Reinventing CSO Engagements In Nigeria: Lessons From COVID-19 Pandemic By Oluwole Ojewale

The significant contributions of the Civil Society Organisations to state building and national development in post-colonial Nigeria cannot be overemphasised. These range from pro-democracy campaigns during the successive military administrations to a more robust advocacy for accountable governance and related matters in the democratic dispensation particularly since 1999. In the 21 years of democratic government in Nigeria, the civil society organisations have championed the cause of electoral reforms, campaign for maternal health and child care, media and human rights, increased enrollment of street children for primary school education, extractive sector reform, security sector reform and peace building engagement in conflict settings across Nigeria among others.

The aforementioned highlights give credence to the idea that the civil society organizations are agents of development in any nation as they play an important role in the social, political and economic development activities. This is also well situated with the notion that social and political transformation of any society, particularly the developing nations like Nigeria depend on the effectiveness and efficiency of its civil societies and the multifaceted roles they play. Like other sectors of our national life, the civil society organizations maintain a unique methodology in the way they work and discharge their duties in the communities they serve. Essentially, their strategy involves community mobilization on one hand and strategic engagement with the state actors on the other hand. This would dovetail into organizing seemingly endless advocacy meetings, courtesy visits, capacity building workshops and extensive travel itinerary to project locations across the country. This is largely informed by their reach and thematic focus.

Instructively, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented disruption to economic activities and impacting social relations tremendously across the nations. While the sheer conversation has been largely skewed towards the commercial impact of the COVID-19 on businesses and the economy; the scale and reach of the impact of the pandemic on the activities of the civil society organizations and strategy of work have also become challenging and revolutionary in its wake. Although, this column aligns with the optimists that the COVID-19 threat will eventually fade, like the Ebola, Zika, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses in recent years, however, it affirms that the social-economic impact of the pandemic on the activities of the civil society organizations like other sectors will still be felt long after the virus fades away.

Although the COVID-19 caught all sectors unprepared in Nigeria, the sheer resilience and innovation that some civil society organisations have displayed in the midst of this pandemic remained commendable and inspirational. Essentially, this has been made possible ingenuity of the leadership of such CSOs, technology and the passionate commitment of their partners across the states, coupled with the magnanimity of the donor communities within and outside Nigeria. Essentially, the role of technology and how the civil society organizations have leveraged on it to advance their works must be given proper attention. For instance, organisations like CLEEN Foundation- working on public safety and security have leveraged technology to receive real time updates from the volunteers on their pandemic policing project. They have facilitated webinar workshops with hundreds of state partners and guild of volunteers across the country. Furthermore, the Centre for Democracy and Development has facilitated a series of webinars within their thematic focus as well as capacity building workshops on the strategies for civil society organizations to navigate changes and adapting practices in the midst of this pandemic. The YIAGA Africa has also taken their campaign on electoral reform to media town hall meeting wherein they are able to broadcast the live proceeding to the nooks and crannies of Nigeria, These are just a few examples of how the civil society organisations have unboxed their work strategies and refused to be limited by the COVID-19 disruptions. 

In terms of deliverables, outcome, cost and impact, these organisations have been able to achieve more with less. This is unprecedented compared to what is achievable in the pre-COVID-19 era. The separate webinar series of CLEEN Foundation and Centre for Democracy and Development drew participants from India, Uganda, United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana among others. These meetings have also been attended by eminent personalities such as the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum as well as the Minister of Interior, Senator and House of Representative Member. Considering the logistics of planning and resources if such meetings were to be hosted physically; such is usually a daunting experience with lesser outcome and impacts. In a twist of events, the regular civil servants whom we thought are impervious to changes are also embracing technology and have participated in the virtual advocacy meetings workshops organized by the civil society organisations during the pandemic. This is a commendable achievement that goes to show that change is possible- thanks to the COVID-19 disruption!

As the COVID-19 pandemic drives profound societal and organisational shifts, the civil society organizations have the opportunity to return to the trenches by re-designing the future of our work, building on the lessons and practices we are executing during the crisis. The starting point here is to leverage technology and concentrate our efforts on building the capacity of the sub-national civil society actors and organizations. The Abuja-based CSOs must reduce the pace of jumping into the planes to travel to states and implement projects while we have state partners that can deliver on that if only we can concentrate on building their capacity on strategic advocacy, proposal writing, program and financial reporting and community engagement among others. The argument here is not to say that virtual meeting has suddenly become the silver bullet solution. The civil society organizations serve different sections of our population- educated, non-educated, the digital natives and digital immigrants. While we might not be able to bring the market women and community leaders to virtual meetings, we can reach the CSO actors who work in their midst. I have argued severally that the real advocacy work for good governance must take place at the sub national levels and COVID-19 offers us some lessons to re-invent our engagement strategies. Furthermore, as the aid basket continues to shrink, COVID-19 disruption presents opportunities for us to leverage what works and wean the sector from donor driven programming. If we leverage technology and work closely with the sub national CSOs by first building their capacities, we can achieve more with less, and more importantly, position the third sector in Nigeria to be resilient in the face of this and the next global threat and disruptions.


Oluwole Ojewale is a scholar in urban affairs and a global development professional with vast project experiences on accountable governance, security and community resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa. He tweets @woleojewale

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