Pambazuka News

Ekiti State: Elections and the power of civil society

Uche Igwe

2010-11-04, Issue 503

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In the aftermath of elections in Ekiti State, Uche Igwe looks at what the rest of Nigeria can learn from the experience. Noting civil society and the judiciary's key role in enabling the restoration of John Olukayode Fayemi as executive governor, Igwe argues that a ‘transparent political space’ and a ‘vibrant and mobilised civil society' is all the people need to 'gird their loins’ and vote.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world.’ -Margaret Mead

Many lovers of democracy worldwide are fascinated by the news coming from Ekiti State and the judicial action that restored Dr John Olukayode Fayemi as the executive governor. For many of us, this is a victory of the power of the silent majority against the predatory political class. ‘We the people’ have spoken again.

There are many reasons that make the victory of Fayemi in Ekiti very symbolic and significant at this time in our national life. There are also many lessons we must learn as citizens from it. It is a model that can be quickly replicated in other parts of the country where directionless leadership still hold siege. We must commend and celebrate the courageous role that the judiciary played as a dependable island of integrity and the last hope of the common man. As we periscope these events, we must applaud the core role of civil society groups who provided the raw material that was turned to a finished product by the judiciary.

Civil society remains the only segment of the Nigerian society that still possesses that declining quality of good conscience. In ‘modern day Nigeria’ these values are fast eroding, as centrifugal forces of religious fundamentalism; tribal hegemony and political parasitism continue to threaten competence and transformational leadership in our national life.

For those who do not know, Fayemi cut his teeth first as a rights-cum-development activist and founder of Center for Democracy and Development (CDD). He is a well-respected and admired member of the civil society community from where he threw his hat into gubernatorial politics. When it was time for the re-run in Ekiti State therefore, many civil society activists all over the country abandoned their duty posts and literally relocated to Ekiti. And I must say that the presence of civil society groups in their scores as observers during the elections spread across most polling booths became the ‘game changer’. It was very difficult for the other side to steal the votes of citizens before these ‘invasive trouble makers’. The end product is what we today celebrate. This is not the first time that civil society groups in an implicit alliance with the judiciary have dethroned the will of the few to enthrone the popular wish of the majority. We cannot forget the case of Edo state or even Rivers State. We must therefore pause and identity this symbolism pregnant with significance.


Until some time in the 1990s, civil society groups occupied a very tiny spot in the global policy. But these days, it is impossible to have a conversation about politics or public policy without mentioning the word civil society. And yet as you mention the word civil society it continues to conjure different things to different people. Some say it is a part of society. Others say it is a kind of society. While others insist that it a public arena defines the so called ‘ecology of associational life’. Others have hidden under it to carry out acts that are increasingly ‘uncivil’. Conceptual consensus therefore remains a pipe dream as prominent scholars like Michael Edwards propose that a fog is threatening to envelope this terminology. But this fog never beclouds civil society’s relevance any where, anyhow.

While many suggest that anyone who is involved in any form of associational life that is ‘civil’ qualifies to appropriate this space, others conclude that non-governmental organisations have a monopoly of this arena. Don’t they?

A few others resist any form of association with that world of ‘trouble makers’ and regard them intruders in the governance space. Regardless of where you belong in this debate, you can neither deny the relevance of civil society in the arena of development and public policy, nor wish away its dynamism, complexity and heterogeneity. How can we tap into this ever vibrant arena? How can we amplify this power and convert it to democratic advantage as was done in Ekiti recently. A change, that Nigeria our dear country needs very badly at this time. The answers to these questions may as the magic touch that will provide our nation that launching pad to credible elections and sanitise our democratic space.

Democracy is about numbers and so one route towards scaling up the influence of civil society will be to deepen our collective understanding of the concept. And so who are the current occupants of this arena in Nigeria? Are they sufficient (in numbers) to galvanise the level of civic action, contagious enough to infect the Ekiti model across the country? Is it not time to broaden this arena to welcome new but relevant actors?

For so long, the civil society arena have been appropriated by non-governmental and not-for- profit organisations. While these are legitimate occupants of this arena, it will be more tactical to admit other groups into this space in order to form a formidable coalition for change and democratic relevance. And as we cogitate on it, one cross cutting feature may be that of civility. This can be a positive binding force and an umbrella under which civil society can be assembled. And so any person or group of persons who associate for things that are ‘civil’ can be said to constitute civil society. And so anyone associated with any activity classified as ‘uncivil’ cannot be admitted into the civil arena and cannot appropriate the word civil society. Whether they are governmental, non-governmental or quasi- governmental, any entity within the civil society must profess ‘civil’ values and hold them sacrosanct. But that is by the way. Civil society actors must also as a necessity insist on distinct code of conduct for association and lawful expression. It can no longer be an all comer’s affairs.

The above hypothesis can form a preliminary basis for expansion of the civil society arena to include women groups, youth groups, professional associations, religious associations, community based associations, social clubs, individuals, foundations etc. All can be said to be part of civil society whether they meet virtually or physically. And it is important to underscore that the information age has made it possible that many persons or groups can collaborate in catalysing change even when they may not be physically present with one another. The volume of suggestions and discussions online are increasing daily and these constitute an important resource that can energise the civil society space and indeed our democracy. What of religious organisations? Many of them command sizeable population of potential voters that can be quickly converted to a democratic resource. Experience has shown that a lot can happen when these change voices are amplified through creative alliances in a religiously diverse country like Nigeria.

This critical cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the democratic process. The umbrella of civil society can be used to rally around many non state actors and can give civil society democratic velocity beyond monitoring of elections. At a time like this when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is the midst of time constraints in the conduct of 2011, civil society can offer helping hands in numerous ways.


The lessons of Ekiti are here with us. Clearly civil society groups in alliance with the judiciary are becoming important apostles for change that can no longer be ignored. We should not forget that it took a marriage of prominent civil society minds in the Save Nigeria Group to spread the fragrance of freedom that emancipated Nigeria from the shackles of oppression. Who else could have foiled the coup of those disgruntled and selfish political viruses that constituted themselves to a cabal and attempted to hold Nigeria to ransom while our late former President was sick abroad? What about the infamous tenure elongation campaign that former President Obasanjo and his apologists thought was the best way for Nigeria? How can we forget that whatever we see today as electoral reforms is a product of a vigilant and insistent civil society who demanded the implementation of recommendations of the Electoral reform panel? Who says it cannot happen again … and soon.

Indeed the democracy we enjoy today is as a result of the price paid by civil society. Non-state actors can and will be able to do more: especially in areas like the Niger Delta where that has been insufficient ‘civil’ progress. Many have attributed these failures to an infiltration of genuine 'civil' struggle in the delta by an amorphous mass of cacophonous voices with mundane intensions masquerading as civil society, contaminating the arena with faulty and fragmented strategies that utilised predominantly ‘uncivil’ approaches often to selfish ends. However genuine civil society mobilisation remains the pathway for sustainable progress in the Niger Delta especially in the area of good governance at the state level.


A culture of naivety, in my view, had infected the Nigerian civil society arena for so long and is still prevalent today. It is the ‘do-gooder syndrome’ and the us-and-them dichotomy. Many activists see themselves as do-gooders in the society who can only sit on the sidelines and criticise policies and polities. They have continued to remain in that spot long after that approach has become outdated and anachronistic. They desire a new result yet they use an old method!

This syndrome has robbed the Nigerian political space very many capable hands. Men and women who are reservoirs of sound policy intelligence that could re-position government but whom deliberately embraced political anomie absent mindedness. It has given an opportunity for many people who would never have come close to public office to hijack the political space and appropriate it to themselves. And so these miscreants now constitute that political obscenity that has invaded our various political parties, parliaments, government houses etc. While capable and competent civil society actors battle them helplessly and fruitlessly on the pages of newspapers. Granted, over dependence of donors by civil society groups remain a huge challenge that have often distorted civil society priorities, however Ekiti and Edo have proven that organised civil society can wrestle leadership for the sake of the oppressed and the marginalised. Many spots in the Nigerian political space are currently been infested by elite-inflicted governance decay, infrastructural deficit, corruption, mindless profligacy and palpable poverty. Those intruders parading our governance space cannot vacate willingly. They will attempt again to manipulate elections with resources siphoned from public purse but organised civil society must resist them this time around. As in Ekiti, civil society must force them out.

A transparent political space as promised by the President and a vibrant and mobilised civil society is all the people need to gird their loins and force them out. The power to make it happen lies within. Nigerian civil society arise!


* Uche Igwe is an Africa public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and visiting scholar at the Africa Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, USA.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

There is 1 comment on this article.

The thing that shocked me was Kayode's name. never knew he was called "John".
But more seriously, Kayode's victory is a victory for seriousness and commonsense. That he fought so bravely against all odds is something we mus tall admire. We wish Kayode well. If Africa gets leaders like him, this continent will change. There is HOPE. Congratulations, my brother.

Zaya Yeebo