Elnathan John

Behind the NGO Attack

NGOs in his country are not the benign civil society activist groups they purport to be, says Nigerian satirist, former lawyer and novelist Elnathan John.

Elsewhere in this issue of the ZAM Chronicle you launch a biting attack on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Nigeria. You compiled an ‘instruction manual’ for those who want to start NGOs, full of tips for getting the most out of donors and doing the least for the people you pretend to support. But surely not all NGOs are like that?

There are exceptions and some may even argue that there are many exceptions. However, the issue is not the exceptions, it is the system. The system is built and sustained in a way that undermines the public interest by letting governments off the hook, supporting short term fixes rather than functional governments. Nigeria is not a poor country. It is actually very rich –last year it was reported that US$ 20 billion was siphoned off by corruption in the oil sector alone. If that is money we can afford to lose, just imagine the amount of money that came into Nigeria that year! But we don’t get health care or proper education. With hundreds of NGOs attempting to fill the gaps left by corrupt governments, the government is no longer under any pressure to deliver any such services. So their function, after all is said and done, is to maintain the status quo.

But surely people who oppose corrupt and malfunctioning governments look to NGOs to support them?

Most of them –the most lavishly funded and powerful ones- will not directly oppose the government or move into real civil action. They are not going to upset anybody. They function within the prescribed perimeters of the grants they get. And don’t forget that international donors are not politically neutral bodies: they themselves have larger interests that in some cases benefit from the status quo.


Yes. Many grants are set up in a way that destroys creativity. One cannot think outside the box of the exact wording of proposals. I remember, for example, making a suggestion to an NGO about practical ways in which they could support Freedom of Information and I was made to understand that the grant did not cover that. So, pleasing the donor in that instance becomes more important than thinking outside the box and applying practical solutions to immediate problems.

Are you saying that the system is geared to do only things that are of little consequence?

That is the conclusion I have come to. We have layers of civil activity in this country. At the bottom are individuals and small groups who are in my view real activists. They are busy trying to assist schools in villages and fighting corrupt governors out of their own initiative. Many don’t have big fancy offices or 4x4’s. Some are investigative journalists struggling to stay afloat. But it is difficult for these groups to get any real support. Then there are the well-supported NGOs. They are run by what I call the ‘super activists’. They are a few dozen people who are in charge of practically all the NGOs and NGO coalitions. You always see them at conferences: the same people, over and over again. When we had very hot and tense elections recently, the super activists were ‘election monitoring’ from headquarters in the very same luxury hotel where the government people were staying. The ‘ordinary’ activists, meanwhile, didn’t have such luxuries.

Yet we see NGO campaigns on important subjects coming out of Nigeria. The campaign to release the Chibok girls, kidnapped by Boko Haram two years ago, is keeping people all over the world engaged in support for those girls.

Indeed, the campaign to release the abducted Chibok girls has been going on. Sadly, the Chibok girls have not been found –they are still in Boko Haram camps. However, the fact is that before and after the abduction of Chibok girls, thousands of women, girls and boys have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. An argument of certain groups has been that the Chibok girls are a symbol for all the persons kidnapped by Boko Haram. However, the framing of the struggle has had at least two unintended consequences: first that people around the world wrongly believe that there is only one group of girls who were kidnapped. Many are shocked when I tell them that between the beginning of 2014 and April 2015, Boko Haram had kidnapped up to 2000 women and children - almost ten times the number of the Chibok girls. The second, related consequence of the framing is that when abducted women and children escape on their own or are rescued, the first thing people want to find out is whether they are the girls from Chibok, almost as though some victims are more important than others. Recently the military claimed to have rescued 241 women and children from a Boko Haram camp they took over. There was no fanfare or celebration. It thus seems to be all about the sexy soundbite and profiling yourself, not about actually helping children. “Oh, not Chibok then. Off you go.”

Why would the ‘ordinary’ activists not get any support? Don’t donors always look for people who are active on community level?

That is the official line. But I once argued for such small activist support at a meeting where there were few big donors and I was given many reasons why they could not work with such small groups, everything from the ability to do proper accounting to their size. They would only partner with an NGO that had an office and permanent staff, otherwise it was not sustainable. But these NGOs only have an office and permanent staff because they are already getting so much donor money. It is bizarre, actually.

Worldwide, people still feel that something should be done about injustice and abuses in countries like yours. It is surely not wrong to feel for children who have been kidnapped by militias. What should people do with their feelings of outrage?

Outrage is fine. A deeper understanding of the problems is even better. We also need practical steps. For one thing, they could stop supporting our corrupt leaders and their family members who own property and spend lavishly in Western capitals. Our government ministers all go to clinics in Europe and the US when they have a health problem –they know better than to use our own hospitals. Those are scandals that people everywhere should protest.