Civil Society and Nigeria’s Democratic Development – By Salihu Moh. Lukman


David G. Green, the head of Civitas – The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, British Think Tank in the book, Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics, made the point that ‘histories of welfare provision tend to equate the improvement of welfare services with the growth of government involvement. Over the years the welfare state filled the gaps supposedly left by the market. More careful examination of the evidence, however, shows that the reality was very different. People in need because of their inability to earn enough to support themselves, whether temporarily or permanently, were supported in a rich variety of ways. Family and neighbours played their part but because their help was informal and undocumented historians have tended to underestimate it. Charity was also important and it is often supposed that organised welfare before the welfare state was left to charities, but by far the most important organised method by which people met the needs of their fellows was mutual aid.’

What this mean is that levels of welfare of citizens is a product of combined initiatives of both government and non-governmental actors. In other words, people take care of one another voluntarily and reciprocally (mutual aid), which provide welfare support and improve general wellbeing of citizens. While it is easy to estimate governmental initiatives, services of non-governmental actors are most times undervalued, especially in less developed economies. These non-governmental actors are mainly referred to as civil society covering voluntary associations such as human right, faith-based, media, community-based, labour, professional bodies, women, youths, persons with disability and other forms of non-governmental associations. Considered as the “third sector” of society different from government and business, providing voluntary services, it is referred to as civil society. Its legitimacy is largely derived based on the knowledge, experience and expertise they mobilise, which implies that they have requisite skills to undertake initiatives in their chosen fields. This also suggest that they have the capacity to mobilise the needed resources, both financial, material and human for the execution of activities.

For African societies however, civil society organising is a very recent development largely because mutual aid was commonly abundant given the communal nature of our societies. Without necessarily going into sociological analysis, it is important to highlight that welfare provision in Africa is innately part of the orientation of our societies. But as African societies grew into modern nation states, the communal orientation of African societies started disappearing. Capacities of families, neighbours and old traditional institutions to participate in mutual aid activities lessen. With the growing supremacy of the role of governments and other modern institutions, new modern structures of voluntary initiatives emerged, which equates to what is regarded as civil society.

Part of the regulatory requirement is tht these new modern structures are expected to ensure that service delivery to citizens through voluntary work conform to minimum standards and comply with provisions of the law. Over the years, the debate has always been about whether regulatory requirements are going to be used by governments to trample on the rights of citizens to freely associate. It is crucial, however, to recognise that part of the context of the debate borders on the question of accountability in terms of the broader responsibility for these organisations to be answerable to citizens or groups that they serve.

In terms of therefore, the emergence of new modern structures of voluntary initiatives, a major characteristic is that although civil society organisations are expected to be mass (membership) based, increasingly, they have become small bureaucracies with hardly any requirement for recruitment of members. Depending on levels of compliance with legal provisions, being small bureaucracies, makes accountability largely notional. Considerably, this also weakens relationship with the people they seek to serve, which raises concern about impact of activities on the welfare of citizens. There are, of course, cases where activities of civil society are designed purely based on the availability of funding, often from foreign donors. Naturally, requirements to access donor funding, imposes its own accountability requirements. Consequently, while relationship between these organisations and people they seek to serve may be weak, relationship with donors tend to be strong.

With the expectation of being knowledgeable, civil society should also have clear vision of what is required to facilitate national development. Since democracy is the most important enabler of national development, combined with the expectation that civil society organisations, themselves anticipated to be membership organisations and therefore democratic, ideally, they should serve as models of representation, hence important promoters of democratic development. Their strength or otherwise is a critical determinant of how they can contribute to democratic development. This is partly because these are organisations that should have capacity for policy engagements through advocacy to influence governments’ choices as part of the broader strategy to improve the welfare of citizens.

Part of the reality in Nigeria is that weak institutional capacity of both government and the emerging structures of civil society have considerably made policy engagements very minimal. In so many ways, poor progress in managing relations between government and civil society in Nigeria has also produced a new reality whereby Nigerian civil society groups are increasingly being replaced by international non-governmental organisations. Unlike in the past where these international non-governmental organisations provide financial support to Nigerian organisations to implement activities, these international non-governmental organisations now setup structures in Nigeria, hire Nigerians, including leaders of civil society to run these offices and implement projects.

Largely oriented based on conditions determined by regulatory requirements of the countries where they originate, these international non-governmental organisations have become dominant players in the work of Nigerian civil society organisations. Although, the National Planning Commission (NPC) is statutorily required to serve as the regulatory agency for these international non-governmental organisations, in many respects, issues of institutional capacity of the NPC continue to undermine effectiveness of these organisations especially in terms of ensuring that high impact on the welfare needs of Nigerians is achieved.

Weak institutional capacity in terms of enforcing both organisational and activity standards also significantly contribute to changing the orientation of civil society in Nigeria. Part of the factors that have contributed to weakening institutional capacity of both regulatory structures of government as well as engagement between Nigerian government and civil society include experiences under repressive military regimes, which created compelling conditions for the focus on human rights and prodemocracy campaigns, especially following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election by the military government of former President Ibrahim Babangida. Most of the national civil society groups that led the campaigns for human rights and prodemocracy in the country, which helped to usher in the current Fourth Republic, although began as membership organisations, eventually became bureaucracies oriented around projects.

Sources of funding for the work of these organisations were largely from foreign donors. Local funding is hardly available. This made civil society organisations to be project oriented, governed by a board whose membership are small. Accountability gradually become limited to the boards and funding sources. Minimum engagement with government, which is needed to protect civil society organisation from government control makes demand by civil society for initiatives to negotiate any stronger relationship with Nigerian government very unattractive. This also legitimise the belief that any consideration of financial support from Nigerian government to civil society as very detrimental.

This is the negative orientation, which has continued to block debates in the country about considerations for improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society. Sadly, this negative orientation has pushed leaders of civil society in Nigeria to develop a mindset, which encourages them to positively relate with foreign organisations that are directly linked to governments in their countries but despise considering developing positive or structured relationship with Nigerian government. It is basically a belief that accept relationship with foreign governments as good but relationship with Nigerian government is bad.

Interestingly, however, individual leaders of civil society could have positive relations with functionaries of Nigerian government. If it is okay for individual leaders of civil society to have positive relations with functionaries of Nigerian government, why should civil society continue to resist negotiating improved relations with Nigerian government? If Nigerian civil society can accept funding from foreign governments, why should it be difficult for them to take steps to negotiate structured local funding, which may include contributions from Nigerian government?

The problem of poor relations between Nigerian government and civil society has produced combination of poor funding and very weak organisations of civil society in the country. In terms of poor funding, although, there are possibilities, which can include access to portions of corporate social responsibility funds provided by big corporations in the country, these are funds that are only made available to some few organisations that may have even been formed with the active support of government, whose mission may be anything but altruistic. Therefore, capacity or competence of the organisations that access some of the available local funding to deliver services may be questionable. Substantially, access to corporate social responsibility funds, could provide opportunity to create legitimate sources of financial support for the work of Nigerian civil society. At the moment, because access to these funds is based on discretionary decisions of the management of the organisations making the grant, misuse and mismanagement both by the provider and the recipient become the dominant feature.

With all our realities in Nigeria, the consequence is that there are no guaranteed local funding sources available to support the work of civil society organisations. Sadly, there is no campaign in the country to create domestic funding sources for the work of civil society. Somehow, the background of repressive military rule, which made campaigns for human rights and democracy to become the primary focus of the work of civil society, the negative mindset that translate to opposition to Nigerian government is deep-rooted among civil society leaders. Civil society leaders believe that opposition to government is a requirement for their work. On the other hand, government functionaries have contempt for civil society and their leaders.

It was, George Soros, in his book, The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror, who made the point that ‘Fallibility has a negative sound. Indeed, every advance we make in better understanding the relationship between thinking and reality has a negative connotation because it involves a retreat from perfection. But this negative interpretation is itself a manifestation of our fallibility. Recognising our fallibility has a positive aspect that ought to outweigh the loss of an illusory perfection. What is imperfect can be improved, and the improvement can manifest itself not only in our thinking but also in reality. If perfect understanding is beyond our reach, the room for improvement is infinite.’

It is true that relationship with government, especially when it come with access to funding has some risks. Part of the risk includes the loss of moral authority, which can make civil society vulnerable and susceptible to being controlled by government and political leaders. A major problem is when being independent from government is applied in a way that blocked relationship with Nigerian government but encourages relationship with foreign governments, which may have similar, or even worse risks that could be interpreted to project Nigerian civil society and their leaders as unpatriotic. Why should relationship with Nigerian government be considered bad, but relationship with foreign governments good? Most activists in civil society pretentiously overlooked this issue largely because good relationship with foreign governments enable them to access grants from organisations such as the UK Department for International Development (DFID), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), European Union (EU), etc. These are basically funding directly provided by governments of UK, US and countries under the European Union.

Why should Nigerian civil society resent financial support from Nigerian government but accept from UK, US and EU governments? Isn’t it possible to negotiate conditions that makes funding from Nigerian government acceptable? Part of the disadvantage of refusal to consider negotiating stronger relationship between Nigerian civil society organisations and Nigerian government is that work of these organisations are dictated by priorities set by foreign donor organisations. Whether funded activities of Nigerian civil society organisations accommodate the priority needs of Nigerians is entirely a different matter. The fact is, having stronger relationship with Nigerian government could require periodic agenda setting negotiations to determine both priority areas of work for Nigerian civil society as well as the volume of funding to be mobilised. Negotiating these issues may considerably contribute to influencing government’s policy choices. In addition to policy choices, stronger engagement between Nigerian government and civil society could also impact positively on the operational conduct of government, which may make government more disposed to engagement with Nigerians.

The reality is that inability to consider negotiating relationship between Nigerian civil society and Nigerian government is the manifestation of our fallibility. To begin to positively shift to ‘outweigh the loss of an illusory perfection’, will be to debate these issues. Negative mindset of completely projecting resentment to relating with Nigerian government condemn the country to below standards frameworks, with no hope of any improvement in site. The consequence is that although, there are some civil society organisations in the country that can access relatively large grants from foreign donors, the outlook of these organisations in terms of both organisational behaviour and service delivery to citizens are hardly any different from all the negative attributes associated with Nigerian government. There is the need to push Nigerian civil society organisations to change the orientation of operating with a mindset of being in opposition to Nigerian government. Initiating negotiation to develop a functional relationship with Nigerian government so that the imperfect framework, which undermine capacity to mobilise local resources can be improved.

Imagine a situation, whereby a national framework is instituted, which for instance make it possible for the pooling of a ratio of corporate social responsibility funds in the country to support the work of Nigerian civil society organisation. Such a framework should necessarily have both management framework and defined criteria for access. Also, think of the possibility that the management framework would have representative structures and some levels of democratic control, which could strengthen ownership by civil society. Development of a framework that can guarantee the independence of Nigerian civil society from interference by government while at the same time mobilising local funding is possible. Such funding could be further supported by government through appropriate annual provisions based on existing budgetary processes, which could be negotiated by the management framework.

A wide scope of possibility exists to negotiate improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society. The question is whether, as a nation, we want to open the debate beyond the narrow mindset that project Nigerian government as a bad partner to civil society, but foreign governments good partners. If democracy is about engagement, negotiation and agreement, why is it not important to consider expanding the scope of Nigerian democracy to prioritise negotiating better and stronger relationship between Nigerian government and civil society?

It was Civitas’ David Green, in the book We’re (Nearly) All Victims Now! How Political Correctness is Undermining our Liberal Culture, who made the point that ‘Victimhood as a political status is best understood as the outcome of a political strategy by some groups aimed at gaining preferential treatment. In free societies groups often organise to gain advantages for themselves, but the increase in the number and power of groups seeking politically‐mandated victimhood raises some deeper questions… Group victimhood is not compatible with our heritage of liberal democracy in three particular ways: it is inconsistent with the moral equality that underpins liberalism; it weakens our democratic culture; and it undermines legal equality.’

In many respects, the thesis of victimhood as a political strategy to attract patronage or preferential access to support by foreigners who have basically nothing to lose if Nigeria is bad is the dominant orientation of civil society in Nigeria. It could be debated if without the risk of losing anything, foreign support can come with any superior commitment to Nigeria’s democratic development. A rational assessment will suggest that commitment of foreign organisations and governments would need to be balanced with corresponding support to push Nigerian government to strengthen engagement with civil society.

To be fair to most of the foreign organisations and governments providing support to Nigerian civil society groups, there is evidence of support to government as well. Whether the support is balanced such that it is facilitating improved relationships between Nigerian government and civil society is completely a different matter. May be, as part of the strategic goal of pushing most of these foreign organisations and governments to support Nigerian civil society to overcome current victimhood mindset, an appeal needs to be made to these foreign organisations and governments to also ensure that support to both Nigerian government and civil society include initiatives to negotiate improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society.

Collaboration between government and civil society, if structured and organised and the independence of civil society groups are guaranteed, could facilitate strengthened engagement between Nigerian government and citizens and will be an important requirement for the development of Nigerian democracy. How can political initiatives to negotiate improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society organisation be introduced? As a party founded on the vision of change, there is no reason why APC should not prioritise development of initiatives towards improved relations with Nigerian civil society. Developing improved relations with Nigerian civil society should be part of the strategic goal of developing Nigeria’s democracy and ensuring that Nigerian politics is being refined and new democratic frontiers, which should promote engagement between Nigerian government and citizens are created. Inability to refine Nigerian politics and create new democratic frontiers would continue to legitimise the mindset of opposition to Nigerian government by civil society.

Political leaders in the country should be encouraged to develop a more positive disposition towards civil society in the country. To achieve that, the National Orientation Agency (NOA) should be able to provide leadership in initiating and implementing activities to facilitate negotiations for improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society. Part of the objective should also be to enhance processes of political leadership recruitment in the country, which are hardly planned and largely impulsive. This can be achieved if political political parties in Nigeria broaden membership mobilisation to include engagement with Nigerian civil society as a strategy for leadership recruitment?

Improved relationship between Nigerian government and civil society groups can be designed to reorient civil society to return to being membership based with high measure of democratic control by the members. Being democratically controlled by members should mean that activities of Nigerian civil society organisations accommodate the priority needs of Nigerians. This should translate to high impact on levels of welfare of citizens from activities of Nigerian civil society. Capacity for policy engagement will be high.

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum



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