relations and Development. Her interests include addressing Conflict, Civic technology, and Social Justice through advocacy and research. Maryam Bappah has experience collaborating with Civil Society Organisations to address threats to civic space; particularly in the Northeast and Northwest regions of Nigeria.

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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.