Contributions of civil Society in Nigeria to present democratic dispensation, an overview

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The role of Civil Society groups in the development of the nation’s democracy since the return of democratic rule in 1999 came under close scrutiny recently at the second annual lecture of the Oba (Dr) Sikiru Kayode Adetona, (CFR), Professorial Chair in Governance at the Olabisi Onabanjo University held recently at Ijebu-Ode, with the chair-holder, Prof Ayodele Olukotun delivering a paper on ‘Civil Society and Governance in Nigeria’s Evolving Democracy, 1999-2018.’

Olukotun who x-rayed the activities of civil society in Nigeria leading to the return of democracy noted that the vibrancy that characterised the civil society in Nigeria shortly before the emergence of democracy in 1999 has been weakened by a plethora of vices including poverty, corruption, ethnicity, infiltration, partisan politics, influence of donors and career pursuits of main protagonists in that segment.

This is the stance of Prof Ayodele Olukotun, chair-holder of the Oba (Dr) Sikiru Kayode Adetona, (CFR), Professorial Chair in Governance of the Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, which he shared, while delivering the second annual lecture on ‘Civil Society and Governance in Nigeria’s Evolving Democracy, 1999-2018,’ at Ijebu-Ode.

Prof Olukotun in the paper decried a situation where most civil society groups, including NGOs are merely survivalist and in other cases one man driven, “Most civil society groups, NGOs inclusive are limited in capacity, funding and resource profile (human capital), and are in many cases one-man or one-family organizations, which spring to life when a new tranche of donor-funding is received.”

This peculiarity has reduced “real locus of civil society activism to spontaneous protest movements led by charismatic leaders, such as Tunde Bakare, Femi Falana, Wole Soyinka, Joe Oke-Odumakin, etc, some of whom are also active in the political arena.”

Speaking further at the event which was attended by government officials, frontline traditional rulers in the South West and some top players in industry and academic including the deputy governor of Ogun State, Mrs Yetunde Onanuga, Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, Alake of Egba Land, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, Oba of Lagos, Oba Rilwan Akiolu,

former governor of Ogun State, Aremo Segun Osoba, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, Publisher of Vanguard newspaper, Sam Amuka Pemu among many others, Olukotun reasoned that government, political power seekers and holders, have also connived to castrate the hitherto vibrant civil society segment with outright infiltration and poisoned carrots in the form of feigned activism and political positions.

He pointed out that the civil society is also a reflection of the larger society, which explains “the fact that it is all too often as factionalised as the political public sphere.

Ethnic and religious conflicts, partisanship, corruption, cooptation by state actors and the locational concentration of civil society activities in the South West are factors that come into play.”

This partly he added accounts for why each ethic segment now has a sociocultural group, to speak up for her people, though it might be at the detriment of the larger Nigerian society. He thinks that this is partly why ethnic sociocultural groups are gaining increased prominence lately.

“Indeed, the visibility of ethnic associations, such as Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndigbo and Arewa Consultative Forum suggests that a divided nation has merely reproduced a divided civil society.

For example, it is doubtful if the endorsement of President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term bid by the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for Good Governance and Democracy is representative enough of the opinion of civil society organisations across the country.”

Proliferation, lax-legislation, weak morals and lack of strong ideologies, policies or conviction are other factors that he said combine to weaken civil societies in Nigeria. These have made them susceptible to external ideologies, smart arguments and donors, locally and internationally.

Prof Olukotun states that “there has been a long argument about the ideological orientation and intellectual origins of both the concepts of civil society and governance, with radical scholars insisting that they partly represent the agenda of western donor countries and market-led economic activists intent on globalising neo-liberal economics.

“We do not need to be detained by these objections here, especially if we draw a distinction between the economic and political dimensions of the usage of the two concepts.

What is important is that they both emphasis non-state actors and their relationship to the state, which is deemed crucial for effective and efficient state structures, and that for our purpose civil society is considered flexibly to include not just formal NGOs but also social movements, ethnic associations, religious groups, and community based associations.”

Recounting that the success of the civil society under military regimes in Nigeria might have been traceable to adversity, or necessity being the mother of invention, he calls to mind the modus operandi and success of those years.

“Necessarily, because of the high tide of repression, several of these groups, including a section of the media, had to operate underground, devising hit and run tactics to evade censorship. This, of course, was truer of what has become known as the Guerilla Media than formal civil society institutions.”

He recalls with pleasure that, “the advocacy of those years culminated in what has been called the June 12 Movement, motley of civil society associations, labour, religious groups, students and other informal groups that arose to protest the annulment of the June 12 election by Ibrahim Babangida in 1993.”

He commended the few civil society groups that have shown doggedness, uprightness and principle through pro-people initiatives, researches and fights, and are making positive impact, although obviously less so than the heroic exertions during the military autocracy in 1980’s and 1990’s.

“A few NGOs, such as Action Aid Nigeria, linked to international organisations are well resourced and able to undertake research on social and economic issues as a form of evidence-based policy advocacy.”

Also in recent years, the Social Economic and Accountability Project founded in 2004 has been quite visible in public advocacy especially in the area of anti-corruption, he noted, adding that it succeeded in securing court judgment in respect of the stoppage of public officials earning double pay in the form of pensions, as well as being currently on the payroll.

“This has led to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, for example, forfeiting his pension from the Kwara State Government, where he was a governor.

Similarly, the NGO successfully obtained a court judgment in July 2017, compelling government to publish the names of alleged looters, as well as the amount recovered from them, a ruling to which government adhered eventually in late in March, 2018, although in haphazard and politically slanted manner.”

While calling for a reawakening of civil society activism, he notes that “one of the questions frequently asked in the wake of Nigeria’s transition to democracy is whether civil society has gone to sleep or has lost its brio and patriotic fervor demonstrated under the military.

The question assumes salience with respect to the incorporation of many civil society activists into functioning parties or governmental sinecures in some cases to shut their mouths or buy-off their activism.”

He however cautioned that, “we must not exaggerate the point, for, in a democracy or semi democracy, as ours is frequently called, the existence of representative institutions, such as the legislature, as well as the activities of political parties tend to take the shine off civil activism, which is now usually reserved for extreme circumstances.

“That said, it must be factored that democracy has not brought change to Nigeria, governance remains shallow, disconnected from the people, reprobate, cynically self-interested and is symptomised by sham elections in which people are voting without choosing,” he laments.

He further reasoned that the there is the challenge to sovereignty posed by the Boko Haram insurgency, whose defeat appears to be no more than a rhetorical claim; and the recent upsurge of atrocity killings by bandits believed to Fulani Herdsmen in several parts of Nigeria, arguing that “if there was a time when civil society should come into its own to ameliorate the crisis of governance, it must be now.”

He reminded activists and social crusaders to take their roles seriously, because “civil society is crucial to the establishment of good governance to the extent that it invokes state society relations, issues of legitimacy of the public realm, how policies are framed and implemented, as well as how consensus and consent are brought about.”

“My reason for focusing on civil society in this lecture is that, despite the fact that it mirrors state decay, it often provides a counter-narrative to the failure of the Nigerian state to operate a minimal social contract between it and the people.”

Giving kudos to the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba (Dr) Sikiru Kayode Adetona, CFR, donor of the chair, Prof Olutokun states: “As the Professorial Chair matures, it will come to be seen as one of the important legacies of His Imperial Majesty, Oba (Sir, Dr) Sikiru Adetona, the originator and driving spirit of the endowment.”

Speaking earlier, Chairman of Globacom Nigeria Limited, Chief Mike Adenuga, sponsor of this year’s lecture, noted that this year’s topic is aimed to set the tone for the 2019 general elections and help the people in the preparation for the election.
Adenuga who was represented by Folu Aderibigbe added that the lecture will contribute in no small measure in enhancing and enriching the political space.

Also speaking, the Ogun State governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, representaed by his deputy, Mrs Ononuga noted that the institution of the chair has helped in no small measure in promoting good governance as well as quality academic research in Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU).

Appealing to the Federal Government to do everything within its powers to end the incessant killings by herdsmen across the country, the sponsor of the Profesorial chair and Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona reasoned that if the government succeeds in building first class infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and the rest and the people who are to use them are killed, there will be no need for it.

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One of the questions frequently asked in the wake of Nigeria’s transition to democracy is whether civil society has gone to sleep or has lost its brio and patriotic fervor demonstrated under the military. The question assumes salience with respect to the incorporation of many civil society activists into functioning parties or governmental sinecures in some cases to shut their mouths or buy-off their activism.

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