FEATURE ARTICLE

Augustine C. OhanweFriday, September 1, 2006
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THE NEED FOR A STRONG CIVIL SOCIETY IN NIGERIA


he civil society organisations being discussed here are myriad of voluntary, self-generating, independent civil organisations that use peaceful means to launch their disagreement against obnoxious domestic or foreign policies that are detrimental to the ruled or a policy which tarnishes the image of the nation. The type of civil society that should act as a watchdog or a buffer between the rulers and the ruled. They should observe how state civil servants use their powers and raise public awareness about arbitrary use of such powers, corrupt practices and exert pressure for good government.


It was the civil society that reversed the US foreign policy in Vietnam in the 1970s, culminating in the American troops being brought back home. It was also the civil society that launched the political space that quickened the speed of perestroika in Russia in 1991. A change that further inspired East European states to follow suit resulting in what came to be known as "velvet revolution". Czechoslavakia is an example of a country in eastern europe where civil society helped the government to follow the path of peaceful dialogue to resolve the thorny issue of dichotomy that bedevilled their country's two ethnic groups, resulting in each group attaining its nationhood without drawing the battle line.

Georgia's civil society rode under the unified front of "rose revolution" to chart a new political compass for their nation, when it was teetering on the brink. Wielding the rose as a symbol of non-violence they were able to salvage their country and put it back on track. Later, the same method reincarnated in Ukraine where it found a replay under the banner of "orange revolution". Allegations of mass corruption, voters' intimidation and direct electoral frauds were registered to the Court by that country's civil society; praying it to nullify the result of the election in order to avert a civil war and disintegration. Their request resulted in the annulment of the original run-off and a 2nd run-off election ordered by the Ukraine's Supreme Court.

Having gleaned some vital lessons from the activities of civil societies in other parts of the world, this writer asks whether civil society organisations are operational in African in general and Nigeria in particular? I would state that it is non-existence in some states and weak in others.

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Years ago Francisco Macias Nguema did not permit civil society to operate in Equatorial Guinea. He was anti-intellectual, anti-catholic and anti-divergent views. Under his regime, the tendrils of civil society were not allowed to pierce through the his country's political soil. To guide against its germination, he put three repressive mechanisms in place: The notorious Youth Militia; the National Workers' Party and the Esangui Clan of Rio Muni where he was born. Dissenting voices were starved to death in narrow cells. Pervading fear compelled one-third of the population of his people to flee the country.

In Central African Republic, Jean-Bede Bokossa ruled his people by decrees. He made arbitrary laws without any sort of legislative process or discussions. Civil society only existed in the minds of his citizen. He spent $20m from the state treasury for his own coronation as "Emperor" while over 70% of his people wallowed in abject poverty. Citizens who questioned the raison d' etre for his use of state money for such an extravagant venture were jailed or murdered.

He imposed compulsory school uniform in all schools in his state. Poor parents found it expensive and unaffordable to execute. His reaction to demonstration against that decree was unimaginable. School children were used as a proxy for civil society in registering opposition to his decree on school uniform. This strategy was a calculated attempt to evoke symparthy for the children and their poor parents and to compel him to reverse his policy. Instead of the expected result, the opposite occurred. Over 100 of the children were killed and thousands arrested. He showed no remorse for his deed.

Dictators do not provide negotiation forum where heated political issues could be ventilated. Such political climate has dwarfed the active participation of civil society in Africa and elsewhere. Siad Barre of Somalia was not an exception in this respect. Inspired by Ataturk of Turkey, he vowed to do away with all the Islamic values that constituted the bedrock of his country's culture. He arbitrarily abolished Islamic dress; instituted gender equality, abolished polygamy and Arabic alphabets and substituted them with Roman alphabets. Intellectuals, conservative religious leaders and Ulamas who demonstrated against his abolition of their cherished local and traditional values were arrested, tried by his mobile court called Maxkamad Wareega and executed. His regime provided inhospitable climate for civil society to operate.

In Liberia under Samuel Doe, civil society had no seat to sit. He promulgated the infamous Decree Number 12 that barred labour unions and students from strikes and demonstrations. Thousands of students from the University of Liberia who tested his resolve by staging a peaceful demonstration against his draconian decree were slained. Only a few of them managed to escape. Press under his regime were gagged.

His predecessor William Tubman was not better either with respect to the flourishing of civill society organisations. Many downtrodden Liberians and those under the yoke of oppressive political injustices who expressed their frustration and anger via peaceful demonstrations were categorized as dissents and were banished to Bela Yela Correction Centre where they were corrected out of existence. In Idi Amin's Uganda, freedom of any association was as rare as hens's teeth

In countries under dictatorship or those under "managed democracy" prison yards are often expanded to accommodate members of civil society and in some cases, they are phyisically eliminated by the ruling dictators. The vortex of their calculation in extinguishing members of civil society organisations rests on the premise that they constitute "an opposition party" with dangerous divergent views. Such views, in their political calculations constitute threats to their regimes. In a dictatorial political landscape, "opposition parties" are viewed as strange bedfellows. Such a definition, places civil society in a murky terrain, making it difficult for them to navigate. Their emasculation or repression tends to drive civil society underground where they smoulder beneath the political surface.

Post-apartheid South Africa deserves a pat on the back. Their civil society could air their various views to their government without being shot at or put in jail. In many cases, pressures from the civil society organisations had yielded dividends. Their actions have proved to be a catalyst in facilitating the implementations of forgotten agenda or those in the pending trays which affect the future well-being of the downtrodden. In so doing their civil society have helped to elevate perceived important issues which the government has relegated as a back burner to a front burner issue.

What about Nigeria? Nigeria's political terrain under various military regimes did not provide conducive climate for any form of civil society. Past military regimes were more of gulags for the media, intellectuals offering constructive criticisms as well civil or social organisations. In the Fourth Republic the press is the most active in its role as a constructive partner and advocate for democray. The nation's press has raised public concerns about abuse of power and has put pressures on the government to allow corrupt officials to dance naked in the public.

The Nigerian Labour Union under Adams Oshiomhole has proved to be the best in the entire world. He withstood the government "big stick and small carrot". He made the central government to be responsive to the the wishes of the people thereby strengthening democratic ideals. Under his leadership, the Nigerian Labour Union has proved to be an effective buffer between what I might call irresponsible government policies that suffocate national growth, add extra injury to the growing pains of the poor or policies that trample on the legitimate rights of Nigerians.

Having stated the above, an important challenge for the nation's civil society organisation is the forthcoming election slated for 2007. Assuming that the election will be held, and that no military coup will take place, civil society organisations are expected to play vital roles before and during the forthcoming elections. They should monitor the various political parties' campaign strategies and inform Nigerians whether such campaign methods tally with civilized norms and also to deploy neutral monitors at all established polling stations to make sure that every aspect of voting is entirely free, fair and transparent.

In sum, civil society organisations in Nigeria need proper coodination and focus in matters of great public concern, particularly access to information instead of peddling on rumours and hearsay. Access to information is operational in any democratic dispensation under the freedom of information laws. It should also make itself free from any political party or external manipulations for actions that offer no dividends to Nigerians.