By Onuwa Lucky Joseph
Civil society is about the higher way, and so it’s largely about pressure, on government mostly, but also on citizens to do those things that conduce to ensuring a better country. The concept has had a long and, if you like, chequered history, of noble intentions and the cleverly cloaked not so noble. But it’s always about people coming together with an idea of the ideal and putting government and corporates on their toes to make that ideal become the real.
The West has been well watered by ideas from civil society and the philosophies that spawned them. The spread of democracy worldwide, rather than dampen enthusiasm for vigilance has rather enhanced the fulcrum to ensure that power is not amassed in the hands of the few whether they be ‘elected’ or not. Civil society also works hard to make sure the election process is not so compromised that those who make it aboard the hallways of power are not the people’s true choice. It is the case that when such ‘elected’ people come in they make it their major mandate to stifle free speech and free association and other duly considered provisions in the constitution that demands accountability to the people.
Civil societies do not thrive under dictatorial regimes as existed in the former Soviet Union, for instance, and other communist countries. Military governments, likewise, used to dishing out orders that must be obeyed, do not like the meddlesomeness of civil society which at every opportunity questions the legitimacy, in the first place, of the military regime. However, there will always be dissidents, people like Andrei Sakharov, whose desire for something better for his countrymen and women predated glasnost and perestroika and the eventual democratization of the erstwhile Soviet political space.
And this is precisely why governments, especially repressive ones, are afraid of civil society. Their ideas, sometimes ahead of the times, are also sometimes in lockstep with the times. One thing not in doubt is that these ideas are usually incompatible with the idea of concentration of power in a few hands. They are, rather, along the subversive lines that elevate devolution as the cornerstone of democracy.
Jittery governments worldwide are known to routinely serve the legitimacy test on civil society organisations: On what basis is your power founded? How are you funded? Who elected you an umpire? Why are you channeling narrow interests that are against the national interests as determined by the elected representatives of the people? Wouldn’t we be right to say you are sponsored by foreign agents to destabilize the peace and prosperity of our nation? On and on and on the questions go; and usually, especially in Africa, these CSOs tend to fizzle and fade due to the fatal combination of lack or insufficient financial support, or compromise by some human components of civil society, and government harassment.
It is painful to observe that almost every CSO in Africa relies heavily, most times, solely, on financial support from the West. Raising funds from local sources is like trying to prise water out of stone. And while some CSO principals are indeed the actual drivers of the ideas they front, it is sometimes the case, (and one that government likes to make)that they are but fronts for ‘shady’ characters who would not show their face but who prefer a local face to make it seem like the agitation is home bred.
The case of Donald Trump amply demonstrates the need for vigilance. It shows that the tendency for muzzling opposing voices can happen anywhere including in the most first world of first world countries. Every once in a while, even the best organised systems find people like Trump trying to test the limits of their political positions for personal parochial reasons. For weaker systems as in Africa, the manifestation is in the conveyor belt delivery of modern day dictators like Idi Amin, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, etc.
It used to be that the Press played the watchdog role laudably. But the Press, more and more, has also become about parochial interests, interests that help promoters clinch power and once in power angling for yet more powers while doing its best worst to pare down the space for contention that opposition had quickly (and legitimately) seized upon.
Nigeria seems a classic case of that. A government that rode to power on the sheer strength of its superior propaganda, outmuscling a government in power with their messages that they propagated without restraint, now faced with the same situation is working hard to snuff out dissenting voices. It is the classic recipe for incipient tyranny.
Things have not been helped by the fact that most of those who occupied the civil society space in previous dispensations got roped into the fight not just against the excesses of the past administration, but they became fully embedded in the succeeding government, where they currently function as visible officials or behind the scenes as contractors and consultants. And as some wit had cause to say somewhere else, it’s bad manners to speak when you are eating…
A directionless civil society therefore totally lost the plot until the streets could take it no longer. And so, organised civil society became bit players in the unraveling development that has seen young people pitted against the endless tunnel existence that seems their manifest destiny.
We like to talk about the golden days of civil society when colourful individuals like Gani Fawehinmi, Olu Onagoruwa, Tai Solarin, Ken Saro Wiwa, Clement Nwankwo, Chima Ubani, Brig. Ishola Williams, Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, Balarabe Musa, Olisa Agbakoba, Beko Ransome Kuti, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, Frank Ovie Kokori, Kanmi Isola Osobu, Alao Aka Bashorun, Joe Oke-Odumakin, Pat Utomi (and Patito’s Gang), Femi Falana, etc., drew up and ran agendas that got citizens thinking and rethinking their insalubrious situations. However, except for a few, our CSOs have largely been reactionary and not proactive. This means that as soon as an issue loses traction, the CSOs also abandon it for something fresh. But that which loses traction today can be counted on to return later to bite butts and other delicate places in our national life.
So what does today’s civil society need? They need local support. An economy is not exactly growing when its corporate organisations are only thinking profit and loss as well as scaling down poverty in society. The poverty mindset will always be there for as long as the people are not sufficiently aware of their citizen rights and the demands they need to continually make on government. A lot of the organisations abroad that are involved in CS activities get their nourishment from corporate organisations which, yes, want to end poverty, combat climate change, etc. but who also know that they need a good country first and foremost from where they can lead the charge against these other battles.
A big fear of many corporates and why they are not so inclined towards supporting CSOs is that civil society is not only in the fight against big oppressive governments, they also lead the charge against corporates that do not understand boundaries with regards to ethics, environmental exploitation and monopolistic tendencies, amongst others. These are fights that governments eventually weigh in on but usually at the insistent instigation of CSOs.
All said, our corporate organisations, the bigger ones, need to start looking at actively supporting CSOs that align with their own vision of a Nigeria where no man, woman or child is oppressed; and where unless business is productive, profitable and for the common good, the sustainability, not to mention expansion of their ventures, would be hard to achieve.