Policy Brief 16: African Civil Society Under Fire

Civil society organisations in Africa which play a critical role in providing a platform and bridge between the people and the state are finding themselves under threat across the continent. This policy brief examines the challenges and restrictions faced by civil society organisations working in various African countries.


African governments are increasingly restricting foreign funding for civil society groups, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social movements and community-based organisations, cutting their funding, curtailing their activities and harassing their staff.

Across the continent African governments are increasingly introducing new restrictive laws curtailing the activities of civil society groups, making it difficult to operate and forcing many to close down.

Furthermore, African leaders are increasingly claiming that legitimate civil society organisations are supposed to be intent on destabilising governments, are allegedly surrogates for hostile Western foreign governments and promotes “regime change”.

African governments are often targeting civil society organisations whether local or foreign ones which are critical of government corruption, lack of public service delivery and which empowers ordinary citizens through democratic civic education. Some African governments claim new NGO restrictions are aimed at combating terrorism – which is certainly never the case.

Africa’s civil society boost democracy, development and peace

Yet, civil society groups bring foreign investment, provide jobs and skills to Africa. It also brings new technology, which could be adapted to boost democracy and development. They also boost many African failed states’ capacity to make policy, deliver public services and keep the peace.

They are crucial to educating citizens about their rights. They monitor government and leader actions, provide citizens with often more factual information, in contrast to official government propaganda and provide alternative policies. As a result, civil society groups have helped increased citizen activism and have often spurred democratic change across the continent.

In many African countries, civil society organisations have stepped in to prevent countries plunging into civil, ethnic and religious war. In Tunisia, the four civil society groups, called the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, cobbled together a national consensus to draft a new democratic constitution, public service and economic reforms. African civil society organisations in many cases have saved countries from the total breakdown of their states, economies and societies.

In many failed African states, local civil society groups have fostered social cohesion among broken communities (Africa Centre for Strategies Studies 2016). In the absence of any coherent national government in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), civil society groups, including the Catholic Church have been key in providing public services, such education, healthy and local policing. They have kept the social fabric of local communities in the DRC together. Civil society groups in the DRC have played a crucial role in helping to end the 1997-2003 civil war (Koko 2016).

Civil society organisations such as la Dynamique, Front Citoyen, la Lutte pour le changement and the Coalition Pour le Respect de la Constitution, have with political parties pressed for democratic change and been at the forefront of stopping President Joseph Kabila from extending his presidential term.

DRC civil society was instrumental in establishing le Rassemblement, bringing together four opposition parties – the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, Alternative 2016, the G7 and la Dynamique de l’opposition – around a common set of priorities.

Church groups in Mozambique have mediated in the recent conflict between the governing party Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the opposition Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) (Justin Pearce 2017). Civil society groups, under the rubric of the Monitoring Panel of the Political Dialogue, made up of leaders of the country’s civil society groups, were instrumental in pushing for a national peace conference to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table (Reppell, Rozen and de Carvalho 2016).

In Africa, civil society often provides viable careers for many, given countries’ insignificant private sectors, and public sectors which are often closed off to those not politically well-connected. It can also give Africa’s restless young people a new meaning to their lives, expand their skills set and inculcate them with democratic values and behaviours.

Civil society can instil in African societies, which are often deeply patriarchal, sexists and homophobic, with new democratic values, behaviours and beliefs, such as mass buy-in for gender, sexual and social equality.

But civil society also provides a space to build new leadership – based on democratic values, social justice and inclusiveness, on a continent where old-style autocratic leaders dominate institutions for decades. In fact, civil society in Africa is crucial to foster a democratic culture – starting with their members, in which people behave in their daily lives behave according to democratic values.

 African governments pushing to control civil society groups

A draft law introduced by the Republic of Congo government late last year will ban civil organisations from working on issues that are seen by the government as undermining “institutional stability” (Civicus 2016; Amnesty 2017; Austin Holmes 2017). NGOs will have to seek approval from government to operate. It bans faith-based organisations from participating in public debates. The draft targets especially NGOs working on combating corruption, promoting human rights and democracy building. The DRC government recently claimed that more than 80% of the country’s NGOs were not registered and that the government planned to introduce strict measures, including closing down many of them. Local and international NGOs have protested this (Civicus 2016; Amnesty 2017).

Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, who has now been president since 1986, introduced what has been called the NGO Bill, which calls for imprisonment for NGO staff acting “prejudicial to the security of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda” (Global Witness 2015; Amnesty 2017). When Oxfam and the Uganda Land Alliance, unearthed land grabs by groups with financial links to Museveni’s family, they were threatened with prosecution for allegedly “inciting violence” (Vidal 2012).

Egypt has introduced new draft laws which according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai (2016), which would curtail the right of NGOs to operate, stifle their ability to freely express themselves and turn them into a branch of government.

The bill forbids civil society from engaging in “political activities”, or “harming national security or public order or public morals” and restricting them to focus on activities that will “achieve social development goals within the scope of state plans and development needs and priorities” (Democracy Now 2017; Civicus & International Commission of Jurists 2016; Schietti 2017). Those flouting the law will face criminal sanctions.

Mauritania has introduced a draft law which requires NGOs to seek permission from government to operate, and allow the government to close down those who do register with severe punishments for transgressions. The 2016 Media Services Act, which restricts social media activists, bloggers and journalists, has been taken to court by civil society groups, as undermining democracy.

In March 2015, the Angolan government enacted Decree 74/15 that requires compulsory registration of NGOs, and empowers the state Institute for the Community Aid Promotion and Co-ordination to monitor NGOs, determine their priorities and the parts of the country they should operate, and audit their accounts.

In Tanzania, eight NGOs and civil society groups in March 2017 launched a year-long campaign calling on the government to respect the right to assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression. President John Magufuli, who came to power in 2015, has been accused of clamping down on the activities of civil society groups deemed critical of government.

Malawi’s NGOs are worried that the government is using the pretext that NGOs are allegedly not managing their funds prudently, to close them down (Kaonga 2017). Last year, the state NGO Board alleged that 90% of donor money was not accounted for by Malawian NGOs. MacBain Mkandawire, the chairperson of the Council for Non-Government Organisations (Congoma), the body for civil society groups, said this was a government “gimmick” to set the conditions to close down critical NGOs (International Centre for Non-Profit Law 2017).

The ministry overseeing Malawi NGOs has wide discretionary power to refuse to register NGOs. NGOs pay annual fees to remain registered, must sign in agreement with their ministry overseeing NGOs approving their activities and must not be involved in activities deemed “partisan” politics, interpreted by many civil society groups of being critical of government. The Malawian government in late 2016 accused leading NGO leaders of allegedly plotting with foreign diplomats to orchestrate “regime change”.

On 20 March 2017, protesters barricaded the Abuja offices of Amnesty International after the organisation issued a damning report showing the Nigerian security forces of engaging in “serious human rights violations including extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances” (Okafor 2017). The Nigerian military has since set up a committee to investigate the allegations against it.

Nigeria’s civil society has played an active role in recent years to hold governments account and expose corruption and human rights abuses. Alarmingly a series of new legislation aimed at NGOs are being initiated which may undermine the effectiveness of NGOs. Two pieces of legislation are particularly worrying.

Opposition by civil society managed to stop the passage of the “Bill to Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith”, aimed at clamping down on civil society petitions to hold government accountable, introduced into the Senate in December 2015. Another, the “Bill to provide for the Establishment of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) Regulatory Commission in Nigeria”, aims to control the funding of civil society organisations, has passed the second reading in the Federal House of Representatives, and are now being discussed by civil society groups for review (Human Rights Watch 2017).

Zambian NGOs have called for the repeal of the 2009 NGO Act which compels organisations to register with government, through the NGO Registration Board. The NGO Act empowers the Ministry of Community Development to intervene directly in the internal affairs of NGOs, to deregister an organisation if its activity is deemed not in the “public interest”.

Rising official restrictions on civil society in the aftermath of the North African “Arab Spring”

In 2012, the Algerian government enacted Law 12-06, which demands all NGOs and civil groups to register, even if they have existed for long, with the Interior Ministry. The Ministry can deny registration and close down organisations without having to account for this. Amnesty International in its most recent State of the World’s Human Rights report reported how in Algeria, authorities have refused to register Amnesty International Algeria, and a number of other international and local human rights organisations.

The Algerian Interior Ministry can refuse registration on the basis of organisations allegedly behaving “contrary to public order, public morality”; “interfering with the internal affairs of the country”, and “harming its sovereignty” (Human Rights Watch 2016; Maina Kiai 2013; Civicus 2017). Organisations must secure prior approval to achieve foreign funding. The established Algerian League for Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne des Droits de l’Homme, LADDH) and Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), and a number of other prominent NGOs and civil groups, had to register, but the government have dragged its feet on formally approving it. It is a crime under Article 97 of Algeria’s penal code to participate in what the government deems in an “unauthorised” gathering.

For example recently the First Instance Tribunal of Laghouat sentenced eight members of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Unemployed Workers (Comité National pour la Défense des Droits de Chômeurs, CNDDC) to one-year prison terms, following a conviction for an “unauthorised gathering” and “exercising pressure on the decisions of magistrates,” under penal code articles 97 and 147, after their protests, at the trial of Mohamed Rag, a CNDDC activist, who received an 18 month prison sentence for protesting human rights violations.

The activists behind Morocco’s 2011 “Arab Spring” movement, which organised the umbrella of the February 20 Movement, have since formed smaller civil groups, including The Theatre of the Oppressed, which organises street performances focusing on corruption, gender equality and democracy. These smaller civil groups do democracy, rights and anti-corruption education at the grassroots level (Human Rights Watch 2015; Engelcke 2016).

In Morocco, the authorities have blocked the registration of a number of human rights based NGOs (ANSAmed 2015). The government has actively undermined the operations of leading independent human rights NGOs, such as the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association marocaine des droits humains, AMDH), the Moroccan League for the Defence of Human Rights, Freedom Now and Adala (Justice). They have often been stopped from organising public events, with the government alleging they functioned as political entities “opposing state institutions” (Human Rights Watch 2015).

Increasing restrictions on foreign funding for civil society organisations

Ethiopia in 2009 restricted foreign funding that local NGOs working in good governance, human rights and democracy building, could receive up to 10% off their revenue. This in one swoop forced organisations holding government accountable to shut down (Badwaza and Charette 2016).

Angola, under its 2015, Decree 74/15, has capped foreign funding for civil society groups; and are only allowed to receive foreign funding from approved international organisations. Angolan civil society groups such as OMUNGA and SOS-Habitat are experiencing difficulties accessing their funds – undermining their operations.

The Kenyan government in 2015 proposed changes to the Public Benefits Organisation Act, to including putting a 15% cap on foreign funding, requiring them to apply for funding from a central government pool – giving government the power to restrict those it objects to, and to report on their funding sources.

In December last year, Kenya’s state-controlled NGO Coordination Board declared illegal, froze the bank accounts and assets of, and launched an investigation into the residence status of employees of the US-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IEFS), which have been doing civic education ahead of the August 2017 elections. It claimed the organisation lacked the “legal” status to operate in the country.

Many Kenya environmental NGOs which received foreign funding are threatened, risking the combating of wildlife poaching, climate change and conservation (Logan and Dickinson 2016; Brass 2016). It is estimated that Kenya stands to lose at least US$1.5bn in foreign funding as a result of its clampdown on civil society.

Rising government attacks on civil society groups and activists

In October last year, the Ethiopian government called a State of Emergency following massive protests against the iron-fisted  governing of the government in Oromia and Amhara regions, which began in November 2015.

Government violations include the arrest of key civil society leaders, the suppression of rights civil society organisations and the unlawful killing of protesters by security forces (Abdel-Baky 2013).  A number of members of the Ethiopia’s Human Rights Council were arrested for monitoring and documenting the attacks by security forces on protesters, including Abebe Wakene, Tesfaye Takele, Tesfa Burayu and Bulti Tesema.

Civil society groups, including DefendDefenders (East and Horn of African Human Rights Defenders Project), the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Project, have called for an independent international investigation into human rights violations in Ethiopia.

Several leading Mozambican civil society leaders have been intimidated, harassed and arbitrarily detained for criticising official corruption and human rights violations. Civil society groups, such as JOINT (League of NGOs in Mozambique) and the League for Human Rights in Mozambique have seen their offices ransacked by unknown perpetrators.

On December 12 last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on the country’s Independence Day (Jamhuri Day) condemned the work of NGOs, especially those promoting democracy, good governance and accountability.

The Kenyan government has claimed that civil groups supporting the International Criminal Court’s prosecution of Kenyan politicians, security officials and community leaders allegedly responsible for fanning violence in the country’s 2007 national elections, were guilty of pushing the agendas of foreign powers.

Zambian civil society has protested what they call politically motivated arrests of opposition leaders and civil society activists (Zambia Watchdog 2013; Nyasa Times 2014). Late last year, the OASIS Forum, a network of church and civil society groups issued a statement condemning the government’s attempt “to diminish dissent”, intimidation against civil society organisations and against the media, and the “violation of human rights” of ordinary Zambians (OASIS Forum 2016).

For example, on 3 March 2017, supporters of the governing party, the Patriotic Front-PF, stormed the offices of the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ), and mobilised against the organisation’s president, Linda Kasonde, accusing her of undermining the government (Open Zambia (2017).

Conclusion and recommendations

African governments’ clampdown on NGOs and civil society organisations, increases corruption, leads to state failure and country instability. It boosts African governing parties and leader autocratic behavior. It leads to job losses, foreign investments and skills losses.

It takes away productive opportunities for Africa’s restless youth – who will be driven into the hands of religious, traditionalist and ethnic fundamentalism, populism and crime. It also broadly strengthens the hands of autocratic, patriarchal and chauvinist tendencies in African societies.

The African Union and the Pan-African Parliament must support African civil society organisations and activists, and intervene when national governments and leaders attack them. There has to be greater solidarity between African civil society organisations and activists in different countries to support and popularise the struggles of civil society organisations and groups of fellow African countries. For example, if an African leader guilty of suppression civil society organisations and activists in his or her country, travels to another African country, the civil society organisations of the country he or she travels to must protest their visit, public raising awareness around their wrongful deeds.

Africa’s development partners must also more strongly intervene in cases where African governments and leaders restrict the access to foreign funding and the activities of African civil society organisations. African civil society organisations stand between successful democracy, development and peace, and failure.

For that, Africa’s development partners must prioritise the funding of African civil society organisations. International NGOs civil society groups must partner with African ones in such a way that African organisations and activists identify the real problems, set the priorities and genuinely own projects. Ultimately, restricting African civil society or starving them from funding or local project leadership undermines development, economic growth and democracy in African countries.

Selected Bibliography

Mohamed Abdel-Baky (2013) Egypt: Civil Society Attacked. Al-Ahram, Issue 1137, 28 February – 6 March


Africa Centre for Strategies Studies (2016) The Role of Civil Society in Averting Instability in the DRC. African Centre for Strategic Studies, Washington DC, November 15


Amnesty International (2017) Democratic Republic of the Congo 2016/2017 Report. New York


Amnesty International (2017) Uganda 2016/2017 Report. New York


Amy Austin Holmes (2017) The attack on civil society outside Cairo. Carnegie Endowment, January 26


ANSAmed (2015) Morocco: civil society against new draft criminal code. Rabat, April 8


Yoseph Badwaza and Jennifer Charette (2016) Ethiopia: Attack on Civil Society Escalates as Dissent Spreads. Freedom House, July 22


Jennifer Brass (2016) Kenya’s clampdown on civil society is against its self-interest. The Conversation, July 11


Civicus (2017) State of Civil Society Report. Civicus, Johannesburg


Civicus (2017) Pro-government group storms Law Association of Zambia’s office. March 3, Lusaka


Civicus (2016) Ethiopia declares state of emergency as crackdown intensifies, Addis Ababa, October 17


Civicus (2016) Violent attacks on peaceful protests in the DRC: Civil society writes open letter to President Joseph Kabila. Kinshasa, October 13


Civicus & International Commission of Jurists (2016) Egypt: Civil society faces existential threat, Cairo, June


DefendDefenders (2016) Ethiopia: Civil society groups urge international investigation into on-going human rights violations, Addis Abba, August 30


Democracy Now (2017) El-Sisi widens crackdown on Egyptian civil society, journalists after Palm Sunday Church bombings, April 17.


Dorthe Engelcke (2016) Morocco’s Changing Civil Society. Carnegie Endowment, New York, January 7


ESCR-Net (2017) Public forum addresses increasing regulation of civil society in Nigeria. Lagos, 4 April


Global Witness (2015) And who protects us from you? Uganda threatens to silence civil society activists, July 10


Human Rights Watch (2015) Morocco: Persistent Restrictions on Rights Group, Rabat, April 8


Human Rights Watch (2016) Algeria: Events of 2015. New York


Human Rights Watch (2017) Nigeria: Events of 2016. New York


International Centre for Non-Profit Law (2017) Civic Freedom Monitor: Malawi. Blantyre, January 26


Jayne Kaonga (2017) Malawi government wants to silence critics – commentators. Capital Radio Malawi, Blantyre, April 10


Sadiki Koko (2016) The role of civil society in conflict resolution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1998-2006. Accord, AJCR/2016/1, August 29


Mark P. Logan and Eleanor Dickinson (2016) When civil society is attacked, Kenya’s democracy is imperiled. Freedom House, January 8


Kenneth Roth (2016) The Great Civil Society Choke-out. Human Rights Watch, New York, January 27


Maina Kiai (2016) Growing restrictions on human rights defenders and human rights organisations in Egypt: Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Geneva, October 11


Maina Kiai (2013) Civil Society is under attack in Africa. Address by Maina Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. ACT Alliance Regional Consultation on Civil Society Space. Blantyre, November 25


Nyasa Times (2014) Mutharika’s attack on critics ‘sign of guilty’ – CSOs. December 21


OASIS Forum (2016) Press Statement: Church and Civil Society condemn state violence against citizens and media, Lusaka, 19 October 2017

Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (2017) Kenya: Four years after the signing into law of the PBO Act, Kenyan civil society is still under attack, Nairobi, January 13


Judd-Leonard Okafor (2017) 20 CSOs condemn attack on Assembly. Daily Trust, March 22


Open Zambia (2017) US Senator writes to President and urges him to end politically motivate arrests, April 2017


Justin Pearce (2017) Mozambique ceasefire struggles. The New Age, January 18


Lisa Reppell, Jonathan Rozen and Gustavo de Carvalho (2016) Planning for peace Lessons from Mozambique’s peacebuilding process. Institute for Security Studies, Paper 291, Pretoria, June


Jo Schietti (2017) Police State Egypt: NGOs under attack. Al Araby (The New Arab). January 1


United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) (2016) Egypt NGO Law: UN expert warns about growing restrictions on civil society. Geneva, October 11


John Vidal (2012) Uganda threatens to expel Oxfam and NGOs over land-grabbing claims. The Guardian, May 10


Zambia Watchdog (2013) NGOs reject fraudulent law aimed at controlling civil society. Lusaka, July 15



William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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