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Why policy advocacy efforts fail in Nigeria

Over the course of the past 24 years Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted democratic rule. Like many other emerging democracies, the standard of the governance, structures…

Over the course of the past 24 years Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted democratic rule. Like many other emerging democracies, the standard of the governance, structures and institutions directly affect the wellbeing of its citizens and development.

“Good governance” refers to a system of political leadership that is transparent, accountable, participatory and responsive to the needs of its people. It prioritises citizen-driven policies and ensures that there are strong institutions to uphold this, usually based on social agreements.

In democracy, advocacy is a very powerful tool for sustainable change, as it ensures the participatory side of good governance. Advocacy empowers citizens to voice their concerns, demand reforms and hold their government accountable.

Nigeria is a nation with a rich history of civil society activism, and the role advocacy has played in its democratic development cannot be underestimated.

However, despite the best intentions of the advocacy groups, many efforts seem to falter or fail to achieve their desired outcomes. Achieving good governance through advocacy requires an understanding of the intricate relationship between effective policies and the existing political ideologies of state-specific actors that marry the common good with vested interests.

The idea that vested interests should be alienated from politics or governance processes dehumanises the very foundation upon which government works. If we agree that within every governance structure there are state-specific actors, then we cannot say that these actors do not have biases, sentiments or prejudicial ideologies. The morality of this notion is debatable, but the reality remains that these factors will always come to bear in policy influencing and advocacy work.

This is not a new area for democracies across the world. In fact, in developed democracies such as the United States (US), there are established lobbying organisations that work towards understanding the ideologies of these state-specific actors and influence their decisions around policies for the benefit of society. But because we have not understood this well enough, we always seem to have difficulties understanding the best approaches to pass policies.

The problem with advocacy in Nigeria is that non-state actors who champion the advocacy movements often place significant emphasis on the policy change itself. Advocates and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) frequently craft well-researched policy recommendations and proposals, seeking to influence the positions of state-specific decision makers and legislative bodies at the federal and state levels.

While this approach is undoubtedly crucial, the flaw is that it tends to overlook the intricate web of political dynamics that shape policy implementation and decision-making. It overlooks the undeniable influence of vested interests in the decision-making processes of all public policies. Sometimes these vested interests are clouded in religious or cultural sentiments (as the case may be for the adulterated domestication of the VAPP and the CRA in most states) or they are shrouded in selfish business and economic concerns (as can be seen in the policies around stable power in Nigeria).

Nigeria’s political landscape is characterised by a complex interplay of interests, power dynamics and state actors. These actors include politicians, bureaucrats, security agencies and influential individuals who wield significant influence over public policies and resource allocation. Advocacy efforts that do not adequately consider the politics of these various demographics are often doomed to fail.

So, the question remains: how do we move forward, how can we push for policies that ensure that the benefits of societal interests can be achieved?

In order for us to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of advocacy in Nigeria, it is very essential that CSOs and policy advocates move beyond the myopic and tunnel vision focus on just policy change and try to embrace a more holistic approach that accounts for the politics of state actors.

It is important that advocacy groups invest in rigorous political analyses to understand the motivations, barriers, drives, interests and power dynamics of state actors. This knowledge can inform more targeted and strategic advocacy efforts. If advocates can understand these better and speak to these biases, then it is easier to have state actors listen to them.

Sometimes when some advocacy efforts take into account the state actors, they fail to demystify the effects of the various stakeholders among them. Example, we focus more on political appointees and fail to see the influence of civil servants, especially permanent secretaries and directors of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

Another area that requires strong improvement is building stronger alliances that have uniformed voices and action plans. Advocacy efforts such as #NotTooYoungToRun, #EndSARS and MeToo succeeded in Nigeria because there were uniform approaches by stakeholders saying the same thing at the same time.

Now, it is also important to mention that advocacies are not always protests or coercive; sometimes the subtle approach (although long and painful) can achieve the best result. State actors tend to be more approachable when they do not feel embarrassed. However, this does not mean that protests are not effective as well. It all depends on the context.

We must also understand that advocacy is sometimes a marathon and not a sprint. Advocacy actors and international partners need to know this and make long-term plans for sustainable tempo and efforts. The goal of advocacy is not just to change policies or laws; it is to ensure that these laws are sustainable, can stand the test of time and that no new government or assembly can push them aside.

So, better planning should be put into the assurance of this sustainability.

Conclusively, the approach to policy advocacy should take a multifaceted approach. Governments do not exist in the abstract. The individuals that are appointed into political seats and the civil servants are very crucial to policy change and sustainability. As we continue to grow as a democracy, we hope to get to a place where our laws and policies speak to the local context of our country’s interests, but could also be exported as a globally accepted practice.


Suleiman resides in Abuja.

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