Five Things Nigerian Civil Society Needs to Know
By Dr Doyin Abiola (Sunday,August 5, 2007)
“Nigeria has lost billions of dollars in oil revenue. We have lost the ability to light our homes, our streets and our industries. We have bred several generations of young people who believe that violence is the only answer. We have earned the distinction of becoming a centre for terrorism. All of these have happened because we did not see when we should have seen, we did not hear when we should have listened and we did not speak out when we should have spoken out.” Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi’s comments on the Niger Delta Crisis.
The ‘we’ in the above quotation refers to the civil society, which encompasses all and sundry (i.e. activists, the professionals, writers, journalists, market women, artisans, homemakers, everybody outside/inside government, students, parents et cetera). But our focus, for the thrust of this article, will exclude those in government for clarity of purpose.
Often, members of the civil society do not appreciate the fact that they are indeed part of the Nigerian problem with the logical sequence of being part of the solution. But times are changing, especially with the youths who are clamouring for change either by speaking out or ‘doing something(s)’ to improve the Nigerian situation. Like their ‘You Tube’ counterparts in developed countries, they are beginning to assert their will on the society, and their parents, in particular.
An interesting encounter with a budding group, named ‘Do Sumthing’ reignited faith in the potency of civil society, especially the youth segment that has been projected demographically to become a dominant and vital group within the next five years. So they do matter in the Nigerian scheme of things. The ‘Do Sumthing’ has already made a good start by canvassing the need for a discerning youth involvement in societal development as a smart idea. It propagates such involvement as a self-serving, win-win investment in the future. This is a good start, but only a start. What should be a more comprehensive and supplementary civil society larger commitment to good governance?
Let’s examine other ways through which the civil society could effectively be engaged in the Nigerian Project. First, it should take a cue from the youth’s standpoint that getting involved is a smart idea and could be a potent catalyst in the development curve. But to be effective, the civil society must transform latent opposition to effective pressure for reform. This is a difficult goal to achieve as pressure for public good is often seen as ‘everybody’s business,’ translating to ‘nobody’s business.’ What is more, civil society tends to allow procedural process disagreements to divide and dissipate their reformist agenda. Such disagreements tend to give government a weapon for the usual tactics of divide and rule.
A civil society procedural and standard charter can provide the basics that all the civil society components can rally around without conceding leadership to any group in particular. There is always strength in number as shown by the amorphous groups picketing the G8 meetings and the annual economic summit in Davos. They may be tear-gassed, but they cannot be ignored. Civil society outcries have led to policy and regime changes in developed economies. No government can ignore public protests in the IT age with images of protest speedily beamed all over the world in a matter of minutes.
Second, civil society pressure at present is for things that just do not matter very much to the general populace. Take for example the protest against fuel price hikes which is a peripheral issue in the oil resource management and budget transparency. What seems more relevant is pressure on the need for simple guidelines, a kind of charter to be formulated and adopted by all parties seeking to govern, on how to manage oil resource revenues such as savings in the boom periods to accumulate financial assets for future busts and generations. Once adopted, it will be politically troublesome for any incoming government to abandon them without risking exposure as having ulterior motives and seen as unfit to govern. Likewise, the civil society must be in the vanguard of promoting democracy, not just a periodic event of voting, but as a process of checks and balances.
This leads to the third step of civil society involvement in the evolution and adherence to the rules of democratic checks and balances. In the last election, one of the contesting Presidential candidates promised to write an expose on how the outgoing government systematically undermine each check and balance that restrained it; namely the legislature, the judiciary and the media. The various levels of restraint reflected its view of the potency of each segmental check and balance. From the would-be author, it is not just fascinating to see a system of bad governance on display; it also tells him what is really important in the fight against it. Where the outgoing government put most restraint is probably where the civil society should be most vigilant. In the media case, most restraint was put on the electronic media for its immediacy and audio and video mixed reach. Interestingly, only the BBC in Hausa mattered because of its international and strong band reach to rural Nigeria. Newspapers came in third for various reasons, i.e. limited circulation, diminishing authority as an effective medium of mass communication, and dwindling revenues with attendant administrative problems.
Beyond the media is the issue of campaign funding. In Nigeria, to get elected into the legislative house costs millions of naira, not to mention the presidency, and to raise such funds candidates either have to acquire ‘god fathers’ to bank roll the expenditures, sell their assets, borrow or beg with inevitable repercussions. If they win, they only have four years to recoup their investments. Little wonder there is so much corruption in politics. The civil society must canvass for a more moderate and transparent campaign funding system which should involve the deductive contributions of workers to parties of their choice. This is not a very ambitious solution, but it would set in motion the much needed campaign funding reform.
Fourth, the civil society must buy into the Freedom of Information Act, not as a license for the ‘suspect media’ but as a necessary tool for transparency in governance. All payments of oil revenue to the federal government must be made accessible in the same spirit of Extractive Industries Transparency and its precursor, the Publish What You Pay campaign. Without such transparency in revenue transactional intakes, there cannot be effective monitoring of revenue expenditures. In turn, there should be publications of the revenue allocations to all levels of government as initiated by the former finance minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This will encourage scrutiny from the bottom up to supplement the peer review of NEPAD whereby African countries volunteer for self evaluation by their NEPAD member peers.
And fifthly, reformers in government must be encouraged and supported for making the efforts to reform policies and systems. They are civil society’s ally in government who should lend their expertise and knowledge to the former for better understanding of the workings of government to be able to make informed inputs to good governance. Most times, government, and rightly so, dismisses the civil society as a bunch of self seekers lacking in knowledge of issues they are agitating about. The civil society stands a better chance of being listened to if perceived as more driven by logic than emotions.
Originally appeared in Punch.