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Nigeria’s inert civil society


When in 2014, avuncular Mr. Thabo Mbeki, a former President of South Africa, decried the effeminate condition of Nigeria’s civil society, neither he nor anyone could have imagined that the situation could get worse. Civil society in Nigeria, Mbeki had plaintively bemoaned, has become worrisomely tangential or irrelevant to the deep thrusts for the resolution of the country’s myriad of social, economic and political difficulties. Put plainly, Mbeki had expressed concern respecting civil society’s self-abnegation or self-denying trajectory.

A brilliant but ruminative study of the many struggles of Nigeria’s civil society culminating, in the main, in the present democratic dispensation is instructive of the single-minded pursuit of or the unyielding reverence for society’s ideals by the leaders of the platforms by which such numerous struggles for the achievement of cherished social goals or canon were pursued. Clear-headed, deep and communicative, many civil society organisations before, during and immediately after the June 12 imbroglio [or even up until the emergence of the present democratic experiment], were steeped or matrixed in the formal social, political, economic and juridical conditions of Nigeria.

Any special study of the times cannot fail to recognise the primal efforts of the civil society formations as a major critical achievement conducing to the opening up of the democratic space and eventual inauguration of the Fourth Republic. The notion of the civil society was grasped both in ideal and material terms; as it kept an abiding faith with the relationship or the necessary nexus as existed between its organic form and its thrusts or prognoses. Civil society’s response manifested a wounded outrage against the shibboleth and desultoriness of military mis-rule.

Today, however, that self-same civil society is a poor shadow of itself. Its formerly strident, shrill, cadenced and implacable message has been curiously silenced by political opportunism, bathos and downright shenanigan. Civil society leaders have lost their voice even to condemn open betrayal by government of the people’s expectations or of otherwise solemn promises made in the fierce stare of the public. Policy somersaults or the numerous 360 degrees freaky capriccios that have become the stained badge of a government that rode on the crest of a popular change mantra, have all gone unchallenged by an erstwhile combative civil society. As if deaf and dumb, Nigeria’s civil society has unwittingly closed shop. In some bizarre circumstances, she has become the un-official mouth-piece of the establishment – attempting to fine-tune the obvious twists and turns of a giddy administration or pleading for patience, understanding or pity for the self-distracted helmsmen.

How times have changed or how change has strangely altered the times!

It is particularly on this score that we need to make clear to ourselves the tragic consequences that naturally flow from a dearth or want of constructive criticism or of private dis-inclination to tow the general line or surf the surging waves. There is a requirement to set a greater premium on reasoned criticisms than on formal properties or excellencies; on hackneyed, trite or patronising encomiums. Whilst it is the natural predilection of power wielders to enjoy to be praised or adulated even over their inanities, it is the duty of a civil society that is alive to its responsibility or calling to properly evaluate events and affairs in its sphere and award marks. It is her bounden duty to fairly appraise situations and adjudge them right or wrong. A virile civil society is in a position to subvert our inclination to complacency or resignation. Our facile acceptance of our situation as it is shaped by our general limited imagination and the bogus or primitive self-interest of our leaders is rationally challenged by an enlightened or self-immolating civil society, properly so-called.

The inexplicable fuel supply crisis situation, the fake budget imbroglio, the unacceptable electricity supply conundrum, the Fulani herdsmen brigandage, the poor or failed performance of government regarding its expressed promises or manifesto, etc. are live matters which find their place at the very heart of Nigeria’s specific complex of historical and social engineering. But our civil society, confronted with a conflict of moral choices, has chosen to allow the man in it to die. Our earlier awakened consciousness has been allowed to go back to a snoring sleep. It is the case that a fine crop of the leadership of civil society has found a secure place in political preferment. Or, they are expectantly looking forward to being enlisted or called up. Or, maybe, they were just playing the trump cards of their masters even as they were deceptively clothed in the armour of a mobilised civil society.

Many civil society groups have been fashioned or floated with a view to massaging the egos of political office holders. Professional bodies hiding under the pretext of their presumed independence have curiously allowed their platforms to be used for political up-ism. It is now not unusual to find professional associations in the affray of political or sectarian jingoism. Awards for dubious excellent performances in office, for an un-intelligible “digital” office holder, for a curious Best Friend of Teachers, etc. are some of the pronounced anti-thesis or negation of the true independence of bodies established to pursue the values of our collective sense for safe landing and for the collateral achievement of a satisfactory standard of life for all classes of our people.

Our general patronising attitude towards public office-holders is suffocating of the requirement to keep a safe and dignified distance from the corridors of power and yet lead or promote decent lives or good living. The voice of change will not carry very far unless accompanied by a frank recognition of the seeds of our present political, economic and social malaise and a Spartan will to demur or disagree with attempts to make them germinate or fester wild as the unfortunate collapse or demise of civil society painfully portends.

A docile, fawning or sycophantic civil society is a damning reproach to the gains of our collective struggle for democracy and the pursuit of the common good.

• Rotimi-John, a lawyer and commentator on public affairs, wrote from Abuja vide

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