On behalf of West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI)and our cherished partners including WADEMOS and the Ford Foundation whom you will soon hear from, it is my privilege and honour to welcome you all to the West Africa Civil Society week, 2023!
We are in very unusual times. If I was standing here 10 or barely 8 years ago we would be looking at discussing threats to civic space in West Africa considering terrorist threats, resource constraints, the lack of support to civil society, the weakening civil society front, concerns wit#h unconstitutional changes in governance weaponizing legal systems and ECOWAS’s seeming non-responsiveness to those concerns, and all these are still matters that exists and need attention but we stand today teetering at the edge of a cliff – one that a slip could cause us to plunge into war in West Africa. This is not a civil war where ECOWAS needs to intervene to save lives of citizens and restore peace and security like it was in Liberia and Sierra Leone- No. it would be a military intervention into a country in West Africa to remove a junta that has taken over the reins of governance through coup-d’état. Even more disconcerting is the fact that this would be the 4th successful coup d’état in the region within this span of time (Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea), with one failed one, supposedly in Sierra Leone.
This time, though, it is not the citizens that are clamouring for ECOWAS intervention but there is rather seemingly mass citizen support for the coups.
This time geo-political developments have a massive influence and citizens seem to have taken sides with external interests and one is not too sure which war and, in whose interest, ECOWAS would be fighting if it intervenes. It is not that clear.
Civil Society and the enhanced and strengthened civic space that we advocate for to ensure sustainable development through good governance; transparency and accountability; social, economic, and political development; inclusivity and participation; social justice, social accountability and social protection; gender equality and non-discrimination- all to ensure peace and prosperity in West Africa, is under a major threat- and we are in a dilemma.
To be very clear- We want democracy and good governance, we oppose coup d’états and prefer constitutional rule and good electoral governance- those are our principles and we have stood for and fought for them but even more fundamentally, we being West Africans ourselves are, stand for, and stand with the people- for our peace, security, prosperity and collective well-being. But, in a climate where citizens have demonstrated opposition to what seems ideal because they have not benefited from democratic dividends and even in countries that do not face these governance upheavals there is growing apathy the questions stares at us – whose democracy has it been; who are those that are benefiting from the system we have; whose interest is it serving and what does it mean for us- our civic space? And really… whose side are we really on?
Civil Society has itself changed and we now have different movements and groupings, many of which have so much to offer but are not part of the fold. There is an intergenerational gap that could be closed to enable more impact to enhance the civic space. We are in a technology age that offers a huge potential in spite of the disinformation, misinformation and cybersecurity issues- how do we take advantage of it and quell the weaponization of it. How do we build solidarity to take back and restore the civic space that belongs to the peoples of West Africa to enable the sustainable development that we so desperately need in our countries?
How do we break out of the projectized mode of engagement- breaking out of the siloed mentality of doing things and looking at the bigger picture and what we can achieve together- maintaining our identities but still working in concert towards mutual goals.
We still face resourcing issues- COVID exposed the weakness of our institutions, structural patriarchy continues to be an obstacle and the inequitable power in international development strangles our growth and facilitates civic space constraints.
ECOWAS, once our beacon of hope amongst the Regional Economic Bodies on the continent– a pace-setter and norm setter – seems to have lost the trust of its citizens and waned considerably in moral authority. We want our ECOWAS back- back to what it promised to be- that ECOWAS that wanted to be one of peoples and not States.
This week affords us a rare opportunity for deep reflection; honest and bold discussions; sharing and also learning, finding ways to strengthen our solidarity; use current platforms like WADEMOS; enquire and deliberate on how to strengthen our engagement with ECOWAS and make functional already approved mechanisms like ECOWAS’ ECOSOCC; and look at ourselves again in the mirror as civil society in West Africa.
The Civic Space Resource Hub is a tool for us. We will hear more about it this week, the different opportunities that it affords and also see how we can make it work better for us in these times.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Spaces for Change for our partnership on this hub so far, the Ford Foundation that has proven to be a reliable partner not only on the Civic Space Hub but for civil society in West Africa for many years, and WADEMOS for coming on board to support our gathering this week.
It is my hope that this will be the beginning of many more of such weeks for us in the coming years and that we will own it as civil society in West Africa. Next year, it is my hope that we will be talking about more partners coming on board with different resources to really make this a space that belongs to us and the peoples of West Africa for the redemption and sustenance of a strong, open, and empowering civic space.
Thank you and welcome, once again.
Afadzinu is the Executive Director of West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She delivered this welcome speech during the West Africa Civil Society Week 2023 at the Lagos Mariot Hotel, Ikeja-Lagos on Tuesday August 29, 2023.