Africa has long been a theater in which external powers have competed for political influence and economic control, often to the detriment of both political stability and economic growth. International influence over the region has been contested for well over a century, from the Scramble for Africa, which divided the continent into competing colonial empires, to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union provided arms and funding to allied governments as part of their efforts to stymie the spread of communism and capitalism, respectively.1
Yet one area in which geopolitical competition has been less obvious is civil society. Formal civil society groups that engage on political issues in Africa have frequently been depicted—often unfairly—as agents of Western powers because of the proportion of their funding they receive from countries such as Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Indeed, this is one argument that leaders of more authoritarian African states have used to justify the introduction in recent years of legislation to constrain the activities and funding sources of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
There does not appear to have been a corresponding level of engagement from non-Western or nondemocratic powers in the last thirty years, however. At various points over the last seven decades, China and Russia have sought to increase their influence in African states, but they have tended to do this by working directly with governments rather than by seeking to exert influence indirectly through civil society groups.
One reason for the comparative lack of Chinese and Russian engagement in funding NGOs to date may be that domestically, Beijing and Moscow tend to see civil society groups as a threat and something to be contained and, hence, to have less established routes of pushing funding to civic organizations. Another reason may be that the main motivation of Chinese and Russian leaders has been not to promote a particular form of authoritarianism abroad but to establish strong relations with governments willing to support their core economic and international ambitions.2 Most notably, these ambitions imply a ready supply of natural resources and, in China’s case, a willingness by governments to use their votes at the United Nations to protect Chinese interests on issues such as the recognition of Taiwan. Because this can be done with both democratic and authoritarian regimes, there is both less need and less appetite to try to foster a set of civil society groups to push for the adoption of a particular Chinese or Russian model of government.
The main ways in which China and Russia have sought to shape the civic arena have therefore been soft-power endeavors, such as influencing the media environment, promoting cultural associations and exchange visits, and providing training to officials, journalists, and students. This may be changing, however. Recent research on Chinese and Russian foreign policy has detected a stronger attachment to the promotion of a particular form of authoritarian rule.3 Meanwhile, investigative journalists in South Africa have revealed a set of informal ties that appear to connect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to several organizations in South Africa.4
Against this background, there is a clear risk that if African governments impose greater constraints on civil society organizations (CSOs) that seek to promote democracy and human rights, or if there is a significant fall in Western funding for such causes, driven by other factors, there could be a sea change in the composition and balance of the nongovernmental sphere. That said, it is important not to exaggerate the impact of geopolitical factors on developments in Africa. When it comes to civil society and democracy, much like other policy areas, domestic factors mediate the impact of international interventions and have a greater impact on political outcomes.
Democratization, Western Funding, and Extraverted Politics
Like societies in most parts of the world, African communities typically feature a myriad of social ties and informal institutions that bind individuals to one another. Where social groups, savings groups, community development projects, ethnic hometown associations, and religious organizations are concerned, it has often been argued that these ties are considerably denser in Africa than in more economically developed world regions.5
The situation has historically been somewhat different where formal CSOs and social movements are concerned. On the one hand, high levels of poverty, along with a small middle class, made it difficult to sustain a strong and independent civic sector. On the other hand, the emergence of these kinds of groups was suppressed—first by colonial rule and second during the long periods of authoritarianism that followed African states’ independence. During the 1970s and 1980s, the two main kinds of civil society group that continued to exist were trade union movements and religious organizations. These groups often operated in an uneasy peace with one-party states and military governments, frequently tolerating democratic abuses in return for being allowed to operate while seeking to temper the worst excesses of authoritarian regimes.6
Things began to change rapidly after the collapse of authoritarian rule in the late 1980s. The decision of international financial institutions and many donors to channel a greater proportion of funds through nongovernmental actors to avoid the corruption assumed to be embedded in African states significantly increased the resources flowing through NGOs. Then, in the early 1990s, the combination of greater political space and a surge in funding from pro-democracy Western donors for organizations working on areas such as elections and human rights led to a dramatic rise in the number of civil society groups. Between 2012 and 2016, for example, donor members of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development delivered more than 40 percent of their bilateral aid to Nicaragua and Zimbabwe via nonstate channels.7
Lacking employment opportunities and inspired by the fervor of Africa’s second liberation, talented individuals joined and formed new groups that came to represent a combination of their own interests and motivations and the issues likely to secure funding.8 In turn, the timing of the NGO explosion, the pro-democracy orientation of high-profile organizations, and the perception that most civic groups are predominantly funded from abroad have led to ongoing controversy about whether these groups are really African or, rather, represent external interests. One consequence of this suspicion is that leaders looking to silence critical civil society voices have often sought to delegitimize them by arguing that they are the agents of foreign powers and, hence, a threat to national sovereignty.9
This claim is problematic, not least because it is clear that large majorities of African citizens favor democracy, but it tends to resonate with multiple audiences.10 There are two main reasons for this, in addition to the obvious financial support provided for nongovernmental actors by Western development agencies, such as the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office and the U.S. Agency for International Development. First, the notion that democracy is a European imposition not suited to African conditions continues to have proponents among academics, public intellectuals, and politicians, despite the evidence to the contrary.11
Second, this argument often meets with a ready audience because it echoes a broader theme in popular discourse and academia that African states are “extraverted”—a term used to describe the way in which the continent’s dependent position in the international system has been co-produced by external powers and domestic elites. According to political scientist Jean-François Bayart, for example, “the leading actors in African societies have tended [to] compensate for their difficulties in the autonomization of their power in intensifying the exploitation of their dependants by deliberate recourse to the strategies of extraversion, mobilizing resources derived from [a] (possibly unequal) relationship with the external.”12
Put another way, one of the most common arguments in academic writing and media commentary over the last three decades is that African leaders and governments survive by manipulating their control of the gate between their countries and the outside world, becoming dependent on capturing a cut of exports and aid funds to sustain themselves in power. In turn, the heavy emphasis on the external dependence of African states means that political leaders, researchers, and the general public are primed to expect external actors to have an oversize influence where civil society is concerned.
This depiction is, of course, an oversimplification: civil society is full of principled and motivated individuals, many of whom believe in democracy and human rights because of their own personal experiences. They can and do exert agency on a consistent basis, which is clear from the fact that international donors often do not receive exactly what they want from their engagement with NGOs and CSOs. Moreover, this assertiveness has strengthened since the decolonization and Black Lives Matter movements, which had the effect of refocusing attention on African solutions for African problems. African civil society groups, just like African leaders, have never simply been helpless pawns in an international game.
Yet perceptions that the actions of civil society groups reflect foreign agendas have contributed to these groups’ political vulnerability, which, in turn, has been exacerbated by a range of other economic and political factors. These challenges include processes of economic informalization and high unemployment, which have weakened the position of trade unions, and the efforts of successive governments to co-opt and influence civil society groups. Taken together, this set of trends represents a significant challenge to the consolidation of an independent and sustainable civic sector.
Authoritarian Soft Power and the Anti-NGO Backlash
Western donors typically see a vibrant civic sector as critical to democratic progress and consolidation—an argument backed by some academic research, which has found that CSO interventions have positive, though often modest, effects on the quality of democracy.13 Despite this heavy emphasis on civil society, however, there is little evidence that authoritarian powers or non-Western partners have sought to advance their own interests by systematically seeking to fund or co-opt NGOs.
This picture fits with an academic literature that has been skeptical of the idea that countries such as China have engaged in an active program of autocracy promotion comparable to the democracy promotion activities of Western states in the 1990s. According to political scientist Oisín Tansey, for instance, while some examples of ideologically driven autocracy promotion could be identified during the Cold War, there is little evidence of this in the contemporary era.14 Rather, countries such as China and Russia are generally seen to have been more pragmatic, focused on forming stable alliances with states willing to support their interests, whether those governments were democratic or authoritarian.
In line with this, academic research has generally concentrated on Russia’s and China’s efforts to expand their influence by engaging directly with African governments, affecting the media space, and shaping popular understanding of their countries through social media. China, for example, launched China Daily Africa in 2012 as part of a wider program aimed at fostering popular goodwill. The weekly publication is now available in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania, and disseminates pro-China news coverage and analysis. It is important not to exaggerate the impact of these efforts, however: China Daily Africa’s Twitter feed had just over 4,000 followers as of September 2022.15 Moreover, Russia has been slow to follow suit, with television news network RT only announcing that it would establish an Africa Hub in 2022.
These efforts to promote pro-China and pro-Russia attitudes have been buttressed by the broadcasting of dubbed or subtitled Chinese-language television shows, which have started to become popular in several African countries. To enable the dissemination of these cultural products, China has funded projects designed to provide access to digital television, for example through an initiative to connect 1,000 villages in Nigeria.16 This outreach is part of a broader strategy to enhance the soft power of authoritarian states in Africa—that is, these states’ ability to persuade and co-opt. Examples of such efforts include:
- education programs through which African citizens can spend time in countries such as China, India, Russia, and Turkey and experience their cultures;
- training programs for government officials and journalists that often include explicit components designed to promote an understanding of foreign policy and international relations in line with the organizing government’s position;
- Chinese support for Confucius Institutes, writing associations, and student associations for those who have spent time studying in China;
- Russian support for women’s community groups and Russian cultural groups; and
- Turkish NGOs, organized through the Union of NGOs of the Islamic World, which “has acted as a catalyst in cultivating relations with Africa through its humanitarian aid,” according to sociologist Zeynep Atalay.17
These programs are far from neutral, but they seem to be aimed more at winning over hearts and minds than at creating what political scientists Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde have called a parallel “uncivil society” designed to promote a distinctive authoritarian vision of politics.18 Research on Confucius Institutes in Africa, for example, has found that they are much more than simply centers for the promotion of Chinese language and culture. Instead, according to researcher Siyuan Li, they play “a deeper and more profound role in training local individuals, involving them in different forms of Chinese presence in Africa and linking their own personal development with the rise of China.” Such institutes are therefore an important part of efforts to promote “China’s soft power and national interest in Africa,” but one that is not designed to directly create high-profile civil society groups in China’s image.19
It is important to keep in mind, however, that authoritarian funding for formal civil society groups would likely be covertly managed, so it may be that such programs exist but have yet to be identified and analyzed by researchers. Given this possibility, it is notable that investigative journalism in South Africa has suggested that the CCP may have been surreptitiously funding left-wing organizations and media to promote a pro-China narrative. According to journalists Micah Reddy and Sam Sole, U.S. tech mogul Neville Roy Singham is a key node in a “global network of media, think-tanks, unions and political parties” designed to further China’s influence abroad. Although exact relationships and funding streams are hard to pin down, “circumstantial evidence suggests that the Singham network became an increasingly coherent political project intertwined with the propaganda and disinformation machinery of certain state actors, most importantly the Chinese Communist Party.”20
In the South African context, the organizations that are said to have formed the core of this network include the New Frame magazine; the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the country’s biggest union; and its political offshoot, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party. These bodies, it is argued, were encouraged to promote a pro-China line, most notably by defending and supporting Beijing’s presence in Africa against various lines of criticism.
In the future, such revelations may become more common, especially as there is growing evidence that China is adopting a more focused and ideologically driven foreign policy in Africa. Researcher Daniel Munday, for example, has argued that “since the ascendancy of Xi Jinping as President of China in 2012, the Chinese state has promoted these constituent elements of authoritarianism due to ideological concerns, a process which has not been captured by much of the autocracy promotion literature due to the recency of this phenomenon.”21 If this interpretation is correct, the next ten years could see much greater levels of direct Chinese support and funding for left-leaning groups and trade unions across the continent. This would represent a new era of more overt geopolitical competition for the heart and soul of African civil society.
Anti-NGO Legislation and Control of Information
Perhaps the most significant impact of countries such as China and Russia on civic space at present has come indirectly through the examples they have set with regard to anti-NGO legislation and the support they have provided to African governments that seek to exert greater control over civic space. Russia’s 2012 foreign agent law, for example, requires organizations that receive funding from outside the country to register as foreign agents and include a disclaimer to that effect on all publications. The introduction of the legislation was widely interpreted as an attempt to curb the activities and criticism of independent NGOs after protests against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.22
In subsequent years, several other countries around the world followed suit: between 2012 and 2015, over 120 laws restricting the operation of CSOs were proposed or implemented.23 Similar processes have occurred in other areas. A 2022 report by the International Republican Institute on China’s influence on the information space in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria revealed a “disquieting” picture. According to the report’s authors, “in Nigeria, the president’s office has openly sought the aid of [China’s] primary internet-censorship organ, seeking advice on how to ‘manage’ the country’s unruly online discourse.” There is a similar situation in Ethiopia, where “the CCP has invested significant time and energy in training the ruling party on the methods that it uses to manage [Chinese] society, rewarding and reinforcing the authoritarian habits of the country’s single ruling party.”24
Moreover, according to the report’s authors, this problem is not limited to the continent’s more authoritarian states: “Even in a robust democracy like Ghana, [China] has gained significant footholds in its ability to influence both public discourse and the normal functioning of a sovereign democratic government, in ways that appear to undermine the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability before its citizenry.”25
In these ways, the efforts of China and Russia to form politically and economically productive relationships with African states—and strengthen their allies’ hold on power—have emboldened several African governments to exert greater government control over NGOs and social media. It is important to note, however, that the problematic impact of external governments on African civil society is not limited to non-Western states such as China and Russia. The space available to NGOs first began to close in earnest in the 2000s, after the U.S. government encouraged its African counterparts to introduce antiterrorism legislation in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The vague wording of much of this legislation enabled governments to manipulate security concerns to place NGOs under greater scrutiny. In other words, when it comes to geopolitical competition, the actions of both Western and non-Western states have, at times, had negative implications for the resilience of civil society in Africa.
Faith-Based Organizations and Proxy Religious Wars
There is one specific area in which there has been more direct competition between rival international networks. This is the support given to competing religious groups for the express purpose of winning a greater share of the increasingly crowded spiritual marketplace. In some cases, this geopolitical competition has been driven by states; in others, it has been led by nonstate religious networks and communities. For example, in recent decades, right-wing constituencies in the United States and beyond have promoted a hardline form of evangelical Christianity across borders. Meanwhile, the Russian government has funded the expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church in countries such as the Central African Republic.
The same period also saw the promotion of the Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia, and of Shia Islam from Iran, in a context in which most African Muslims have traditionally followed more moderate Sufi practices. The pivot of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to invest in hundreds of Islamic educational institutions across the continent has set the scene for what researcher Joshua Meservey has called the “contest for the future of African Islam.”26
Although these religious networks typically avoid couching their aims in explicitly political terms—and African religious trends also shape religious developments elsewhere in the world—there is evidence that their expansion has had serious consequences on the prospects for liberal democracy and human rights.27 Most notably, this expansion has fostered more hardline and exclusionary versions of religious doctrines, which threatens to undermine believers’ tolerance of other religions, homosexuality, and women’s rights. While many African societies already held negative attitudes toward homosexuality and, in some cases, certain women’s rights, such as abortion, there is evidence that external religious movements have played an important role in encouraging religious and political groups to adopt a more hardline position.28 In turn, this has incentivized opportunistic leaders in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to propose homophobic legislation or oppose constitutional provisions that protect women’s rights. Although such campaigns often fail, they do so only after causing considerable trauma and hardship for the communities concerned.
Formal CSOs in Africa have engaged in a wide range of activities to promote democracy and human rights in partnership with international funders. But this engagement has left them vulnerable to accusations they are the agents of Western powers and, hence, to anti-NGO legislation that seeks to regulate their activity and limit the funds they can secure internationally. This situation has created something of a crisis for African civil society—at least for the types of civic groups that have traditionally worked on democracy and human rights. The challenge is particularly difficult to resolve because overt Western support for civil society groups—and a significant injection of funding, for example as part of an attempt to revive democracy around the world in the wake of the war in Ukraine—could easily backfire and inspire further repression.
In the context of rising geopolitical competition, this conundrum raises the question of whether restrictions on Western funding, and possible Western de-engagement due to the economic challenges currently faced by many European and North American states, could create a vacuum that would come to be filled by authoritarian powers. To date, there is relatively little evidence that countries such as China and Russia are actively seeking to fund uncivil society groups to agitate for authoritarian political systems in their own image. More common so far have been efforts by these governments to build soft power via the media and cultural organizations and mute overt criticism of their actions in the international sphere by developing informal ties to existing groups.
There are two important caveats to this conclusion, however. The first is that authoritarian regimes, by their nature, are secretive and tend not to publicize their links to organizations abroad—especially when these links are likely to be controversial. The informal channels of Chinese funding and influence exposed in South Africa are testament to this. Similarly, CSOs are well aware of the risks of being depicted as the agents of outside powers and so often face incentives to downplay the extent to which their funding and agendas are supplied from outside the continent. To this extent, the discussion of geopolitical competition may underplay the extent of foreign involvement—and evidence may emerge over the next few years that suggests deeper and more profound ties than those described above.
The second caveat is that the global struggle over Islam and Christianity is having an indirect, though no less profound, impact on attitudes toward human rights, while the foreign policies of Western and non-Western states are constantly shifting. There is evidence that under Xi, China has started to move toward a more aggressive approach to promoting authoritarian models, and Russian foreign policy also appears to be moving in this direction. Given these changes, observers may well record more overt geopolitical competition in the next decade than in the last.
Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.
1 Beth Elise Whitaker and John Frank Clark, Africa’s International Relations: Balancing Domestic & Global Interests (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2018).
2 Oisín Tansey, “The Problem With Autocracy Promotion,” Democratization 23, no. 1 (2016): 141–163, https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2015.1095736.
3 Daniel Munday, “Rethinking Autocracy Promotion: Reconceptualizing Ideology and Motivations Amongst Autocratic Supporters,” unpublished journal article, 2022.
4 Micah Reddy and Sam Sole, “New Frame’s Demise Shines a Light on China-Aligned Unions, Parties and Disinformation Networks,” Daily Maverick, July 27, 2022, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-07-27-new-frames-demise-shines-a-light-on-china-aligned-unions-parties-and-disinformations-networks/.
5 Jennifer Widner and Alexander Mundt, “Researching Social Capital in Africa,” Africa 68, no. 1 (1998).
6 Nic Cheeseman, Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
7 Nic Cheeseman and Susan Dodsworth, “Defending Civic Space: When Are Campaigns Against Repressive Laws Successful?”, article under revise and resubmit at the Journal of International Development, 2022, 2.
8 Jennifer N. Brass, Allies or Adversaries: NGOs and the State in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
9 Cheeseman and Dodsworth, “Defending Civic Space.”
10 E. Gyimah-Boadi, Carolyn Logan, and Josephine Sanny, “Africans’ Durable Demand for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 3 (2021): 136–151, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/africans-durable-demand-for-democracy/.
11 Nic Cheeseman and Sishuwa Sishuwa, “African Studies Keyword: Democracy,” African Studies Review 64, no. 3 (2021): 704–732, https://doi.org/10.1017/asr.2021.43.
12 Jean-François Bayart, “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion,” African Affairs 99, no. 395 (2002): 217–267, https://www.jstor.org/stable/723809.
13 Jennifer N. Brass et al., “NGOs and International Development: A Review of Thirty-Five Years of Scholarship,” World Development 112 (2018): 136–149, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.07.016; Cheeseman and Dodsworth, “Defending Civic Space.”
14 Tansey, “The Problem.”
15 China Daily Africa, Twitter page, https://twitter.com/cdafricanews.
16 “China Launches Digital TV Project for 1,000 Nigerian Villages,” CGTN Africa, January 15, 2019, https://africa.cgtn.com/2019/01/15/china-launches-digital-tv-project-for-1000-nigerian-villages/.
17 Zeynep Atalay, “Civil Society as Soft Power: Islamic NGOs and Turkish Foreign Policy,” in Turkey Between Nationalism and Globalization, ed. Riva Kastoryano (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 165–186.
18 Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde, “Rethinking Civil Society,” Democratization 10, no. 3 (2003): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/13510340312331293907.
19 Siyuan Li, “China’s Confucius Institute in Africa: A Different Story?”,
International Journal of Comparative Education and Development 23, no. 4 (2021): 353–366, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJCED-02-2021-0014.
20 Reddy and Sole, “New Frame’s Demise.”
21 Munday, “Rethinking Autocracy Promotion.”
22 Galina Goncharenko and Iqbal Khadaroo, “Disciplining Human Rights Organisations Through an Accounting Regulation: A Case of the ‘Foreign Agents’ Law in Russia,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 72 (2020): 102129, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpa.2019.102129.
23 Cheeseman and Dodsworth, “Defending Civic Space.”
24 “Case Studies on PRC Influence in Africa’s Information Space: Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia,” International Republican Institute, 2022, 1, https://www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Global-Thought-Work-Case-Studies-on-PRC-Influence-in-Africas-Information-Space.pdf.
25 Ibid., 2.
26 Joshua Meservey, “Salafis, Sufis, and the Contest for the Future of African Islam,” Heritage Foundation, July 30, 2021, https://www.heritage.org/africa/commentary/salafis-sufis-and-the-contest-the-future-african-islam.
27 Afe Adogame, The African Christian Diaspora: New Currents and Emerging Trends in World Christianity (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
28 Kapya Kaoma, “The Paradox and Tension of Moral Claims: Evangelical Christianity, the Politicization and Globalization of Sexual Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Critical Research on Religion 2, no. 3 (2014): 227–245, https://doi.org/10.1177/2050303214552571.