MacArthur Foundation and the quest for good governance in Nigeria

It was a rare act of courage driven by no less a sentiment than pure affection – and a bizarre allegiance to service of which humanity remains at the core.

At a time Nigeria was roiling in political instability, with riots and street protests at full tilt on account of the voiding of the June 12 1993 presidential election in the heat of strident calls by pro-democracy groups and active civil society for a return to democratic governance, MacArthur Foundation chose to plant its benevolent feet on the country’s dicey soil.

Ironically, that was the period just 30 years ago when propelled by excusable circumspection, some development institutions and indeed other foreign business entities wouldn’t touch Nigeria with a 10-foot pole, or would rather deal with the country from far-flung territories instead of from within. But the MacArthur Foundation, all the way from Chicago, USA, kept faith with Nigeria and Nigerians.

Ignoring the turmoil that had engulfed the country at that time which was worsened by its growing status as an outcast in the international community, the MacArthur Foundation, one of the United States’ largest independent foundations, sank its feet deeper into uncertainty and, through the decades, evolved into a flourishing piece of history. So much so that ever so often, it adds a fresh chapter to its already astonishing love affair with making a difference by improving humanity in its uniquely exemplary ways.


Today, a good number of civil society organisations (NGOs and CBOs), educational institutions, government agencies and the rest of the Nigerian society down to the rural interior have in multiple ways benefitted from the Foundation’s long sojourn in the country.

Through the support it continues to provide, the Foundation ensures the development of knowledge, nurtures individual creativity, strengthens institutions, helps improve public policy, and provides information to the public through support for public interest media. It runs offices in Chicago, USA, India, and Nigeria, makes grants on international programmes and has grantees working in numerous countries around the world. MacArthur Foundation awarded its first grant in 1978, and since then it has given out more than $8 billion for various causes with the objective of “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

Indeed, Nigeria has a singular good fortune to have had the MacArthur Foundation on its grounds. The Foundation came in when the citizens and their foreign friends were in the thick of agitation for an end to military dictatorship and a restoration of democracy, and stayed the course till the military finally handed over to an elected government in May 1999.


Thus, the MacArthur Foundation witnessed and played a huge role in the birth of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. Nigeria’s democracy is now in its 25th year and has been the longest uninterrupted civil government since independence in 1960. Without a doubt, the Foundation has helped ensure this longevity with its untiring support for activities aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and achieving good governance. For example, its support for non-profit journalism is a veritable turning point in deepening freedom of expression, strengthening the civic space, and developing democracy in Nigeria.

But as noted recently by Kole Shettima, Director of the Nigeria Office, and Co-Director of On Nigeria Big Bet, which aims at “reducing corruption by supporting Nigerian-led efforts that strengthen accountability, transparency, and participation,” “We are not just grantmakers; we are also thoughtful leaders and responsive collaborators.” On this, he’s spot on. The Foundation has not only collaborated but has also offered pieces of advice that have completely transformed the lives of many of its grantees.
On a personal note, one has associated with the Foundation since 2017 through Corruption Anonymous (CORA), a whistleblowing policy advocacy project which the Foundation has graciously supported for seven years. The CORA project, an initiative of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), is the country’s foremost initiative dedicated to promoting whistleblowing and whistleblower protection as an effective anti-corruption tool.

The CORA project is grouped in the Joinbodi – Pidgin for “solidarity” or “working together” – cohort, one of the four cohorts of grantees on the On Nigeria programme. The others are behavioural change, criminal justice reform, and media and journalism. Grantees in these cohorts have worked together in different ways to implement activities that have achieved healthy and sustainable anti-corruption goals.
In the last seven years, through the funding support of MacArthur Foundation as well as the collaboration and technical support of its staff in Nigeria, the CORA project has not only put whistleblowing and whistleblower protection on the front burner of national conversation to make corruption history in Nigeria, but has also supported, and continues to support, whistleblowers facing retaliation and led the advocacy for a whistleblower protection law in Nigeria as enunciated in sub-regional and continental instruments.

Space will not permit one to get into details of what whistleblowers, particularly those in the public service, face daily. Some have lost their jobs, their homes, friends, and even their families. They go through psychological trauma and have to deal with long-drawn-out legal battles simply for doing the right thing; something the laws of the land encourage them to do and for which they ought to be praised.


Through the consistent support of the MacArthur Foundation and the guidance of its staff, AFRICMIL has been able to create a permanent structure, a “Whistleblower Hub,” to serve as a centre for whistleblowing and whistleblower protection in West Africa. This hub will collate and be a one-stop shop for issues concerning whistleblowing in the sub-region, a resource library containing materials on whistleblowing law and practice, as well as other resources on how whistleblowing acts as a democratic accountability mechanism.

Just like AFRICMIL, other MacArthur Foundation grantees have developed permanent structures which will position them to be more confident, focused, and re-dedicated to deepening their role as important non-state agents in the development of Nigeria.

For MacArthur Foundation, 30 years in Nigeria has paid off in a big way.

Onyeacholem is Programme Manager at the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL).


Views expressed by contributors are strictly personal and not of TheCable.
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