Toward Democratic Consolidation in Nigeria: The Role of Civil Society in Strengthening Popular ParticipationBy Benjamin Adeniran Aluko // Wednesday, December 21, 2016
On May 29, 1999, Nigeria, rejoined the group of nations under democratic rule, following the inauguration of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. The current democratic experiment in Nigeria was a product of both internal and external forces. The “third wave” of democratization began sweeping through the world in the 1990s, providing an example and expectation that change could come to Nigeria. That external pressure combined with internal forces, namely the poor material conditions experienced by the mass of the Nigerian people under military rule and the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election. These forces were leveraged by civil society organizations, through persistent struggles and mass popular mobilization, in a process that culminated in the nation’s return to democratic rule.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm that greeted the return to democratic rule and the level of citizen participation in the nation’s democratic process is progressively declining. The chief reason is the failure of the nation’s leadership to improve the material conditions of the people, the factor that played such a large part in the clamor for democratic rule in the country in the 1990s.
What distinguishes democracy from other governance models is that it is considered to be people-centric. As U.S. President Abraham Lincoln aptly defined it, democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Popular participation by the citizenry in the governance process is the hallmark of democratic rule. Thus, where popular participation in a democracy is ebbing, as it is in Nigeria, there is a need to strengthen citizen participation. This is where civil society organizations, which can promote group action, social solidarity, and the education and preparation necessary for citizens to participate in the political sphere, becomes relevant (see Neelmani Jaysawal, “Civil Society, Democratic Space and Social Work“).
In light of this, what specific actions can local and international civil society organizations do to generate the much-needed participation of the citizenry for the consolidation of the nation’s democratic process?
The Role of Civil Society in Rebuilding Popular Participation in Nigeria’s Democracy
First and foremost, civil society should conscientiously engage in holding state officials accountable. The Nigerian state’s lack of accountability is largely responsible for the failure of the government to perform its statutory obligations, which ultimately dampens popular enthusiasm for civic participation. This lack of accountability has given birth to monumental political corruption in the country. To quote Larry Diamond, “few developments are more destructive to the legitimacy of new democracies than blatant and pervasive political corruption” (Larry Diamond “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation”). Civil society, by monitoring government activities, can ensure that the resources of the state are deployed to promote citizens’ welfare. It can also provide the platform through which the citizens can demand accountability on how public resources are managed. Increased accountability will lead to improvements in governance, which will ultimately engender greater civic participation.
Moreover, civil society can advocate to the leadership of the Nigerian state and the general public the urgent need to separate the machinery of the state from that of the political party in power. Those elected to public offices often employ the resources of the state to fund their political party and campaigns. This undermines governance in the country and leads to corruption, and it also hinders internal democracy in the management of political parties. The lack of internal democracy in the affairs of political parties has become a major factor preventing more people from getting involved in the political process. Internal democracy within a political party engenders transparency in the selection of its candidates for representatives of the people, and promotes greater accountability in general.
Another way by which civil society may serve to strengthen political participation in Nigeria is by strategically addressing the problem of violence in the body politic. The violence associated with Nigerian politics is one reason many people who work in the professions and academia, who could have made tremendous contributions to the nation’s democracy, are disinterested in participation. Civil society, in this respect, has an explicit peacebuilding role to play. Addressing the problem of violence in Nigerian politics will lead to much more robust citizen participation.
Lastly, civil society can strengthen citizen participation in Nigeria’s democratic process by keeping a constant tab on the nation’s electoral system, with a view to improving its integrity. The character of a nation’s electoral system contributes to determining the health of its democracy. People are more willing to participate in politics when the electoral system is perceived to be transparent and credible. In Nigeria’s flawed electoral system, a candidate that did not win an election may occupy the office of, say, state governor for about three years in a four-year tenure. This happened in Osun State, when Olagunsoye Oyinlola was wrongfully declared the winner of the 2007 governorship election by the electoral body, only for the court to later invalidate his victory after he had almost completed a term. This is a tragedy for democracy, but it is not uncommon in Nigeria. Civil society organizations can insist that necessary reforms of the electoral process be instituted.
A vigorous civil society can facilitate the leadership accountability and responsiveness needed to gain citizens’ respect for and positive engagement with the state. (Diamond, page 11) The prospects for democratic consolidation in Nigeria rest squarely on this.
Benjamin Adeniran Aluko, Ph.D, is a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar at the Wilson Center from October to December 2016. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and an affiliate of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), a member organization of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding.
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