Monday, August 8, 2011

Civil Society and Democratic Consolidation in Nigeria

Nigerian civil society organisations have come a long way in the democratisation project of the country. If we take civil society as the Third Sector defined as constituted by all those organisations that are not-for-profit and non-government, together with the activities of volunteering and giving which sustain them, then community based organisations such as town unions, faith based organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations like the Campaign for Democracy (CD), Civil Liberties Organisations, (CLO), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) as well as professional associations such as Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) will all qualify to be member of the civil society constituency.

Civil society organisations have played vital roles in the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria. Some of the ways they have done that include: Fight for return to democracy - Many of these groups like CD, CDD, CDHR and CLO were instrumental in the restoration of civil rule. It would be recalled that between 1993 and 1999, in collaboration with the Nigeria Labour Congress which is another civil society organisation, these groups fought the Nigerian military to a standstill. They mobilised students and workers for civil disobedience, strikes and protest marches across the country. Many in their ranks were killed and maimed while some lucky few were able to make good their escape into exile.

CSOs working in the area of democracy and governance (D&G) have also been able to access funds from many donor agencies to execute diverse programmes such as voter education, election observation, campaign finance monitoring, election tribunal monitoring, electoral reform advocacy, conflict mitigation, access to justice, public interest litigation, budget tracking, constituency outreaches as well as research and documentation in thematic areas of democracy and governance. These initiatives have made a lot of impact in the consolidation of democracy as reports of activities carried out by CSOs have become the barometer through which international organisations and governments assess the democratic temperature of the country. Since these CSOs are presumed non-partisan and non-governmental, their opinions are regarded as objective and fair. This, in reality, is not necessary so.

CSOs also serve as vanguards against democratic threats and whistleblowers. For instance, when ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration attempted to tinker with the Nigerian constitution (2005-2006) to insert a tenure elongation clause, that evil plot was primarily shot down by the parliamentarians with pressure from the civil rights groups. CSOs also rose to the occasion to demand for the recognition of the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as the Acting President when late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was indisposed and was away to Saudi Arabia on medical tourism between November 2009 and March 2010. Civil rights organisations such as the Save Nigeria Group and Enough is Enough Group actually seized the initiative, mobilised and marched on the National Assembly to demand for a resolution that will give due recognition to vice president as acting president. This led to the adoption of the now popular ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ by the National Assembly in March 2010 or thereabout. The recently passed Freedom of Information Act would have been a mirage but for an NGO called Media Rights Agenda which alongside other partner organisations sponsored a private member bill on the issue at the National Assembly.

Some of the unforgettable efforts of the CSOs in the consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy were the unflinching support they gave to the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) inaugurated on August 28, 2007 by late President Yar’Adua. CSOs submitted tonnes of memoranda to the ERC offering suggestions on how Nigeria can break the chain of her electoral debacle. Indeed, significant number of the 22 member ERC was drawn from the civil society. They helped in analysing the challenges of Nigeria’s previous elections as well as charted the way forward. During the constitutional and electoral reform public hearings, CSOs were there in good numbers to present memoranda. This led to a better legal framework for elections that Nigeria currently has.

Again, during the preparations for the widely acclaimed 2011 elections, CSOs played a prominent role in ensuring that the elections were credible. First, they embarked on vigorous voter education using both the traditional and social media for their campaigns. Some other CSOs deployed thousands of observers to follow through and report on the electoral process. Some members of the civil society have also shed the toga of being armchair critics by joining the political fray to contest elections. Among them were Hon. Abdul Oroh, Hon. Uche Onyeogocha (both MHR 2003 - 2007), Hon. (Ambassador) Nkoyo Toyo (MHR 2011 – 2015). Others include former labour leader now Governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomole and incumbent Governor of Ekiti State Dr Kayode Fayemi who was pioneer Country Director of CDD. Many other members of the civil rights groups have also been appointed into board positions or as ministers and commissioners. In their own little way they have, as individual, been able to assist with the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.

In spite of the giant strides of CSOs in the democratisation of Nigeria, the third sector has its own share of troubles. These ranged from accusation of corruption by some of the donor agencies as well as inadequate capacity or technical expertise. There is also the challenge of dwindling donor fund especially in the area of democracy and governance. These have led to high mortality of the NGOs as well as incredibly high turn-over of staffs. Whichever way one looks at it, CSOs have played critical role in the restoration and defence of democracy in Nigeria. These they have done at a great cost to selves and organisations.