John Moru is with the ActionAid International, Abuja
POLITICAL REFORMS CONFERENCE: DISCOURSE ON CIVIL SOCIETY ENGAGEMENT
The desire for a platform to discuss the varied national challenges (political) facing Nigeria has been a strong wish of a large segment of the society. This desire cuts across language, religion, and ethnic affiliations amongst the average class, but grudgingly acceded to by the ruling elite. This is because of the threat to the status quo ante that has concentrated power at the centre such that there is blatant abuse of executive powers, political patronage, and rent seeking.
Although the National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS), a government driven economic reform package, envisages this national rebirth through value reorientation and growing the private sector, more than one year down the line business remains as usual. That the aspirations of NEEDS will not be achieved was the crux of an article I wrote titled: Rethinking the Nigerian Reform Programme published in most national newspapers. My argument then was that the political structure and the ways and system of politicking needed to be thought through because political instability had serious consequences for the economy, and the socio-cultural interactions of peoples. My fears have been proved because since the launch of the economic recovery medium term strategy, corruption has not abated, neither has gross mismanagement of public funds.
It is based on the reality of endemic corruption, and the difficulties of eking out a living that various segments of the Nigerian society demand for an inclusive and representative national political reform process. One of the queries of the present process is the eagle's eye approach by the Obasanjo's reform team such that the process has no life of its own. First, there are "no go areas": Federalism, Presidentialism, Multi-Religiousity, Federal Character, and the Unity of Nigeria. Second, the federal and state governments hand picked a hundred percent of the delegates. Third, there is the growing concern that the political reform process is not different in content, structure and style from past initiatives/committees - Constitution Drafting Committee of 1975, the Babangida's initiated Constituent Assembly with Honourable Justice Anthony Aniagolu as head, and the Constitution Debate Coordinating Committee headed by Honourable Justice Niki Tobi during the military rule of Abdulsalam in 1999. It is contended that the various authorities that established these committees largely determined the membership and composition of the bodies; appointment has never been participatory; the consultations and debates excluded the marginalized and special interest groups such as women, while all documents that emanated from such processes were usually subjected to review and ratification by the establishing authorities, that is, the federal military government.
Despite these anomalies, I see some possibilities for civil society groups. It is pertinent to give a working definition of the term civil society so as to guide the analysis. By civil society I mean groups different from government, with various interests and positions, which ultimately is geared towards an alternative in the mode of structure, content and style of governance such that people are at the centre of decision making mechanisms. For us therefore, trade unions, farmers groups, artisans, women's groups, media, non-governmental organizations, community based groups, community development associations, the unorganized and informal sectors, ethnic groups, interest groups, and professional groups are within the ambience of civil society. Civil society then is that space (sometimes seizes and creates spaces) for the debate of alternative paradigms.
Furthermore, we recognize that there are varied definitions of the term civil society. But, one of the common features we come across is the conceptualization of civil society as not-for-profit. However, on a deeper analysis the profit sector of the market and the non-profit sector in civil society are two sides of the same coin. Normatively, civil society is one thing, empirically, it is another. Civil society is autonomous in that it has its own logic; yet it is also derivative and dependent on market forces. Essentially then, civil society plays a watch dog role over the society, providing alternative mode of thinking, analysis, and in-depth interrogation of issues. This implies then that civil society's clarity and convictions should find its way into the dominant mode of thinking of any society aimed at influencing, and ultimately to change the dominant mode of thinking and acting for sustainable development.
If this point of departure, analysis and clarification is acceptable, you will then agree that civil society should proactively occupy any space created however minimal in countries where the political culture and structure is far from open. It is from this perspective that we view the National Political Reform Conference as one platform to expand and sell alternative views of civil society, and perhaps seize the moment for the benefit of repositioning Nigeria. One of such possibilities is the creation of a platform, to articulate our views. What can be done therefore is to create a civil society think tank that should coalesce the various aspirations of the different interest groups within the polity, which shall be presented to the delegates. This strategy is meant to influence decisions of the conference so that the outcome of the various recommendations will be a close call, if not entirely, to civil society's mission for a well governed Nigeria.
This brings me to another point: the need for us to build strategic alliances. What this means is that we must engage with identified allies within and outside the conference. This involves therefore a power mapping - identifying the key players within and outside the conference, while meetings and discussions based on facts and superior knowledge are initiated. The other dimension to this is about building strategic alliances beyond ethnic configurations and interests. An instance here would be useful. Rather than the Niger/Delta presenting its views of resource control, environmental degradation, gas flaring, loss of traditional livelihood systems, legitimate as they are and sectional, the Niger/Deltans can extend a hand of fellowship to the people of the middle belt region, where there are a lot of mining activities taking place as a result of large deposit of solid minerals, with the same consequences on the indigenous peoples. This I think would broaden the base of such presentation with the dimension of a national perspective.
Besides, key groups within and outside the country should seek to support a larger think-thank, which should provide position papers on key issues slated for debate. Such an inter/national think-tank involving platforms of constitutional reforms (CFCR), electoral reforms (TMG and ERN), national rebirth (PRONACO), and women's groups (WONACO), should present extensive briefs of their positions, coalesce such position into a comprehensive agenda using key allies within the conference grounds. To enhance this, a national secretariat should be created to marshall out clear and concise positions, which should be utilized as lobbying tools at the conference grounds.
Furthermore, what we need is an organized peaceful and non-violent protest by Nigerians with clear messages of expectations. This protest should be held on those days delegates to the conference are seating. This is necessary because for more than three decades now we have had several packages of reforms either initiated by the military or by civilians with little or no impact. In fact reading through the major announcement of coup plotters within the history of successful coups in Nigeria, we have been given reasons for a better future, with key promises that are eventually broken. This suggested protests during the period of the conference should be a new paradigm within this government led structure of transformation so that the destiny of this country that we have continuously left in the hands of the few can be reclaimed, and the notion that Nigeria is a captured state dissipated.
What this means, therefore, is that we must drop our differences: ethnic, religious, and political ideologies and build a movement against the forces within Nigeria that are averse to its growth and development. We must find avenues to address the mistrusts and differences that continue to impact on the capacity of civil society to engage more strategically as regards issues of national concern. We must concert our energies towards contributing to the transformation of the Nigerian society. Rather than fold our arms in resignation, awaiting the outcome of the conference, we should engage the process with clear positions. Therefore the various groups with different positions on how best to achieve a transformation in Nigeria must seek to plant a mole within the conference as one means of engaging the process, however possible this is.
Moreover, when we talk or refer to mobilizing civil society, this should not be confined to the Abuja environ where the conference delegates shall be sitting or mainstream urban based groups. We must seek for creative ways of engagement. For instance, short and concise messages can be printed and distributed in the various motor parks across the country. The huge resource of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) comes to mind. This is a group with a national outreach, a group that provides services to more than seventy percent of the populace, with a huge network. By working with this group we seek to achieve dissemination of information, clear and concise analysis of the root causes of poverty that should contribute to the everyday choices that Nigerians are faced with in eking out a living. Hence tapping into the huge resource of those often regarded as powerless and voiceless would be one contribution to building a ground swell of opinion leaders in Nigeria.
Besides, we have not considered the huge resource that reside within the various market women associations in our various communities. This is a group that responds to calls especially when the issue is close to their hearts. How many of them know that the outcome of this conference would shape the size and quantity of sales in their sheds? How many of them can relate the dynamics of negative politics with the downturn of the economy? How many of them realize that the unrecognized 'care economy' that they are largely associated with is based on the conceptualization of the political economy of the elite class?
What about our youths? Who has in the past few weeks given them a thought as to how they can influence the conference. How many of the groups with clear position extended their hands of fellowship to them? We should point out that the past political culture has co-opted the enthusiasm of youths into unproductive ventures. The youth groups in Nigeria today are in reality appendages of the ruling elite. They are the foot soldiers and cannon fodders in times of violent conflicts and electioneering campaigns; their innocence has been utilized to satisfy the self serving interest of the ruling elite. We should then engage the youths in our various communities. There is hardly any state in Nigeria today without a tertiary institution. This then provides us with the constituency to sell the idea of a new generation of leaders that are committed to the transformation of Nigeria. However, the situation is so bad that for a mess of porridge most youth would compromise their future.
What about the role of the media? How often do we use the media in such strategic meetings? The media should be one of our key allies. We should seek to assist them in shaping their reporting skills to including investigating skills. This means that rather than report events, they should analyze events as they occur, drawing inferences, implications, and making projections of future consequences. We must recognize that reporters in Nigeria face a peculiar challenge of balancing their immediate and practical needs with the more strategic need of engaging with the process of transformation. While there are no clear solutions to their challenges mainly because of the nature of newspaper ownership in Nigeria, we should encourage them to see the bigger picture of the media as agenda setters and opinion formers.
My vision for civil society in Nigeria is such that we move from the position of debates, knowledge arrogance, posturing and grandstanding, to the position of concrete actions and steps on how to move the country forward. It is in the light of this I see the conference called by PRONACO, WONACO or other groups as useful steps. But this should not prevent us from engaging with the current processes which have clear implications for those we claim we represent - the poor and excluded.