Democracy lovers worldwide are fascinated by the news coming from Ekiti State and the judicial action that restored Dr John Olukayode Fayemi as the new Executive governor. This is a victory of the power of the silent majority against the predatory political class. “We the people” have spoken again.
We must commend and celebrate the courageous role that the judiciary played as a dependable island of integrity and the last hope of the common man. We must applaud the core role of civil society groups who provided the raw material that was turned to a finished product by the judiciary. Civil society remains the only segment of the Nigerian society that still possesses that declining quality of good conscience. In “modern day Nigeria,” these values are fast eroding, as centrifugal forces of religious fundamentalism; tribal hegemony and political parasitism continue to threaten competence and transformational leadership in our national life.
Governor Fayemi cut his teeth first as a right cum development activist and founder of Center for Democracy and Development (CDD). He is a well respected and admired member of the civil society community from where he threw his hat into gubernatorial politics. When it was time for the re-run in Ekiti State therefore, civil society activists all over the country literally relocated to Ekiti. Their presence as election observers in polling booths became the “game changer.”
It was difficult for the other side to steal the votes of citizens before these “invasive trouble makers.” The end product is what we today celebrate. This is not the first time that civil society groups in an implicit alliance with the judiciary have dethroned the will of the few to enthrone the popular wish of the majority. We cannot forget the case of Edo state or even Rivers State. We must therefore pause and identity this symbolism pregnant with significance.
Scaling up civil society impact
Until some time in the 1990s, civil society groups occupied a very tiny spot in the global policy. But these days, it is impossible to have a conversation about politics or public policy without mentioning the words ‘civil society.’ The words ‘civil society’ conjure different things to different people. Some say it is a part of society. Others say it is a kind of society. Others have hidden under it to carry out acts that are increasingly “uncivil.” Conceptual consensus therefore remains a pipe dream as prominent scholars like Micheal Edwards propose that a fog is threatening to envelope this terminology. This fog never beclouds civil society’s relevance anywhere, anyhow.
While many suggest that anyone who is involved in any form of associational life that is “civil” qualifies to appropriate this space, others conclude that non-governmental organizations have a monopoly of this arena. A few others resist any form of association with that world of “trouble makers” and regard them intruders in the governance space. Regardless of where you belong in this debate, you can neither deny the relevance of civil society in development and public policy, nor wish away its dynamism, complexity and heterogeneity.
How can we tap into this ever vibrant arena? How can we amplify this power and convert it to democratic advantage as was done in Ekiti recently? The answers to these lead to credible elections and sanity of our democratic space.
Democracy is about numbers. One route towards scaling up the influence of civil society will be to deepen our collective understanding of the concept. Who are the current occupants of this arena in Nigeria? Are they sufficient (in numbers) to galvanize the level of civic action, contagious enough to infect the Ekiti model across the country? Is it not time to broaden this arena to welcome new but relevant actors?
For so long, the civil society arena has been appropriated by non-governmental and not-for- profit organizations. While these are legitimate occupants of this arena, it will be more tactical to admit other groups into this space in order to form a formidable coalition for change and democratic relevance. One cross cutting feature may be that of civility. This can be a positive binding force and an umbrella under which civil society can assemble. Any person or group of persons who associate for things that are “civil” can be said to constitute civil society. Anyone associated with any activity classified as “uncivil” can neither be admitted into the civil arena nor appropriate the words civil society. Whether they are governmental, non-governmental or quasi- governmental, any entity within the civil society must profess “civil” values and hold them sacrosanct. Civil society actors must also as a necessity insist on distinct code of conduct for association and lawful expression. It can no longer be an all comer’s affairs.
The above hypothesis can form a preliminary basis for expansion of the civil society arena to include women groups, youth groups, professional associations, religious associations, community based associations, social clubs, individuals, foundations etc. All can be said to be part of civil society whether they meet virtually or physically.
The information age has made it possible for individuals or groups to collaborate in catalyzing change even when they may not be physically present with one another. The volume of suggestions and discussions online constitute an important resource that can energize civil society space and democracy. Religious organizations command a sizeable population of potential voters that can be quickly converted to a democratic resource. A lot can happen when these change voices are amplified through creative alliances in a religiously diverse country like Nigeria.
Civil society can be used to rally around many non state actors and provide democratic velocity beyond monitoring of elections. At a time like this when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is in the midst of time constraints in the conduct of 2011, civil society can offer helping hands in numerous ways.
Many success stories
The lessons of Ekiti are here with us. Civil society groups in alliance with the judiciary are becoming important apostles for change. It took a marriage of prominent civil society minds in the Save Nigeria Group to spread the fragrance of freedom that emancipated Nigeria from the shackles of oppression. Who else could have foiled the coup of those disgruntled and selfish political viruses that constituted themselves to a cabal and attempted to hold Nigeria to ransom while our late former President was sick abroad? What about the infamous tenure elongation campaign that former President Obasanjo and his apologists thought was the best way for Nigeria? How can we forget that whatever we see today as electoral reforms is a product of a vigilant and insistent civil society who demanded the implementation of recommendations of the Electoral reform panel?
The democracy we enjoy today is as a result of the price paid by civil society. Non state actors can and will be able to do more: especially in areas like the Niger Delta where there has been insufficient “civil” progress. Many have attributed these failures to an infiltration of genuine “civil” struggle in the delta by an amorphous mass of cacophonous voices with mundane intensions masquerading as civil society, contaminating the arena with faulty and fragmented strategies that utilized predominantly “uncivil” approaches often to selfish ends. Genuine civil society mobilization remains the pathway for sustainable progress in the Niger Delta especially in the area of good governance at the state level.
Where do we go from here?
A culture of naivety, in my view, had infected the Nigerian civil society. It is the “do-gooder syndrome” and the us-and-them dichotomy. Many activists see themselves as do-gooders in the society who can only sit on the sidelines and criticize policies and polities. They have remained in that spot long after that approach has become outdated and anachronistic. This has robbed the Nigerian political space of many capable people who are reservoirs of sound policy intelligence that could re-position government but who deliberately embraced political anomie absent mindedness.
Granted, over-dependence of donors by civil society has often distorted civil society priorities. However, Ekiti and Edo have proven that organized civil society can wrestle leadership for the sake of the oppressed and the marginalized. Many spots in the Nigerian political space are currently been infested by elite- inflicted governance decay, infrastructural deficit, corruption, mindless profligacy and palpable poverty. Intruders parading our governance space cannot vacate willingly. They will attempt to manipulate elections with resources siphoned from the public purse. Organized civil society must resist them this time around.
A transparent political space as promised by the President and a vibrant and mobilized civil society is all that the people need. The power to make it happen lies within. Nigerian civil society Arise!
By Uche Igwe
Uche Igwe is an Africa Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Visiting Scholar at the Africa Studies Program, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University.
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