CIVIL SOCIETY AND SOCIAL CHANGE IN NIGERIA
ActionAid International, Abuja
The international political and economic order has been impacted by the rise in civil society organizing. From Seattle to Cancun and quite recently the Make Poverty History campaign that culminated with the G8 meeting at Gleneagles, Scotland indicate that civic organizing has become a social force for change. A social force that seeks to put people before profit, food on the table before boosting national reserves. This force of change questions the rationale for poor people dying of easily preventable diseases, and does not understand why poor people cannot afford life saving treated mosquito nets.
Before the growth of civil society organizing, the international political and economic order was analyzed from the stand point of the role back of the frontiers of the state or otherwise and the emphasis of efficient market in catalyzing development. These perspectives were shaped by the thinking and writings of Adam Smith and John Keynes as development thinking were influenced by the role of the state or the end or role back of the state in shaping livelihoods and creating wealth. This is what is termed the two dimension analysis.
However, two-dimension analysis has been reshaped by the increased role of civil society, civic groups and grassroots movements in drumming up support for alternative paradigms that are people friendly and supportive of home grown initiatives. Hence, development thinking in the 21st century cannot be complete without a robust mention of the impact of civic organizing and mobilizing in influencing decisions and choices of the most powerful men in the world - leaders of the most industrialized countries.
A casual look at the Make Poverty History campaigns across the world particularly the campaign to influence the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, would bring to the mind of some Nigerian government officials an instance of persons who are interested in demanding justice based on moral arguments or rights without a grasp of the economics of productive forces of supply and demand, fiscal responsibility, single digit inflation, among others.
However, the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 is shaped by the following facts: that the average income per person in the G8 countries is twenty five thousand, nine hundred and ten dollars, while the average income in Africa is four hundred and fifty. In Nigeria for instance, average income comes to three hundred dollars, which remains one of the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa. The campaign is further shaped by the fact that one child in every six will die before their fifth birthday, while in the most industrialized nations the figure is almost one in two hundred. It is shaped by the fact that basic education in Africa received four hundred million dollars in 2003 from G8 countries, one third of the cost of production of a single stealth bomber used in prosecuting the war in Iraq and elsewhere . Everyday Africa spends thirty million dollars in servicing its debt - enough to provide antiretroviral therapy to every African person who needs it. Do you know that the total cost of organizing the G8 summit is one hundred million pounds? Enough to increase funding in the Nigeria's health care system from $2 per Nigerian in 2003 to about $25 in 2005?
While international campaigns targeted at the most industrialized countries are yielding results, (the instance of Nigeria's debt relief package and drummed up debt cancellation of some African countries up to the tune of forty billion dollars), there are some few worries for us to consider in our quest to make Nigeria different from the past.
First is the fact that till date since the announcement of the debt relief for Nigeria there has not been a comprehensive analysis of the implications of the package for Nigeria in real terms. For instance, what is the role of the International Financial Institutions - the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds (IMF) in the negotiations that would take about six months? What do we understand by the Policy Support Instrument to be approved by the IMF board?
Second, is the lack of a national framework of action that would clearly stipulate in unambiguous terms where such monies if eventually freed by the Paris Club would go to - here we mean line by line item. For us, the statement that such monies would be utilized to stimulate the comatose health, education, agriculture, power and water supply systems in Nigeria is simply a blanket statement, and to this extent unacceptable to poor Nigerian who cannot afford to send their children to school simply because of PTA and craft levies.
Third is the fact that government has not recognized civic organizing and the huge repertoire of knowledge that reside within the sector as good enough to contribute to the development of the Nigerian state. Till date civic groups are treated with disdain, and are often referred to as trouble makers and rubble rousers in the politics of development.
However, much of the challenges that civil society face in Nigeria is self inflicted. What I see is resistant initiatives and movements seeking justice without utilizing the strategy of mass mobilization and mass support from across the country. While it has been argued that the shape of politicking, the north/south dichotomy, language, and religion are influential factors against civic organizing, the counter point that has not been explored -are the following existential factors: pervasive poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, the few rich against the many poor - as force that should catalyze mass action in Nigeria.
Furthermore, there have been various opportunities in Nigeria for civil society to capitalize on, expand and utilize to create the much needed sanity in the Nigerian governance system. The corruption saga that rocked both the National Assembly and the education sector some time ago is one veritable instance of civil society in Nigeria failing to capitalize on an arena or space for change. What we could have simply done was to drum up support for the President while at the same time developing a civic intelligentsia to dig up corrupt practices or misdeeds of public officials across the three tiers of government (past and present) for investigation with or without the support of the government. The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) or whatever is left of it could have been utilized to compete with the legal loopholes within our pubic order laws that the rich continuously capitalize on to delay justice - the Tafa Balogun legal battles is a case in point.
However, the debt relief package to be negotiated for Nigeria is one veritable ground for civil society and grassroots movements to seize the moment and contribute to social change in Nigeria once more. The strategy to be utilized is simply not to be invited by the government before we constitute an independent body for the monitoring of monies freed by the Paris Club to boost both the social and productive sectors of the economy. Our role as the watchdog of the government should be reified by this recent development.
The first step therefore based on this recent development, is to constitute a group of well meaning Nigerians that should have as its terms of reference analyzing the nuances and implications of the debt relief and debt buy back initiative. This is meant to situate in proper perspective the meaning of the policy instrument as couched by the communiqué from the Paris Club. My suggestion is that we must seek also to determine the cost/benefit analysis of the implications of $12 billion dollars buy back initiative and how it impacts on the social and productive sectors of our economy. For us the announcement by the government that an additional $1 billion gotten from the debt relief would be spent on the social sectors and infrastructures is simply not enough. Our understanding of the political economy of Nigeria indicates that there are already plans and interests at play on how individuals would fritter away these monies. Therefore, Nigerians want to know the line items on what these monies would be spent on. For us the first step to instituting good governance would be to track monies spent on development initiatives.
The second step is to utilize the various platforms and groups existent in Nigeria - professional groups, trade unions, age grade groups, market women associations, cooperatives, community development associations, National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Students groups, women groups, okada riders associations, and grassroots associations to create knowledge and stimulate discussions, seek answers, to generate debates around issues in Nigeria.
Third is the strategy of forging a strong alliance with what is left of the judiciary. For us this is one avenue with which the instrument of the law or the force of law is utilized to keep public office holders on their toes. This therefore means that we must cultivate members of the bar in and outside government to seek their support for social political change.
Fourth is to target the National Assembly. It is unfortunate that one of the strong challenges of the Nigerian democracy is the undue executive influence and coercion over processes of governance within the structure of the National Assembly. The aim therefore is to target sympathetic individuals, groups or caucuses within this environment to create platforms for change. Such creative measures as instituting issue based groups within the National Assembly should be explored by various groups engaging with them.
Fifth is collaborating with the media. The role of the media in socio-political change cannot be overemphasized. In fact in Asia, specifically in Indonesia, the media was a driving force in bringing to the public domain the deep seated corrupt activities Suharto and his coterie of supporters. They can begin same in Nigeria. I have been in the forefront of campaigning for an issue based media in Nigeria. A media simply interested in getting to the very bottom of issues in Nigeria as different from what obtains now wherein sensational stories are news worthy. Our media men must seek to focus on issues - if it is about corruption then it should be corruption without regard to whose ass is gored. However, for this to be achieved development partners must seek to work with/build capacity of development journalists, some select few, whose mandate is to raise issues for knowledge creation. For instance, the recent ministerial shakeup indicates to me that the government is not very committed to the issue of development. The reason for this claim is simply that most of those endorsed by the National Assembly have no pedigree of ever contributing to the growth and development of the Nigerian society. In fact, the analysis shows that they have been in government and have benefited from government in the past. A pick at their curriculum vitae indicated that the qualifying factor for nomination was simply political. I am not of the view that political factors are not necessary - party loyalty, consistency bla bla bla, but that political interest must be balanced against the overriding interest of the developmental needs of the public. The nominee from Plateau state is a case in point. So the media should seek to orchestrate such stories through the various platforms they represent as concrete steps towards the institution of a critical and nuanced sector.
My conviction is that for Nigeria to achieve the needed socio-political change, and achieve the MDGs, business should not be as usual. This is particularly the case for civil society groups. The challenge of this sector is simply that we have not realized the enormous power that we wield. Simply targeting the poor and excluded in Nigeria is a support that runs into millions of people. You can then imagine if forty per cent of our target groups are critical, knowledgeable and opinionated.
There are challenges of distilling the real NGOs or CBOs from the portfolio type, or the family business groups, but I can say with conviction that there are sincere groups in this country committed to social change. We must therefore seek out one another; build synergies towards achieving civil society organizing as a recognized force for change in Nigeria.