Civic freedoms in West Africa are increasingly being curtailed by state authorities.
According to CIVICUS Monitor, only Cape Verde guarantees to a large extent, citizen’s freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
This makes Cape Verde the only country that has been assessed to be open among all other West African countries. The arbitrary brutalisation, arrest and killing of journalists, shut down of media houses, dispersal of protesters with water cannons and bullets in some cases are common features in many West African countries.
In other instances, civic actors are criminalised, or restrictive laws put in place to constrain the operations of civil society organisations (CSOs).
This worrying trend requires a strong force that can compel governments perpetrating such acts to refrain from them.
Civil society organisations, social movements and activists can constitute a robust counter force to demand governments to respect citizens’ civic freedoms. However, there is a perceived weakness in the extent to which these parties work together to achieve common objectives of having open societies.
An on-going research commissioned by the West Africa Civil Society Institute has revealed that the shrinking civic space provides an opportunity for CSOs, social movements and activists to collaborate. It argues that this collaboration can be vertical or horizontal. However, the perceived loss of independence, limited resources and associated competition, ideological differences and incompatibility of goals and approaches and the difficulty of sustaining partnership and momentum are some of the burgeoning factors that critically paralyse effective collaborations between these actors.
Hence, some representatives from 20 CSOs from 13 West African countries convened in Accra from 18 – 20 September to reflect on ways of strengthening their collaborations with activists and social movements in their respective countries and across the region.
Zikora Ibeh of Spaces for Change, Nigeria explains that the convening was an important space to identify ways through which CSOs can better collaborate with activists and social movements.
She said, “… both groups do the same thing, both groups face the same challenges, both groups have a common goal to achieve social justice, social equality and social enjoyment so it is good to look for common ways through which both groups can feed into each other’s strengths,” to guard against the shrinking civic space.
Participants at the convening unanimously agreed that collaboration with social movements and activists is key to every effort to curb shrinking civic space in the region.
“… collaborating with social movements will create a huge impact on the work that we do because the kind of work that they [social movements] do and how they can create an impact in their sense is something that we at Defence for Children International can utilise. So, we are going to have a conversation about how we can collaborate with social movements,” says Ayesha Nunu of Defence Children International (DCI) from Sierra Leone.
The convening was organised by the West Africa Civil society Institute with support from the Fund for Global Human Rights. It created an avenue for CSOs to identify gains and challenges encountered in previous collaborations with social movements and activities, draw lessons from these to map out better collaborative strategies for the future.
“Through such collaborations, civil society is going to respond better to this closing civic space,” said Dr Albert Arhin, a member of the research team.
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