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West Africa is undergoing a period of significant transition. Demographic changes, rapid urbanization, the spread of new technologies and the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area have created new development pathways for the resource-rich region, home to 16 countries and roughly 5% of the world’s population. Geopolitical shifts are generating new levels of foreign interest as well. With Western hegemony in decline, a splintering international order has produced opportunities for illiberal state regimes to offer African governments more diverse options for political, economic and military partnerships.

Regional involvement by these actors is not intrinsically negative. China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and others have all contributed to tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements, economic trade and development initiatives across the continent. This has benefited countries with growing populations that require better transportation and communications networks, more hospitals and schools, and greater access to finance, clean water and electricity. Spin-off economic activity has created jobs for locals and supported private enterprise by benefiting African suppliers, buyers, subcontractors and entrepreneurs, while boosting intra-regional trade.1 Consumer markets also now feature a wider array of affordable products and greater opportunities for cultural exchange.

The latent risk is the opportunity and potential for illiberal states to further their own interests by interfering with democratic processes in these same countries. Their objective being to prevent civil society groups and electorates from pressuring ruling parties to enact more inclusive and equitable approaches to economic development. Amid a period of intense political and social change made more complex by mounting climate crises, the Covid-19 pandemic and global food and energy shortages stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—West African nations are therefore vulnerable to having their democratic progress stifled as the autocratic tendencies of governments become reinforced by foreign enablers.

A primary tool in this process has been, and will continue to be the deployment of disinformation, by foreign and domestic actors alike. The goal being to influence electoral outcomes and shape public opinion to their advantage. Given West Africa’s rising geopolitical importance and rapid increases in local internet and social media access each year, combined with companies’ limited ability to police their platforms, this trend will only become more prominent.

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Since the attainment of independence in 1960, civil society groups have contributed decisively towards enabling and enhancing national independence, for instance in the mobilizations against the Anglo Nigeria defense pact, judged to be against the national interest; as well as in the anti-structural adjustment program protests and movements under the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida. Civil society did what it could to hold the military governments accountable by organising citizens to demand the return to democracy in the 1990s. Since the return to civil rule in 1999, it has been in the forefront of constitutional reform processes to promote inclusion, participation, and improved quality of representation and governance.

As a result of the opening of the civic space brought about by the global wave of democratization and the increased international funding opportunities that came with it, developing countries in the past two decades, have witnessed the mushrooming of civil society organisations (CSOs). Most credible CSOs are primarily involved in advocacy or service delivery with some combining both. These represent diverse ideologies and while some are membership-based and exclusively concerned with issues of particular interest to their members, others adopt a broader approach, relative to their objectives, to either reform or transform the system.

More recently there has been a trend of CSOs either specifically established by the government to advance its interests or those that are co-opted to do so; what orthodox practitioners derogatorily refer to as government non-governmental organisations (GNGO). However, this abuse of the sector is not limited to governments as there have also been numerous cases of bad CSO actors not associated with governments.

However, on the whole community and state actors both acknowledge that civil society has made positive contributions towards ameliorating the sufferings of Nigerian. Evidence from existing literature, as well as findings from focus group discussions and key informant interviews existing literature, as well as findings from focus group discussions and key informant interviews undertaken for this project, show that CSOs have played and continue to play a pivotal role in Nigeria’s development in the past two decades.

It was noted that CSOs have increasingly stepped in to replace a receding, and in some cases, nonexistent state with respect to the delivery of basic, often life-saving, services. Key contributions identified included in the role they have played in humanitarian assistance; influencing policy towards more pro-people legislation; reshaping the attitudes of traditional and cultural practices; improving the publics awareness of human rights, providing economic support to agriculture and trade sectors; supporting skills acquisition initiatives; and support for internally displaced persons and communities. Finally, CSOs are also an important provider of well-paid jobs and employment opportunities.

The study found there to be an overwhelming consensus that civil society plays a complimentary role to the state. At the same time, it was noted that tensions in state-CSO relations do exists. These are often generated in the context of advocacy, and demands for transparency, accountability and the defence of human rights of citizens rather than around initiatives of service delivery. Whilst the state and CSOs work together on a regular basis, the reports findings underscore the need to also include private sector actors in wider development processes to address Nigeria’s myriad of challenges.

Further recommendations include the need for improved and more participatory community and citizen engagement strategies from CSOs; sustained efforts to build an understand between the state and civil society about how they can better work together and not as adversaries; a recognition by states like Nigeria to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens on a daily basis; and the need for domestic civil society groups to set the priority agendas for their countries, rather than have these imposed by external funders. Finally, efforts should be put in place by CSOs to initiate a commonly endorsed Peer Review Mechanism based on a voluntary code of conduct and of practice – for the purposes of mutual support, mutual learning, and strengthening transparency and accountability within the sector itself.

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