The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Improving National Policy

A Case Study of Nigeria’s Trade Negotiations in the EU-ECOWAS Economic Partnership Agreement

Prepared for the African Policy Circle by Chukwuka Onyekwena, Maximilian Weylandt, Precious Akanonu

Over the past years, a worrying trend has set in across Africa: civil society space has been shrinking in what has been called “the biggest crackdown on civil society since the end of the Cold War.” This crackdown manifests itself in “verbal hostility from politicians, new laws and regulations that curtail their ability to operate, and outright violence.” Legal restrictions, as well as outright state harassment and intimidation, are on the rise across the continent.

The Kenyan government, for example, has tried to pass restrictive laws against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which would have capped foreign funding and imposed excessive regulation. The NGO Bureau deregistered hundreds of organisations and the government has passed restrictive media laws. In Uganda, laws introduced in recent years have systematically tightened the space for civil society: this includes requiring that all civil society organizations (CSOs) re-register, and imposing restrictions and giving government extensive powers to deny reregistration. Even South Africa has seen increased restrictions on the right to protest, as well as the antagonization of CSOs by state and security forces through the denunciation and surveillance of activists.

This shrinking space can be explained by a confluence of factors: namely, authoritarian governments’ fear of critical voices; new donor countries that do not attach any conditionalities, such as the promotion of a free and open society, to their loans; Western aid to anti-terror efforts, which can be a mask for suppression of government critics; and the Arab Spring’s example of how civil society can threaten entrenched rulers.

While restricting civil society space violates the human rights of engagement and action, it is also invariably counter-productive. Critical policy decisions are better formed when they are subjected to the crucible of debate and backed by evidence-based research. Civil society organizations play a crucial role in this respect and can, among other functions, mediate between individuals, the private sector, and the government, bring new knowledge to the table, promote transparent and accountable policy processes, and contribute to good governance.

In addition to the normative case for the role of CSOs in society, another line of reasoning exists for removing the restrictions on CSOs that have arisen across the continent: the value of CSOs in improving policy decisions and protecting national interests. The following case study on the Nigerian trade negotiations demonstrates this point. The study assesses the level of participation and effectiveness of Nigerian NGOs in the EU-West African EPA. The aim is to first identify key successes of Nigerian NGOs in the EPA negotiations so as to make a case for their usefulness and support in policymaking; and second, highlight key issues that constrained a more vigorous participation of CSOs, with corresponding recommendations for future CSO engagements in policymaking.

The full paper is available for download.