Effectively Engaging Civil Society to fight corruption in Nigeria

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Effectively Engaging Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the fight against corruption in Nigeria

The concept of civil society evokes divergent responses; but generally it refers to the sum total of those organizations and networks which lie outside the formal state apparatus. It includes, but is not limited to, the following:

Social groups such as those representing women, children, the youth the elderly and people with disability and special needs; Professional groups such as association of artist, engineers, health practitioners, social workers, media, teachers, sports associations, legal practitioners, social scientist, academia, business organizations, national chamber of commerce, workers, employers, industry and agriculture, as well as other private sector groups; Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs) and voluntary organizations; Cultural, student, sports and other informal organizations.

By this definition, it is obvious that civil society is not synonymous with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) when the expression “Non-governmental Organizations” is used in a restricted sense of non-profit organizations founded for specific purposes. In Nigeria, since the late 80s NGOs have emerged as a very vocal arm of civil society to the extent that any mention of civil society brings to mind NGOs. Before the emergence of NGOs the traditional watchdog civil society organizations in Nigeria include trade unions, student unions, parents/teachers associations and professional associations.

The Role of Civil Society in Countering Corruption

Civil society encompasses the expertise and networks needed to address issues of common concern, including corruption. Most of the corruption in a society involves two principal actors, the government and the private sector. Civil society is typically the major victim.

As power devolves from the centre to local authorities, opportunities for corruption shift downwards towards new actors who are in more direct contact with civil society. This means that the ability of civil society to monitor, detect and reverse the activities of the public officials in their midst is enhanced by proximity and familiarity with local issues. Indeed, this may be the training ground needed to gain the experience and confidence necessary for action at the national level.

It is also important to note that civil society can be a part of the solution or a part of the problem. This is because in normal situations, every society gets the type of government it deserves. The attitude of civil society to corruption may also influence the attitude of government officials and the private sector to it. The converse is also true. Sometimes, if government does not respond to public concerns, civil society can, and will, organize to defend its essential interest. The real role of civil society must be to claim and defend its own core values, and not leave this integral function to those in power.

Nigeria’s anti-Corruption obligations under international law

Nigeria has ratified both the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) and the African Union Convention Against Corruption. These international treaties impose obligation on Nigeria to ensure the participation of civil society in the fight against corruption.

The UNCAC, in Article 5, provides as follows:

Each state party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

The UNCAC, in Article 13, provides for the engagement of civil society in the anti-corruption programme.

The challenges of engaging civil society in the fight against corruption

One of the challenges to effective engagement of civil society in the fight against corruption is how to ensure the participation of the broad civil society as opposed to just NGOs or a coalition of NGOs.

Fighting corruption is fast becoming a big business in Nigeria, especially among the NGOs; but trade unions and professional bodies have some obvious advantages over the NGOs in the area of fighting corruption. Most of their members are gainfully employed. Among the so-called anti-corruption NGOs, fighting corruption is some people’s job. At times fighting corruption and making a living may be in conflict. Civil society coalitions against corruption should therefore embrace the traditional watchdog groups. There are also some professional groups that can play significant roles in the fight against corruption. These groups include lawyers’ and accountants’ associations. The broad civil society which should be engaged in the fight against corruption should include these groups. A coalition of NGOs can hardly take the place of the broad civil society in the fight against corruption.

Another challenge to effective civil society engagement in the anti-corruption fight is the lack of access to information law in Nigeria. Corruption thrives in obscurity. Wherever a government has neither a dynamic pro-active information policy nor a proper access to information law that is actually implemented and operational, the lack of information about government activity and decision making can easily hide corrupt manipulation of such decisions. Therefore transparency and access to information are essential ingredients of any effort to reduce corruption in society. The media which is one of the institutional pillars of the National Integrity System cannot operate effectively or discharge their constitutional responsibilities without access to information law.

Section 22 of the 1999 constitution provides as follows: The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.

There are also some transparency and accountability functions under some statutes which cannot be operationalized without access to information law. For instance, the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) Act 2007 stipulates that one of the objectives of NEITI is to ensure transparency and accountability by government in the application of resources from payments received from extractive industry companies.

Another challenge to effective CSO engagement in anti-corruption efforts is the lack of transparency and accountability and internal democracy in some NGOs. The truth remains that some NGOs are established as a business for the purpose of making a living. There is no internal democracy in most NGOs. Corruption that exists at the governmental and private sector levels also exist in NGOs. Fighting corruption should be an avocation and not a vocation. Moreover, an organization which does not operate in a transparent manner lacks the moral authority to demand transparency from others.

It is also imperative that civil society organizations be more proactive than reactive in the fight against corruption. It has been observed that there is the tendency for civil society intervention to tend more to the latter. The reactionary approach, although it may serve a useful purpose under certain circumstances, has its own short-coming because citing what does not work does not automatically tell us what will work. To ensure progress in anti-corruption efforts, a double-barreled approach which is both proactive and reactionary is required. Effort should not only be concentrated on detecting and punishing corruption. It is important that a system which will prevent corruption is emphasized equally. This is because the existence or prevalence of corruption shows a failure in the system.

There is one challenge to the effective engagement of the National Anti-corruption Coalition in the fight against corruption which is more subtle than obvious. That challenge has to do with the fact that the National Anti-corruption Coalition is qualified as an Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC) coalition. This raises doubts about whether the coalition is a governmental organization, to what extent its activities are directed and controlled by the ICPC, and how this affects the public perception of the Coalition? Public standing of the coalition would be enhanced were it made abundantly clear that the Coalition, though facilitated by the ICPC, is independent of it.

The state of insecurity in the land is another serious challenge. The state is no longer able to protect lives and property. Kidnapping, targeted and reprisal killings, armed robbery and other violent crimes have become rampant in the country. It requires a lot of courage to engage in the anti-corruption struggle in Nigeria. The environment must be created where members of civil society can engage in the anti-corruption fight at little or no risk to their lives.


One of the greatest prospects is that there is open space for civil society operation in Nigeria. In order words, unlike in some other countries, there is little or no restriction on the civil society to organize itself through the formation of non-governmental organizations or civil society organizations or coalitions. There are also little or no restrictions on holding of public meetings.

In addition, there are also some recent statutes that enhance civil society engagement or participation in the anti-corruption crusade in the country. For instance, prior to the enactment of the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2007, the budgetary process in the country was non-participatory and secretive. There were no mechanisms for public monitoring of budget implementation.

In the absence of a general access to information law, the Fiscal Responsibility Act made radical provisions for access to information with regard to the budget process. Section 48(1) provides that the Federal Government shall ensure that the fiscal and financial affairs are conducted in a transparent manner and accordingly ensure full and timely disclosure and wide publication of all transactions and decisions involving public revenues and expenditures and their implications for its finances. The Fiscal Responsibility Act is also innovative in that it empowers Nigerians to enforce the provisions of the Act through appropriate judicial orders. By section 51 of the Act, every Nigerian shall have the legal capacity to enforce the provisions of the Act by obtaining prerogative orders or other remedies at the Federal High Court, without having to show any special or particular interest. This provision is significant in overcoming the usual problem posed by the doctrine of locus standi in the enforcement of public laws.

However, one of the limitations of the Fiscal Responsibility Act is that, in view of the fact that Nigeria is a federation, its provisions do not to a large extent apply to State and Local Governments.


Civil Society participation in the anti-corruption war is a condicio sine qua non for the success of the war. There are traditional watchdog organizations in Nigeria which can meaningfully participate in the fight against corruption. The emergence of NGOs in Nigeria can also assist the anti-corruption fight. Nigeria is under obligation in international law to engage CSOs in the fight against corruption.

The challenges to the effective engagement of CSOs in the fight against corruption in Nigeria include the need to engage the broad spectrum of Civil Society instead of just NGOs. Another challenge is that some CSOs are also ridden with corruption. This makes it imperative for a code of conduct for CSOs engaged in the anti-corruption fight.

Furthermore, the high crime rate in the Nigerian society makes fighting corruption a very risky undertaking. The absence of access to information law is also one of the challenges to effective engagement of CSOs in the fight against corruption. It is imperative that these challenges be addressed if CSOs can be meaningfully engaged in the fight against corruption.

The absence of legal restriction on formation and engagement in CSO activities is one of the prospects for effective CSOs engagement in the fight against corruption. The continuation of democratic governance in Nigeria with the concomitant open space for the operation of CSOs needs to be mentioned.

By Osita Ninamani Ogbu, Senior Lecturer and Acting Head of the Law Department at Anambra State University, Nigeria.

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