We are a country conquered by a privileged few; powerful politicians and ‘men of money’ who apparently, write the destinies of most other Nigerians. These ‘super Nigerians’ live ostentatiously and glaringly above the law. They also do everything humanly possible to defend those privileges and powers. Part of their key past time is a continuous conspiracy among themselves to convert commonly owned assets, to themselves with no consequences whatsoever. They would always walk away, unprosecuted and uncharged. Even if they are pressured to appear in the courts, the results are usually known. Often it seems as if our socio-economic policies are designed only with them in mind and precisely fashioned to favour them. These super Nigerians constitute the “they” while the rest of us are the “we”. So, we live in a country divided along those lines with each Nigerian belonging to either of the two categories. According to Oxfam, the combined wealth of 20% of Nigerians which are in the “they” league is more than the entire national budget for 2017. Yet, this is a country where the daily income of over 75% of those who are in the “we” category is less than $1.25. Does it mean that the rest of Nigerians were sleeping when only these few persons were investing? Common sense may find it difficult to prove that it is indeed the case. Nigerians are known to be highly intelligent and diligent. And therefore, Oxfam never found it strange to grade Nigeria as the worst country in the world with regards to the socio-economic gap between these two groups. Oxfam has only formally pointed out a long-standing but painful reality that has defined Nigeria and its history of exclusion that has continued to generate all forms of crises.
It is only natural that the sheer size of the gap in socio-economic benefits and opportunities between these two classes of citizens will always result in social disharmonies. Given an environment where everyone is subject to the law, and there is level playing ground for entrepreneurial competition, it probably will not constitute as much a problem if such gap exists. But because most Nigerians know that much of this socio-economic opportunity gaps are due to the illicit advantage that our unacceptably weak justice system presents to few Nigerians. And since prosperity begets even more wealth, the difference will likely continue to widen as the majority of those in the “we” category will only struggle to meet up their daily needs. This is however not where the problem is. The real challenge is that those who are in the uppermost socio-economic echelon wants to continue the manipulation of the justice system to perpetuate their prosperity positions. The consequences of this stance are the further marginalisation of posts Nigerians from several socio-economic opportunities that would have lifted them to the ladder. Justifiably, therefore, is apparent resistance to this anomaly from the civic space and a counter-resistance from the “they” category to continue in their cornucopia. The proposed NGO bill, the social media bill, and the hate speech bill are good examples of the counter-resistance to the growing vibrancy of the civic space.
Most persons with political power rarely want to be held accountable for their failures irresponsibility. For that reason, they use varieties of means to shrink the civic space. Some of these are legal, such as the planned NGO regulation, and hate speech bills to suppress opposing voices. We have in recent times, watched keenly as we gradually reach a crescendo in the attempts to shut down the civic space through the efforts to reregister and regulate non-governmental organisations. The argument was that NGOs serve as conduit pipes for financial fraud. But the NGOs remain a strong bastion for the demand for accountability from those in authority. As if that is not enough, there is the so-called hate speech bill. African leaders naturally enjoy sycophantic adulations and therefore do not want to be criticised in any way. Too many of them, a criticism of their activities is synonymous with hate speech.
They also use outright government force akin to the experiences of military dictatorship in the suppression of their perceived dissent. Many journalists have suffered terrible reprisals for daring to either write or speak the truth, which these men in power would want to remain in the dark. Some have been jailed, tortured or even assassinated. In 2016 for instance, the DSS detained a journalist in Yenogoa for two years without any communication with his family and no trial by the courts. It was only in 2018 that a magistrate unconditionally released him. The offices and journalists of Premium Times and the Nation newspapers, as well as those of Sahara reporters, have suffered many of such related prosecutions for investigating and opening up some seemingly sensitive information that connects the men in power. And beyond the harassment and detention of these men of the press, is the obduracy in complying with the order of the court to free some of these detained men of the media and civil society organisations.
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Consider also the savagery of the military-type resistance of the activities of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) which was extended to be branding of the body as a terrorist organisation. The crime of the IPOB is that they are well-focused as an organised body demanding what they consider to be their rights. But even though this demand can is discussable around a table, it was evident that the people in power never wanted to entertain it. And that may explain why the Fulani herdsmen, were never branded a terrorist organisation, even when the global media widely acknowledged it as one of the most brutal terrorist groups in the world. And perhaps, it could as well be that some of the people in authority benefit from the mayhem that the latter orchestrates. Whichever is true, the break from the gagging of the voices that demand accountability is likely to be the last battle for the transition of the Nigerian society to an era of freedom and entrepreneurial prosperity.
Across history, freedom from oppression mostly came with fierce resistance from oppressed groups. The freedom of American blacks from the racist white supremacy groups is one good example. The dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa is another example of how the power of resistance delivers liberty and democracy. Both cases are consistent with the scriptural assertion that only the violent can forcefully take the kingdom of God by force. By implication, the reign of peace, freedom and socio-economic well-being is achievable through well-purposed confrontation. The combination of the academia, the press or the media generally, the bar, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as trade unions and professional organisations have been at the forefront of this kind of resistance over the years. Of all of this, the academia the press and the NGOs usually take the lead. While the academia conducts relevant researches as well as provide well-informed clarifications of the hindrances to freedom, the media amplifies it, while the NGOs sustained the tempo of the resistance. Although this does not usually follow to the described linear pattern, it, however, sheds light on the relevance of these bodies in the struggle for equality before the law, and the associated equity in the access to our collectively owned resources. Unfortunately, it appears as if the Nigerian academia has either gone to sleep or has been bought over by those who conquered us. Unlike in the past three decades, it is difficult these days to find members of the academic community challenging or critiquing condemnable events and developments in our country.
The democracy that we enjoy today is primarily due to the protestation put forth from the media, civil society organisations and political parties. It is that democracy that has become the forerunner to the freedom that we desire. Of course, it came at a substantial price as many of the architects for mobilising the civic space for the confrontations lost their lives in the process. Never the less that struggle has not yet stopped. The continued battle is evident in the increasing facilitation and sustenance of the pressure that has ensured that governance is becoming more open to participation, accountability and some extent, transparent. More than ever before in the history of our country, many state governments are beginning to, albeit reluctantly yield to the pressure to be more accountable and transparent. It is also evident that we are not where we should be yet, but the journey is on. It is exciting to see how more and more hidden atrocities in governance are topics of discussion in the social media and the formalised press. That is a tremendous victory. By those actions, the civic space has opened far-reaching opportunities for increasing communication between citizens and policymakers. These days government people now prepare rejoinders to information and news circulating in the social media, regardless of their apparent informality.
Finally, it is without doubt that the level of vibrancy and effectiveness of the civic space in challenging the decisions of those in political authority, facilitating exchange of ideas and general communication between the masses and policymakers as well as in making them more accountable and transparent is, without doubt, the key to the freedom that we all aspire to experience. However, these efforts will yield better fruits when the Nigerian academia openly identifies with this cause, as well as become vibrant in dispassionately critiquing the policies and programmes of those in authority, and also engaging with them to improve on how to deliver on democratic dividends. There should be more strident voices from academia to complement the efforts of the NGOs and other civil society organisations. Similarly, civil society organisations should also self-monitor to ensure that the information which they obtain and work with are correct and are not misleading. Sometimes, it is disheartening when an organisation takes condemnable selfish advantage of the trust that the public has in the information from civil society organisations. Such organisations promote most of the biased and misleading information found in social media. A healthy civic space does not need these political wolves in the clothing of civil society organisations.
Professor Ike-Muonso is the Chief Transformation Officer at GTI Capital Limited