Yiaga Africa- Organising for Political Inclusion during COVID-19

Watching The Vote- Press Engagement

You may not have heard of Yiaga Africa, but you most certainly have come across one or more of their carefully crafted and widely impactful civic campaigns such as #NotTooYoungToRun, #Watchingthevote, #BounceCorruption and #FixElectionNG. Behind these campaigns are tireless strategic and evidence-based initiatives that have been instrumental in increasing the space for young people, women and people with disabilities to participate in democratic processes and political governance in Nigeria. Evolving from a student organisation at the University of Jos, Nigeria, Yiaga Africa has 13 years later, become a powerhouse for the promotion of human right, political participation, sustainable democracy and leadership emergence. They do this primarily through building and sustaining communities of people who care about how they are being governed and giving them the platform to participate in their own governance.

“Our greatest asset is our people and for us they are very important. If you participate in a programme or training with us, we let you know that you’re not just leaving as a participant, but you are part of the Yiaga Africa family. This helps our work in the sense that for every engagement, we are interested in people who care enough to drive the vision wherever they are as part of a shared value or purpose. These communities we have engaged support different initiatives and lead advocacy at different levels and connecting with other movements, so we (Yiaga Africa) don’t need to be everywhere. We work in different states across Nigeria but through our communities. One of our approaches is working through our networks, working through our beneficiaries or our partners.”

Though it is based in Nigeria, Yiaga Africa’s work extends beyond Nigeria to other countries like Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and recently Ethiopia where it supports civic activism and engagement for elections, governance and legislative action. Given the level of engagement and community building that underpins Yiaga Africa’s work, we were rather intrigued to hear their story of resilience in engaging their community during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The DevDispatch had an insightful conversation with Cynthia Mbamalu, co-founder and Director of Programs at Yiaga  Africa on the effect of the pandemic on their work. She tells us that at the beginning of the year, Yiaga Africa dubbed 2020 as continuing a decade of positive disruption defined by intentionality, resilience and civic activism in politics, governance and civic spaces. With the 2020 theme adopted as “Evolving beyond our limit” and with the specific goal to evolve with a culture of leadership, excellence and professionalism. This could not be truer with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the change and adaptation it required of the institution.

“Part of the objectives for the year was basically to invest and expand on what we have started already and to expand our cross-border engagements especially within the region and also produce a lot more knowledge but with COVID-19 a lot of things changed. We had different programmes or projects around #FixEelectionsNG which were actually supposed to commence earlier but with COVID-19 we had to slow things down a bit.”

For an organization whose work rested on its capacity to continue to engage with its communities (youth activists, campaigners, lawmakers, media organisations and platforms, parliamentary committees etc), the need for change was inevitable. As the pandemic raged, Yiaga Africa started to check in with its communities leveraging all available communication platforms. These check-ins turned into an opportunity to gather information on what was happening in their communities with regards to the pandemic and then grew into an initiative on tracking citizen stress points as opposed to tracking government response to COVID-19. As the information poured in, Yiaga Africa pivoted again to setting up a system for citizens to share what the government is doing in their local communities in response to the coronavirus such as distribution of palliatives and economic stimulus packages as a means of also promoting accountability.

In our conversation, Cynthia talked about Yiaga Africa’s Youth Organising school that provides mentorship to young people and the fact that it has moved to supporting its cohort remotely and a lot training and interaction is now conducted through webinars to engage the youth constituency.

“Our goal with the webinars is we wanted webinars that reflected the needs of people within our community. Take the youth and women constituency for instance, the webinar for young and female lawmakers at the state level discussed how they can engage differently and provide leadership during the pandemic. We also produced this toolkit on Legislative Engagement with constituents designed for young lawmakers as a guide on how they could engage during COVID-19. There were also specific webinars promoting resilience in this period of COVID-19 for young people who have youth organisations exploring new working structures, review of program design, budget reviews, etc. And the webinars on sustainable democracy. Some of these webinars were hosted in partnership with the US Embassy and the Embassy of Sweden in Nigeria.”

Yiaga Africa’s engagement with lawmakers also changed during the lockdown because they were not sitting in sessions as they normally do during the lockdown period. However, Yiaga Africa was still providing support through research analysis and this support became even more pertinent as the COVID-19 related bills such as the Infectious Diseases bill and the Economic Stimulus Bill were introduced in the National Assembly. Community engagement for elections have also been interrupted but Yiaga Africa was also adapted using mass media to reach communities.

“We couldn’t do major voter education at community levels because of COVID-19 and we normally would also have town halls at state level. What we did was to convene a webinar on Elections and Voting during COVID-19 which covered procedures for election management and how people can vote and during COVID-19. We used this to engage as early as April with the election commission and key election stakeholders and some recommendations from this conversation informed the guideline and policy for voting during COVID-19. We have also been leveraging media platforms and have conducted three TV townhalls where citizens tune in and discuss election and electoral reform related issues.”

Cynthia also alludes to the fact that like other non-profit organisations, Yiaga Africa has had to review its programs and projects and engage donors about reallocation of funds to respond to COVID-19 issues within its communities. While this has been necessary, Yiaga Africa has found that partners have been accommodating to proposed changes as long as value is demonstrated. Yiaga Africa continues to see its role in investing in youth-led movements and civic activism as pan-African as a gateway to homegrown democratic practices that work best for African people. Yiaga Africa’s ultimate goal is a developed and democratic Africa where citizens are engaging government and taking leadership within communities and constituencies.

Learn more about the work of Yiaga Africa here

Images by Yiaga Africa