SHRINKING CIVIC SPACE AND NEED TO EXPLORE INNOVATION AS PANACEA

The Oasis Reporters

March 6, 2018

Green – White – Green symbolizes the flag of Nigeria.
By TONY ABOLO

 

The choice of the topic, though chosen a much longer time before today, can be said to be extremely prophetic, considering the precarious situation of Nigeria now. The situation of the South and Middle Belt especially under this Buhari Administration is best described as a state of mortal danger. Development and growth has stopped. We are now as a nation under existential threat. And so to talk of a shrinking CIVIC SPACE is not only the truth, but to speak more concertedly to our situation.

Again, the topic does honor to Rev. David Ugolor who is celebrating his birthday by enabling us to use his passion and life to examine our own lives and how we have and should participate in the processes of governance and directing public behavior and public policies. His life, has been that of ACTIVISM in the Civic Space in order to remove constraints, so that, we the people can enjoy God’s given undeniable gift of FREEDOM. And hence it is appropriate for David’s NGO to be called – AFRICA NETWORK FOR ENVIRONMENT AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE.

When, if we survive these trying times in Nigeria, in ten to twenty years time, when the names of those to be called African Freedom Fighters are reeled off, like Nelson Mandela, Ndabaningi Sithole, Jonas Savimbi, John Garang, Samora Machel, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ben Bella, the name, DAVID UGOLOR would be mentioned in the pantheon of African Freedom Fighters. All freedoms do not necessarily come by political struggles, mark you.

Speaking of names, and why we should interrogate more critically, our shrinking civic space, like we say in Africa, we should always remember where the rain began to beat us.
Do we remember such names as Fela Anikulapo Kuti?
Beko Ransome Kuti?
Bala Usman?
Mokogwu Okoye?
Gani Fawehinmi?

Do we have such persons anymore who strove to open the civic space? Have you then realized that with the demise of such persons, our civic space has shrunken miserably?
It is because such activists who dared past military authorities are no longer alive that today, our democratic space is under great threat. Had they been alive today, Nigeria’s corporate life may not have been so seized under the current Federal Administration, which is no more than a military regime, masquerading as a Democracy.
The fact that persons like Gani and Fela have left us, people who would have used both judicial activism and sheer social activism to confront authority, hence Olusegun Obasanjo’s letter to Buhari had such reverberating impact and resonated with all and sundry.
Had those who belong to the civil society movement been active enough and on active duty, Nigeria may not have been so traumatized. So what Obasanjo did was to cease the civic space. And so also, General IBB’s letter, as at yesterday. It is the absence of “We the people” to borrow from American constitutional and political expressions and philosophy, that have not been up and about to engender public participation in Governance and active engagement with those in authority and the political class at large, that must account for why we must come around to re-energize ourselves about the tasks ahead. Remember, like they say, historically, freedom is never given, as slaves have nothing to lose, but their chains. And so, all Activists of all hues and shades, now more than ever, this is the time to be at the ramparts.
To take a quote from Dr Olisa Agbakoba, a lawyer and an activist of yore in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph on January 7th 2018:
“At the end of the day, I must tell you that we, in the civil society are the ones who have failed the system. Even those of you in the Media are part of the problem, because you don’t play your roles. Yet we are the Fourth (Media) and Fifth (Civil Society) Estates. The First Estate is the Executive, Second Estate is the Legislature, the Third Estate is the Judiciary, Fourth Estate is the Media while the Fifth is the Civil Society. Both the Fourth and Fifth Estates have failed Nigeria”

Much as we idealise the now, we could ask fundamentally, was there ever such a large civic space even in the old traditional African societies? The African systems were by and large defined by orthodoxy. And hence any reformer or anybody with novel ideas seeking change, was by and large regarded as a “rebel”, a “radical”; someone who threatened the corporate life of the community and so, had to be ostracized since he or she was an aberrant or an irritant.
It is necessary for me to, in a flash, look at our cultural history. This is because, it is that same behaviour of our older societies that has been carried into our modern day African Societies. It has been further encrusted, through past and current military regimes in Africa.
Tell me where in Africa, there is the idealic democracy? Save for Ghana and to some extent, South Africa, everywhere else you have intolerant regimes. And at home, insensitivity and impunity is on the rise everyday.
Here in Nigeria, though all sorts of subterfuges, they seek either a bill or an executive order to wiretap Nigerians and oversee their social media contents or they raise bills in the House to regulate civil societies. So, civil societies at home, in Nigeria, have a huge task ahead as we are no longer talking about a shrinking civic space, but a collapsed roof over the civic space.
How then, going forward, can civic societies best meaningfully bring about changes in public policies, public processes, governance, accountability, public service delivery, fairness and just laws, popular participation on governance and meaningful lives – for those are the mandates of civil societies?
We can borrow a leaf from the efforts of the Nigeria Intervention Movement and the Coalition for a New Nigeria. These two bodies seek to mobilize the entire citizenry of Nigeria around a common purpose – to rescue a tottering nation and let Nigeria be a Nation where peace and Justice reigns; a Nation that delivers equitably for all.
Again to quote Olisa Agbakoba in that same interview “The National Intervention Movement (NIM) is determined to change the game. We need to fire up both the Fourth and Fifth Estates to do their job of keeping Government on its toes.”
“Nigerians have been asleep for too long and our job is to wake them up to the level where they will hold any Government accountable. It is a movement for Change”
Their model is popular participation and above all, volunteerism. Volunteerism has been lacking in Nigeria. Every one of us is laid back, expecting the other person to do something. In the end, only very few ever engage in the process of societal transformation. Change in any society is only possible through a critical mass of individuals. A civil society movement made up of a few persons can never drive a cause effectively. When civil societies mobilized against bills to monitor social media and against regulating CSOs, what happened?
That was Democracy in action. Democracy is in numbers. We have never risen enough and in large numbers as a people against unfairness, injustice and impunity in such a way as to break and bend the system. Complaining after Dinner or in front of the TV or at a Beer parlour will never bring the change. Civil societies must then begin to learn the art of community mobilization or what Americans describe as Community Organizers.
Education and wide scale information will then be necessary. Nigerians don’t as a people Read, Reflect deeply and think. And hence action is so limited. You hear ethnic voices and dissenting voices more because of ignorance. Take for example, how many of you in this hall know of a mini refinery located inside Ahmadu Bello University, sponsored by NNPC? How many of you know that NNPC has signed an agreement for 84 million litres a year for Biofuel utilizing sugarcane and cassava with Kebbi State Government. These are but snippets of what goes under the radar that people do not read, see or feel about public policies. How many more, do I or you not know? People can only act with sufficient information and valid statistical details.
So there is the need for a new model of social mobilization going forward. Sensitizations and more regular town hall meetings and pooling data for governments to act on verifiable information and opinions of the citizenry is going to be an urgent civil society undertaking in the mode of NOI Polls (the Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (NOI) POLLS).
Engaging the Governments is another challenge that requires reformatting. Many of those who get into government consider such positions as their comfort zones and remain distant, aloof and are more concerned about their systems of inputs and outputs and so regard public pressure as an irritation. When last did you hear or have you ever heard any Nigerian Government at any level, apologize for any wrong doing?
So how are we going to derive any significant changes from a very narcissistic political class, who live for themselves and not the people.
Whether you realize it or not, the Nigerian System as at now, is neither designed to make progress nor to deliver anything to the people. The Nigerian system is a Hocus Pocus. Ours is not an open society. No personality in government can stand any criticism of any kind. Hence liars and sycophants sit well with our political class. The old Oscar Wilde play title, then, is what I will recommend to the civil society – ‘SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER’.
In trying to engage the establishment, and in talking about the critical mass theory that is sore needed to bring about change, two core groups must be actively engaged and cultivated in a more frontal way – the Media and the Bar. And here we must recall Olisa Agbakoba”s earlier criticisms which we have quoted copiously.
The media has, by way of speaking, been often called by Nigerian Governments, “Partners in Progress”. But the real partners of the civil society is the Media. Because, as I had to say in my forthcoming book on Media and Development:
“The media has as its most important functions – (a) To make issues of public opinion and concerns, and convert them to public policies and social action, (b) To constantly make explicit what is implicit (c) To provide leading ideas by enabling society to think outside the box through the rigor of intellect (d) To make the public, aware of public discontents, fears, suspicions and anxieties and force government to rectify errors”.
I then went on to add that:
“Publicity, according to Montesquieu, is the cure for the abuse of power. In 17th century Europe, Enlightenment theorists argued that publicity and openness provided the best protection against tyranny, corruption and the excesses of arbitrary rule.”
So you can see that the civil society objectives are in tandem with the Social Responsibility Theory of the Media. So the media must be cultivated acutely and made as a social institution to function appropriately. We do not have a National Media, hence the drag; instead we have ethnically and regionally inclined Media. No doubt, a Nationally focused Media would have made the task of civil societies easier and it will spread information and knowledge of issues further and better and in the end, achieve a more active society and guaranteed Development impacts.
And still in my forthcoming book, while looking at innovation as a component of development, I said:
“The media through its contents and focus, should aim to address the essential issues of development, namely, human capital, and capacity building in every sector and in every institution. And where rights, especially justiciable rights are abridged, the media should seek to bring to notice, such deprivations, through informing, educating and advocacy in order to inspire all and sundry in the polity towards national goals, national benchmarks and national dreams and to urge for redress whenever the need arises”.
And it is here that the media and civil society and the Bar can be in sync to drive for judicial activism. This is where Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana and Osagie Obayuwana have excelled to make the LAW part of social justice, social activism and social engineering.
Then lastly, the issue of funding. The larger donors, if not the donors to civil societies have been outside of the country agencies. Now not only does it deactivate the citizenry but sometimes derails national ethos and objectives. If the civil society should entrench itself in its operational base, then the citizens should contribute and support whatever causes they believe in, through whichever civil society agency. This way, a critical mass of believers and support can be built and participatory democracy tendencies can be inculcated in the citizenry.
Local funding through local philanthropies and corporate organizations will be needed to build the synergy needed to make civil society home grown and flower popular participation and volunteerism. The pattern of today’s funding makes civil societies seem distant and elitist, whereas the causes they pursue are local and of immense benefit to governance and the populace.

And if I may borrow from one of the projects of ANEEJ – Publish What You Pay – we can call this NEW APPROACH – Pay For What Cause You Believe In. Ultimately, that may be the needed spring back of the collapsed roof and expand the Shrunken Civic Space.

Written by TONY ABOLO

He’s a former University Mass Communication lecturer, former BBC Correspondent in Brussels, African Service Producer at BBC, Bush House, London and a media consultant.

Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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