Countering Challenges Facing Civic Space in West Africa

March 6, 2024

By Clement Nwankwo

In June 2022, the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) organized a West Africa sub-regional consultation looking at the constraints facing civil society organizations and civic space in the sub-region. The participants came from Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. A common thread emerged from the conversations: civil society organizations (CSOs) face similar challenges in their different countries and struggle against authoritarian regimes seeking to constrict the space in which they operate.

A common narrative amongst the groups is the struggle they face navigating the land mines of constraints laid by the governments in the sub-region. Most of the groups complained of restrictive laws posed by the governments, digital space surveillance, arrest and detention of civic actors, forced office closures, obstruction of protests, counter-protests, and smear campaigns against organizations and individuals in civic space. The groups also noted that governments in the sub-region have expanded beyond reasonable limits the definition of terrorism and money laundering to target CSOs working in conflict zones who either are international CSOs or receive funding from foreign donor organizations.

Conversations by civil society actors across West Africa have shown that the general populace, and even the government in some cases, do not have a clear understanding of CSOs and the work they do. This knowledge gap makes it easy for governments to discredit civil society and clamp down on civic space.

CSOs and governments appear to constantly battle for the public mind. CSOs put in a lot of advocacy work to organize citizens and the public to draw attention to the government’s failures and make demands. The government, on the other hand, is often irritated by civil society work. They accuse CSOs of making the government look bad in the minds of the people and exposing their inadequacies. The government, therefore, seeks to curtail civil society’s operational space and inflict several restrictive measures on the space.

It is important to note that CSOs have not just laid flat on the ground and allowed themselves to be trod over by the government. Accounts of the brave fight back by civil society are seen in the challenge to the government’s restrictive actions. Over the past 16 years, the legislature in Nigeria has frequently introduced NGO regulation bills to bring these organizations under government control and even administration. However, civil society groups have fought back against some restrictive laws, including litigating against the government on these laws. For example, the Companies and Allied Matters Act which includes provisions to take over the management of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has faced litigation, with NGOs questioning the government’s powers in this regard. In addition, the advocacy of groups, including PLAC, has often forced those legislations to go to public hearings where public discussion and debate has led to the defeat of these legislations.

Government-sponsored protesters have also been used as a strategy to discredit peaceful protests organized by civil society actors who engage in critical issues of public interest. The October 2020 #EndSARS protest, an organized, peaceful movement by citizens against police brutality, was infiltrated by State-sponsored protesters to stir violence in order to delegitimize and shut down the protest. After an abrupt and violent end to the protests, CSOs and citizens insisted on an investigation into the disruptions and eventual shutdown of the protests. This civil society advocacy effort forced the government of Lagos State (the epicenter of the protest) to set up a panel to carry out an inquiry that showed government complicity in sabotaging the protest. Due to sustained civil society advocacy, investigative panels were also set up by the government at the State and Federal levels through the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to look into allegations of police brutality and award compensation to victims.

These experiences show that civil society can push back and defend democratic civic space and hold the government accountable. While the nature of challenges faced by CSOs continues to change, it is pertinent for civil society in West Africa and indeed all over the world to remain dynamic and resilient in wading through these challenges and to continue to impact society positively while holding government accountable.

The sudden resurgence of military coups is disturbing recent developments in the region. The recent coups in Niger and Gabon, with fears and threats of possible military interventions in Cameroon and other countries where civilian governments have failed to organize free elections, pose fresh danger to civil society.

The gains of the last two decades that saw several military dictatorships brought to an end appear to be under threat. Civil Society and other world democracy defenders will need to prepare to protect hard-won battles.

Clement Nwankwo is executive director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) and a well-known and well-respected Nigerian lawyer.