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How to live and act in a democracy

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They will be the ones on the drumbeat, on posters and on television, in rallies wearing polo shirts with hastily-formed acronyms. They will send their goons to harass people into voting their way, and wreak violence when they do not get their way.

2019 is two years away, but it may as well be already here. The political conversation is once again enmeshed in the same arguments and counterarguments for and against one party or another. Even the list of possible candidates has not changed. In all this, the task of our civil society and media is struggling to help orient the country to a more useful political conversation that may seek to ask tougher questions of the pretenders to the Presidential throne. Why is that?

Perhaps, the answer lies in the way our civil society organizations have evolved.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who was active in the National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) in the 1970s, when the National council was at the peak of its political organizing powers. Holding no public political leanings, these women were organized, with structures extending from local to national level. With such organization, no one ever acted unilaterally; all action was agreed upon by broad consensus. Such a huge national-level bureaucracy could be slow at times, and other organizations like Women in Nigeria – led by some now-familiar names like Mairo Mandara and Labaran Maku – were nimbler. Still, the NCWS was the biggest, and was able to secure international development funding for awareness-raising projects and to record wins at community level; from helping abused women successfully get justice, to building schools, and providing loans to women for their businesses.

This was all during the military era, and the authoritarian governments had no need for votes, so the women could form their organization and keep it largely out of the reach of political actors. So, these women could keep their internal democracy because, who had any use for persuading anyone of anything? Even when Maryam Babangida worked with them on empowerment projects and raised questions of ethnic marginalization because of the make-up of the program’s beneficiaries, they still largely managed to retain their independence and credibility among their members. In other words, even though it posed grave problems and meant constant fastidiousness at all levels, our not having a democracy helped train collective eyes on the organization’s goal and keep their priorities in line.

Then something interesting happened.

With 1999 came the advent of democracy, and suddenly having the ability to organize thousands of women became a huge asset. A lot of attention is understandably paid to the question of how government’s behaviour has changed over time, but how does civil society tasked with checking government’s excesses, negotiate an active role in a democratic transition while not losing their soul? The green uniforms gave way. Money started to exchange hands. Some state chapter leaders would, against custom, come out in full support of one politician or another. Soon, the credibility of the NCWS would corrode at the national level, albeit with some of its state-level chapters stronger than others.

The story of the evolution of NCWS is not particular to them, or even to women-focused organisations. Our print media is a shadow of its former self. Nigerian student associations in universities have also largely lost their spark. As the Nigerian public space increasingly became a youth-driven networked space with the advent of social media, it too was discovered by money, and its atmosphere embittered. With the ground being readied for the upcoming 2019 elections, this will only become worse in the months to come, and largely because we do not seem to have learned from the challenges all these other organizations have faced.

As our political leadership evolved from green military uniform to white kaftans, we seem to have trouble seeing them for what they are. The distinction is only ever felt strongly enough during election time, but around the time when it’s too late. They will be the ones on the drumbeat, on posters and on television, in rallies wearing polo shirts with hastily-formed acronyms. They will send their goons to harass people into voting their way, and wreak violence when they do not get their way.

Here, I have to be honest. I do not see an end to this, because I do not see an end to the government patronage and the value system that makes this great weakening of our civic space in this democracy possible. For our systems of checks and balances to work, our government must actually be interested in engagement. Our institutions must work for our collective good. Barring that, we would have to find a group amongst us for whom the draw of money and connections does not blind them to right and wrong.

One of these will have to happen, I am just not sure which is more possible.



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