Fake Civil Society: The Rise of Pro-Government NGOs in Nigeria
-By MATTHEW T. PAGE
• JULY 28, 2021
Summary: Nigeria’s top powerbrokers have cultivated a new generation of pro-government NGOs. These groups masquerade as authentic civil society groups, singing the praises of top officials and attacking their critics.
The Carnegie Endowment is grateful to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office for research funding that helped make the writing of this paper possible. The views contained herein are those of the author alone.
Nigeria’s dynamic and expansive civil society is one of its greatest strengths and is crucial to maintaining what democratic space still exists in the country. Yet its independence, outspokenness, and unwavering commitment to democracy, transparency, and human rights have long antagonized the kleptocratic, power-hungry—but also image-conscious—ruling elites. To help protect themselves from domestic pressure and outside scrutiny, Nigeria’s top powerbrokers have cultivated a new generation of pro-government non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Like the fake grassroots groups bankrolled by past military juntas, these surrogate organizations masquerade as authentic civil society groups, singing the praises of top officials and attacking their critics.
A symptom of the country’s more fundamental political ills, Nigerian elites’ growing use of civil society surrogates should set off alarm bells both domestically and internationally. It is both corrupting and corruptive, compounding the country’s downward democratic trajectory. Like many countries in Africa—and, for that matter, elsewhere in the world—Nigeria has recently experienced democratic backsliding that threatens its long-term stability and prosperity. The rise of pro-government NGOs is both a cause and a consequence of this backsliding and must be addressed as part of any effort to arrest and reverse it.
• Nigeria’s pro-government NGO sector is thriving. Once a niche side hustle for those seeking to curry favor with the regime, running a pro-government NGO has become an increasingly lucrative means of gaining political and media influence. For some, it could be a springboard to high public office.
• Out of 360 pro-government Nigerian NGOs identified by this research, 90 percent have started operating since President Muhammadu Buhari took office in 2015. This correlation suggests that these groups receive high-level support and encouragement. Many are controlled by a small number of individuals who have personal and ethnic connections to Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
• In addition to praising government and military leaders, Nigeria’s pro-government NGOs often attack legitimate civil society groups and even incite violence against them. Pro-government NGOs typically champion illiberal causes, defending the Nigerian government from domestic and international criticism and allegations of corruption, underperformance, and human rights abuses.
• Nigeria’s pro-government NGOs are all opaquely funded, likely through off-budget payments or contracts for consulting services. Political appointees known as special assistants will mobilize surrogates on behalf of their principal, usually a minister or agency head. Top military officers’ aides play a similar role. Pro-government NGOs appear to operate sporadically, usually at the behest of their funders.
• Almost all of Nigeria’s pro-government NGOs exist in name only. Fewer than 7 percent are listed on the country’s corporate registry as is legally required. Many operate for only a short time before disappearing; 80 percent of groups examined for this paper held just one or two press conferences in total.
• Many pro-government NGOs thrive on the coverage they receive from a few little-known media platforms, some of which are run by their leaders or their allies. Mimicking legitimate civil society groups, pro-government NGOs often cite the work of supposed think tanks that validate their pro-government or illiberal views.
POLICY IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
• Pro-government NGOs’ rhetoric emboldens political and military leaders who behave counterproductively, undermining domestic and international efforts to encourage the Buhari administration to govern more effectively and humanely. Instead, these surrogates attack legitimate NGOs and defend Nigeria’s most abusive and corrupt officials. In doing so, they partially negate international democracy and governance assistance as well as the achievements of genuine civil society groups.
• Increased government regulation of Nigeria’s civil society sector is not the solution to the problematic rise of pro-government NGOs. Partisan regulators almost certainly would abuse any new rules, allowing pro-government groups to flourish at the expense of legitimate domestic civil society groups and international NGOs. Instead of creating new rules, the Nigerian government should better enforce existing laws. Nigeria’s tax and anti-corruption agencies could start by investigating pro-government NGOs, almost none of which are legally registered or properly administered.
• Nigeria’s mainstream media outlets should conduct more due diligence when covering previously unknown civil society groups and refuse inducements to attend their events or place stories about them. The country’s many legitimate civil society organizations, meanwhile, could develop a set of voluntary standards that would distinguish them from the disreputable pro-government NGOs.
• Donors, diplomats, and development professionals, as well as legitimate domestic and international NGOs, should do more to call out pro-government groups’ toxic behaviors and press their high-level backers to stop sponsoring them. International diplomats should also levy visa bans on pro-government NGO leaders who issue violent threats or spew hate speech.
Broadly defined, Nigeria’s civil society landscape is one of the most expansive in the world, encompassing religious bodies, ethnic and subethnic associations, village cooperatives, occupation-based groups, student and alumni entities, charities and foundations, as well as a broad range of advocacy and development-focused NGOs, both international and domestic.
Even during long periods of military rule, the country’s NGO sector remained surprisingly resilient and independent of government control. Since the end of military rule in 1999, it has grown into what is now the strongest part of the country’s shaky democratic life.
Yet Nigeria’s civic space has shrunk in recent years as its government has become increasingly illiberal, heavy-handed, and self-serving. Its kleptocratic elites have grown less tolerant of civil society voices, especially those pushing for better governance, greater accountability, and respect for human rights. In a bid to shore up their legitimacy, silence their critics, and expand their patronage networks, Nigeria’s ruling elites have fueled the rise of pro-government NGOs: sycophantic surrogates masquerading as civil society groups. In doing so, they resemble their uniformed predecessors who, in the 1990s, tried to stymie democratization using pro-government NGOs as a tool.
In recent years, at least 360 different pro-government NGOs have made headlines with their anti-democratic rhetoric and vocal praise for the regime. They constitute a substantial fake civil society operating alongside legitimate civil society. Roughly 90 percent of these groups started operating after President Muhammadu Buhari took office in 2015, suggesting a strong correlation between his ascension to the presidency and their explosive growth. The vast majority are “briefcase” NGOs: unregistered entities that lack any discernible track record and frequently make only one or two appearances (such as a press conference or a public protest) before evaporating. Moreover, most are controlled by a small number of pro-government NGO “masterminds,” who are linked to each other and to the Buhari regime by overlapping personal networks.
Matthew T. Page is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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