Advocating for Civic Space in Africa 

During this Question and Answer section, we feature Mr. Charles Kojo Vandyck, the Founding Board Chair of Innovation for Change-Africa Hub. Kojo Vandyck is the Head of Capacity Development at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).


WACSI has been the Hub’s West Africa Regional Connector for five years and has been instrumental in implementing the Hub’s sub-regional activities in support of civic space expansion initiatives in West Africa.


He shares his insights on several broad-based issues related to civic space on the continent.


Q. Please tell us briefly what the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) is and what your organization seeks to achieve.


A. The West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) was registered in Ghana as a Company Limited by Guarantee in 2005. The Institute became operational in 2007 with the core mandate to address civil society’s institutional and operational capacities across the region. WACSI is strategically positioned as a prime investor in capacity development for civil society, including Community-Based Organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations, Associations, and Faith-Based Organisations, among others, to ensure that they become more effective, efficient, sustainable, and credible partners in steering national development. Since it became operational 15 years ago, the Institute continues to operate a three-pronged strategy to bridge institutional and operational capacity gaps, including capacity development, knowledge management, advocacy, and policy influencing.


Q. You are the Founding Board Chair of Innovation for Change-Africa Hub. Can you briefly describe some of the challenges you aimed to solve five years ago?

A. The Hub’s objective is to respond to the following challenges within the civil society ecosystem:

The effectiveness of organized civil society in bringing about real change due to public distrust​, Increasing restrictive legislative, regulatory, and administrative laws and policies​;
The aggression of state and non-state actors toward Human Rights Defenders, bloggers, environmentalists, journalists, labor unions; and
Major disruptions to revenue streams due to shifting donor priorities driven by foreign policy considerations.


Q. In your opinion, what are some of the top five civic space restrictions facing the African continent, and how can the I4C-Africa Hub and other like-minded partners position themselves to address them?

A. In our view, the top five civic space restrictions are: Restrictive laws, governments clampdown on public gatherings​, digital and Internet Restrictions​, physical harm to human rights defenders​, and infiltration of civil society by government-sponsored CSOs​.


Q. As a thought leader, what are some of the Hub’s achievements? Please also mention some challenges the Hub faces amidst civic space restrictions.

A. From our point of view, these are some of the challenges facing the Hub.

  • The weak interface between global governance board and Africa Hub coordinating office
  • Weak utilization and management of Africa Hub Board members
  • Inadequate resource portfolio and role of the regional connector
  • Insufficient communication between Africa Hub coordinating office and regional connectors

A. From our point of view, these are some of the Hub’s achievements:

  • Influence mapping tools: We- Account & We-Engage focused on transparency and accountability, and human rights​
  • Social Innovation Challenge: Selection of 5 innovative ideas focused on transparency and accountability and natural resource management​
  • Continental Learning Workshop on Financial Sustainability for Civil Society in Africa​
  • Production of Alternative Funding Models Guidebook in partnership with WACSI​
  • Participation in major Innovation fairs and workshops in Africa​
  • Building a strong network and continental solidarity through the regional connectors


Q. WACSI has been the Hub’s Regional Connector for the past five years. What are some of the key initiatives you spearheaded to support civic space expansion initiatives in West Africa?

A. We are collating and synthesizing data on civic space from West African countries for the CIVICUS monitor.

Secondly, with support from Ford Foundation, WACSI, and Spaces for Change (S4C) in Nigeria, co-led the Civic Space Resource Hub (CSR-Hub) project in three countries in West Africa – Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.

The CSR-Hub aims to build the capacity of CSOs and reposition the third sector to effectively respond to emerging and longstanding challenges to civic space and democratic governance in the region and to deliver on their mandates and development objectives effectively.

The project explicitly supports grantee organizations in developing organizational and thematic competencies through capacity building, learning and lessons sharing, and technical support to enhance the relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of participating CSOs.

Thirdly, WACSI also produces knowledge products and tools that CSOs utilize to strengthen advocacy and mobilization within restricted governance contexts.


Q. Digital transformation is quickly altering civic space in Africa when physical space for civil society is shrinking in the continent. Do you think this is a space CSOs should fully exploit to achieve fundamental freedoms and civic space? What are the opportunities, and what are the risks, if any?

A. African governments have become increasingly savvy at using ICTs and the Internet against civil society as they seek to build and maintain their authority. In varying degrees of severity across the region, the most vocal and efficient ICT users in civil society have been targeted online, hacked, had their websites shut down, targeted and harassed, or booted off the Internet altogether through regional blackouts during critical moments like elections.

Civil society needs the tools and the knowledge necessary to securely communicate and use technology and the Internet safely and efficiently. I4C has an opportunity to support the adoption of safe practice and use that reduces threats to lives and assets.

Social activists are increasingly aware that safety and security can no longer be viewed as stand-alone components but that the threats they face and the risks which result must be approached from a holistic standpoint. This holistic capacity strengthening approach may focus on the following key areas: Advocacy and Non-Violent Activism and Internet basics. How it is built, how blockings operate, how to withstand them, and cryptography basics. Private and public keys, encryption. How they work, and what’s breakable Personal security. Do’s and don’ts. The threat model and how to protect yourself and your organization, how can activists and NGOs use the internet and Information Technology tools to effectively contribute to democracy, accountability, and Networking & Alliance Building.


Q. WACSI has been at the forefront in championing efforts to diversify African Civil Society’s resources: What are some of the innovative funding models African CSOs can embrace and thrive in the Post COVID-19 Era?

A. CSOs must apply the Blended approach to financing. The approach should be built on solidarity, Self-reliance, increased local agency, communities being proactive investors in their development, and Decreasing dependency syndrome. They are examples of innovative financing:
Social Enterprise
Impact investing
Diaspora giving
Fiscal sponsorship
Private sector funding


Q. Ghana has, over the years, been touted to be a bastion of democracy in Africa. Can we attribute this to civil society organizations promoting democratic consolidation and civic space freedom? What key lessons can other sub-regions draw from the West African nation?

A. Ghana remains a beacon of hope in a region where civic space is obstructed, repressed, or closed. With a population of 29.6 million-about, the population of Texas State in the United States, Ghana consistently ranks in the top three countries in Africa for freedom of speech and press freedom, with a robust free press. Factors such as these provide Ghana with solid social capital (World Bank 2018). According to the CIVICUS civic space monitor, an online tool that is used to monitor and track the state of civic freedoms in 195 countries across the world, Ghana has earned a status of ‘narrow.’ From updates provided by the West Africa Civil Society Institute and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network and curated by CIVICUS, this is the second-best rating among the Economic Community of West African States member states to date. These are some lessons from Ghana’s democratic governance journey:

Civil society in Ghana has emerged as a critical stakeholder in the development process and a vital force in strengthening governance processes. In Ghana, civil society continues to grow and evolve. The sector’s contribution to democratic development and consolidation has been significant.

Ghana’s electoral experiences since the 1990s are different and encouraging. Since the ushering in of a democratic dispensation in 1992, the country has been experiencing very peaceful electoral processes. Adherence to clear constitutional provisions usually helps stabilize countries. It is against this background that Ghana is applauded for its continuing entrenchment of democratic principles and values.

The smooth transition of power is a significant legacy of stable and enduring democratic practices, which proves that Ghana is indeed the epitome of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa
Some peculiar cultural traits may separate the diverse ethnic groups in Ghana, but Ghanaians have made it clear that the line separating one from the other is too thin to be used for petty political purposes.


Q. As a parting shot, how can African governments be enablers in the evolution of vibrant civil society organizations?

A. Democracy is about engaging people in the decisions that impact their lives. However, citizens often do not have the opportunity to participate in democratic institutions and decision-making, leading to a lack of trust in democratic institutions in Africa. The ability of citizens to interact with government is critical to the future of democratic systems. CSOs are a channel to engage constructively with the government to ensure government provides adequate services and adopts evidence-based policies. Governments can enable a more conducive environment through the following actions:

Develop or reinforce legal frameworks to ensure that the rights of activists, journalists, and independent media are protected. Ensure that limits to freedom of expression to pursue legitimate aims, such as tackling corruption and cybersecurity, are legal and proportionate. Governments must also ensure that emergency powers that temporarily restrict these rights are subject to limitations under international law and legislative oversight.

Help tackle disinformation and strengthen access to information frameworks with legal safeguards against rollbacks during times of crisis: designate specific units within the government that can immediately respond to misinformation trends by promoting the dissemination of accurate information while avoiding punitive measures that could lead to censorship.

Strengthen privacy laws to prevent unwanted digital surveillance of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. Even within a health emergency, surveillance mechanisms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. Citizens must be able to discuss and share their ideas without surveillance or fear of retaliation by state or non-state actors.

Regulate the role of the police and increase their accountability during the conduct of citizen assemblies by introducing oversight mechanisms and laws that limit the excessive use of force.
Broker and strengthen relationships with a broad coalition of civil society partners, working across different issue areas. Diversity and inclusivity are crucial to developing commitments that respond to the community’s needs and advance civic space priorities.

Strengthen and support more systemic civil society participation in government decision-making processes, particularly among women and youth groups.