Juliana Francis

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in West African countries have been facing a myriad of challenges. The challenges have often ranged from physical attacks by unknown actors, a crackdown by state actors over fabricated law infringements, and arrests for gathering, and expressing opinions, down to associating with perceived enemies of the state.

Most of these actions come down to shrinking the civic space and as the Nigerian 2023 election draws closer, the civic space is worrisomely going to shrink further.

Before and after the elections, Nigerian human rights activists are likely going to face attacks from state and non-state actors.

These and so many other issues were part of the reasons the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) in partnership with Spaces for Change (S4C), organised a two-day intensive training for CSOs.

There were 25 CSOs at the workshop, with 10 from Nigeria, 10 from Ghana and five from Senegal. These 25 organisations fall under the umbrella of cohort 1.

The organisers said that there were going to be five cohorts and the project would run for five years, with each cohort to be trained within 12 months. The project is funded by Ford Foundation.

The project is aimed at strengthening cords binding CSOs. The two-day workshop started on the 12th and ended on13th of October 2022.

The event tagged, ‘The Civic Space Resource Hub (CSR-HUB) workshop,’ was held at Mensvic Hotel, Accra Ghana.

The Executive Director of WACSI, Ms Nana Afadzinu, giving her welcoming remarks, said she was sad about the present situation of the African continent in terms of democracy, noting that there was a rise in anti-democratic leaders, who do not care about human rights.

According to her, trends in the world today clearly showed there was an attack on democracy and citizens’ engagement.

She added: “There are major issues with CSOs and these issues begin with cyber surveillance and trickle down to other challenges. So many things are changing and many CSOs are struggling to stay afloat. Most importantly, there is a disconnect between CSOs and the people. If we want to save and rescue the civic space, we must act. This project is for five years, but we should look beyond five years. The problem we are facing is beyond five years. Organisations working in the protection of civic space need to be strengthened. We have to stop regression. The workshop is where we need to think as individual organisations, to understand that we are building a movement. We need to connect so that we can support one another. We are hoping to expand beyond Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana. If the CSOs want to change the civic space, they need to act.”

The CSR-Hub Project Officer, WACSI, Ms Tinuola Makinde, speaking on the ‘Overview of the Civic Space Resource Hub for CSOs in West Africa (CSR-Hub)  thematic focus, activities and other services for 2022-2032 cohorts, explained that the five-year project seeks to strengthen CSOs in their thematic focus.

She noted that the project was going to strengthen CSOs on these thematic pillars; civic space protection, organisational governance, regulatory compliance, digital security and protection and resource mobilisation and financial resilience.

Makinde stressed that WACSI was particular about impact: “We want the civic space to be all-inclusive. The training for CSOs will contribute to enhancing the capacity of organisations. The first cohort (cohort1) benefiting is 25 organisations, and they will be working with a group of experts. What we at WACSI required from CSOs is their commitment and willingness to improve the work they are doing around civic space. CSOs will also be trained on resiliency against threats and show how weaving resilience is important to every organisation. Weaving resilience is understanding one another’s strengths and then weaving them together for a stronger hub. It is also to have the ability to adapt to changes around donors, democratic government, and CSOs.”

She also said, “We want the diversity to reflect in our impact. You’ll get technical and expert support, but it will only cost you as CSOs, commitment and willingness to improve the works you’re doing. Ensure your need is genuine, let it be in alliance with civic space and then we’ll analyse your needs and prepare the training. For instance, your tech person can attend training on digital and enhance the organisation’s ability. Also, your finance person may attend the pillar on resources and use acquired knowledge to enhance your organisation. We are particular about seeing results in your work. Do you need help with your website? The hub is for CSOs working on civic space. The support is only technical, maybe the grant will come in three years’ time, just maybe. The support will be varied depending on the organisation. We want the opportunity to be for organisations that need it.” She also stated that to ensure the thematic concerns of the project were achieved, WACSI will be engaging some technical experts like Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO), Busara Africa, Penplusbytes, Ghana, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, Placement Ghana, Spaces for Change and WACSI.

The Executive Director of the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO), Mr. Oyebisi Babatunde Oluseyi, speaking on ‘Contextualising Civic Space in West Africa: Interrogating the rapidly changing context, dynamics, emerging issues of restrictions and threats to civil liberties, said that freedom of assembly, expression and association had expanded to include both online and offline medium.

He noted that the government most times uses laws to shrink the civic space. He said that CSOs have no safeguards to protect them and stressed that CSOs should be able to operate without hindrance.

He said: “Other strategies government can use to shrink space is to offer advocates access to contracts, open threats and suspension of partnerships. The government is notorious for hiring bloggers using fake profiles to attack CSOs. There are no laws which the government cannot use against CSOs, but commonly and frequently used are laws on terrorism and money laundering. CSOs should begin to ask themselves the stage their organisation is at right now and what the hub can do for them.”

Speaking on approaches to resilience, he said that CSOs needed to understand the importance of exposure, develop principles, identify actions and prepare for changes.

His words: “If you want to be resilient, you need to develop principles. CSOs need to be proactive, take documentation with seriousness, ensure online notice, proactive disclosures and resolve integrity issues.”











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