Nana Afadzinu, executive director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), has worked with and within the civil society sector for the past 23 years. She is a passionate advocate for sustainable development in Africa with the full participation of an effective, efficient, influential and sustainable civil society.
"Of this we can be certain: civic organisations have faced many challenges and driven many positive changes towards a just and fair society in West Africa. Investing in strong civic movements now needs to be at the forefront of building a sustainable and resilient future."
Throughout colonial, military and authoritarian rule in West Africa, its people mobilised and organised to demand freedom. With the wave of democracy in the 1990s came the formation of NGOs that championed the consolidation of democracy; fought for the respect, promotion and protection of human rights; and advocated for widespread civic participation for good governance, including transparency and accountability.
In countries like Ghana, major reforms criminalised traditional practices that were inhumane. Abhorrent laws inherited from the colonial British criminal law, such as the justification of violence against the wife in marriage, were removed. Country after country in West Africa submitted to major electoral and constitutional reforms.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) followed suit, calling for a move “from an ECOWAS of States to an ECOWAS of Peoples”. Civil society’s involvement and active engagement with ECOWAS has enabled progressive protocols and frameworks in West Africa. The ECOWAS Community Court is the only one of its kind on the continent that accepts complaints against states by individuals on human rights violations.
The people of West Africa now face one of their greatest existential threats in the combined impacts of climate change and the loss of nature. So can civil society rise to take on perhaps its biggest challenges yet? In recent years, several environmental movements have emerged organically in West Africa, including a social movement that demanded an end to illegal small-scale mining. It succeeded in halting this practice, which had devastating effects on water bodies and arable land and threatened to destroy nature and livelihoods. Civil society actors have equally demanded accountability and the protection of livelihoods from oil and gas and mining companies.
The call for transparency and accountability has also included challenging international development actors and western countries on stopping illicit financial flows from Africa to Europe. Civil society organisations have advocated against unfair trade practices and for a fairer international economic system, creating the enabling environment for the Africa Continental Free Trade Area that will soon come into effect.
These successes should be celebrated, but the challenges related to climate change and the loss of nature are complex and intractable, and the stakes have never been higher. Areas like the Lake Chad region and parts of the Sahel have faced escalating armed conflict fanned by climate change, land degradation and dwindling water resources. These challenges have halted and reversed many development gains in these areas.
COVID-19 has provided a further hurdle for civic organisations in West Africa, placing their very existence on a knife edge. And yet, positive stories abound about the role that local grassroots organisations are playing in building resilience in the face of the pandemic.