Last October, thousands of Nigerians turned out to protest police brutality and poor governance. Demanding the dissolution of the predatory Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the #EndSARS protests rattled Nigerian elites. As #EndSARS captured global headlines and went viral on social media, President Muhammadu Buhari pushed back hard. He dismissed the peaceful activists’ concerns and blamed protesters for fomenting unrest. Crackdowns and curfews followed, culminating in soldiers killing several unarmed protesters at the Lekki tollgate on Oct. 20, 2020.
In the wake of the killings, several groups describing themselves as “nongovernmental organizations” echoed official claims that #EndSARS was a violent movement and denied that the Lekki killings actually happened. A group called the Coalition Against Fake News dismissed international media coverage as a “conspiracy to derail and thwart our nascent democracy.” Another group described the #EndSARS protests as a “scary bloodbath” in which demonstrators “butchered” security personnel.
What’s the story behind these denials? In a recent research paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I explain how pro-government groups appear to be functioning as nongovernmental organizations — and explore the broader impact of this phenomenon for domestic and international policymakers.
Both of the groups attacking the #EndSARS campaign, in fact, belong to a growing constellation of over 300 purported NGOs that routinely lambaste the critics of Nigeria’s government and military. As well as emboldening Nigeria’s increasingly autocratic leaders, such groups also undermine public trust in the country’s many nongovernmental organizations working to promote good governance and human rights in Africa’s most populous country. This operating model also constitutes a global threat to democracy, not only in developing democracies.
Pro-government NGOs enjoy a second act
Pro-government NGOs have been on the rise in Nigeria since 2015, but this isn’t a new phenomenon. During a period of rampant corruption and heavy-handed military rule in the 1990s, a number of these groups gained considerable power. One such group, the Association for a Better Nigeria, reportedly paved the way for notorious kleptocrat Sani Abacha to seize power by derailing the country’s 1993 elections.
Abacha reportedly went on to bankroll dozens of civil society surrogates, including Youths Earnest Ask for Abacha (YEAA). This group rapidly became a multimillion-dollar operation, handing out Abacha-branded goods including rice, soap and even televisions as part of its campaign. It also organized Nigeria’s Two Million Man March — part rally, part rock concert — ostensibly to “persuade” Abacha to stay on in power.
In June 1998, Abacha died suddenly. Without his patronage, YEAA and other groups like it quickly evaporated. As Nigeria’s democratic trajectory improved with regular, multiparty elections becoming the norm throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the fortunes of Nigeria’s pro-government organizations waned.
But some pro-government organizations reportedly have found renewed support within Buhari’s administration. Since 2015, such groups have staged over 500 news conferences to praise government officials and defend them from allegations of corruption, underperformance and human rights abuses. It isn’t clear who pays for these events — my interviews and research suggest the funding likely reflects off-budget payments or consulting contracts arranged by top officials’ close aides. Without sponsorship, it is hard to see how these purported nongovernmental organizations would make ends meet.
How do these groups operate, exactly?
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 also champion illiberal causes, parroting official talking points. And they undermine efforts to hold government accountable.
Most pro-government NGOs seem to be “briefcase entities” that lack any discernible track record. They frequently make only one or two appearances, such as a news conference or a public protest, before evaporating. Many appear to be controlled by a small number of pro-government NGO leaders who are linked to each other and to politicians by overlapping personal networks.
This does not mean that all pro-government NGOs look and act the same. A few specialize in defending the government’s track record on specific issues — for example, human rights or corruption — while the activities of other groups appear to be more opportunistic and disjointed. Some groups seem more attuned to the news cycle than others, swiftly leaping to the defense of scandal-hit officials or government entities.
A year ago, one pro-government NGO appeared to encourage the police to crack down on #EndSARS protesters, warning that “whoever sees the police as an enemy is a suspect.” The following month, another group appeared to threaten to harm staff working for human rights organization Amnesty International, saying it would treat them as “innocent police men lynched by mobs were treated during the [#EndSARS] protest across the country.”
More regulation may not solve the matter
Increased government regulation of Nigeria’s vulnerable nongovernmental sector almost certainly would backfire, hampering legitimate NGOs as much as fly-by-night groups. Partisan regulators might also abuse any new rules, allowing pro-government NGOs to flourish at the expense of legitimate groups. Improved enforcement of existing corporation and tax laws that already apply to NGOs would appear a more likely remedy.
International diplomats and development professionals could also play a role. For example, if U.S., U.K. and European diplomats are concerned about this trend, they might consider levying visa bans on pro-government NGO leaders who issue violent threats or perpetuate hate speech.
The first anniversary of the #EndSARS movement offers an opportunity to reconsider the links between the harmful activities of pro-government NGOs, election rigging, high-level corruption, human rights violations by security agents and crackdowns on peaceful protest. And it’s not only Nigeria where these tactics pose a threat to democracy. In many other countries — both developed and developing — these types of maneuvers are also used to stifle dissent and perpetuate ruling elites’ hold on power. In this respect, the recent rise of pro-government NGOs in Nigeria may be a cautionary tale.
Matthew T. Page is nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an associate fellow at Chatham House, and a nonresident fellow with the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja. One of the U.S. intelligence community’s top experts on Nigeria, he previously served with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.