Nigeria’s diversity is given political expression in federalism, but shared problems have a unifying effect across state, class, religious and ethnic lines, writes Dave Peterson, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Africa Program Director, who recently returned from an extensive tour. If Nigeria fails, the rest of West Africa is likely to fail too, so democratic development is non-negotiable, but civil society groups are adopting an impressive array of innovative techniques and strategies to address the country’s problems from the bottom-up.
Each Nigerian state has a distinctive social and political character, from the urban culture of Lagos to the oil-dependent, insecure Niger Delta; from the modern infrastructure of Abuja to the arid, predominantly Muslim north, troubled by terrorism and communal conflict. Yet the states also share similarities and common problems, including corruption, impunity, poverty, social media, tension between local and state governments, power struggles at every level, ethnic and religious conflict, and – the ultimate unifier – football (Nigeria recently won the African Nations Cup – a BIG deal – above).
Nigerian democrats and civil society groups are right to stress that long-term commitment and flexibility of democracy support has yielded tangible results and is as needed as ever. The country has great potential, but governance problems stubbornly persist; Nigeria is by no means semi-authoritarian, but democracy is far from consolidated. In this context, external donors can support civil society to contribute to the long-term prospects for democracy on many levels.
Predictions of Nigeria’s imminent demise are premature, although the country is grappling with grave challenges, including the Boko Haram insurgency; endemic corruption; conflict in the Niger Delta, Kaduna, and Jos; massive unemployment and poverty; environmental destruction; police and military abuse of human rights; and growing tensions in the lead-up to national elections in 2015. President Goodluck Jonathan has been a disappointment, but prospects of a united opposition seem dim. Yet many Nigerians express well-founded optimism for the future.
Some states are doing well in terms of political freedom and good governance, especially Lagos, which enjoys financial independence from the federal government and has greatly improved its infrastructure. The governor of Ekiti state, Kayode Fayemi, is implementing progressive policies, while Edo state is governed by Adams Oshiomole, the former head of the Nigerian Labour Congress, a partner of the Solidarity Center. Even the LGBTI movement is making progress in Nigeria, despite repressive legislation and popular attitudes, with NED’s partner, the International Center on Advocacy and Right to Health, leading this.
More fundamentally, the average Nigerian is gaining ever greater awareness of human rights and democracy; social media is increasingly being used, especially by youth, to communicate and call for change; more citizens are demanding accountability from leaders; and enlightened officials in government and civil society activists are responding, struggling against the odds and slowly improving governance, resolving conflict, and creating greater political freedom.
Support for youth programs is producing impressive results, with groups like the Youth Alive Initiative Africa, Youngstars, Centre for Human Development and Social Transformation, Youth Society for the Prevention of Infectious Diseases and Social Vices, and the YMCA using creative methods such as online programs and publications; internships in state legislatures, local councils and NGOs; advocacy campaigns for electoral reform, political party reform, judicial reform, environmental protection, anti-corruption, and employment; web-based human rights tracking; a renewed focus on voluntarism; and greater networking trans-nationally.
Partners in the Niger Delta are also making real progress. The Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law has built a new headquarters in Port Harcourt that could serve as a center for the human rights movement throughout the region. A tenacious campaign by Environmental Rights Action to end gas flaring has had a major impact, getting many of its recommendations adopted in the Petroleum Industries Bill that is close to passage, and bringing the local communities, government, and security forces together for the first time to address security and environmental issues (although oil companies remain reluctant to engage.)
The Niger Delta Environment and Relief Foundation’sefforts to improve the accountability of three local governments in Rivers State through budget tracking and training helped three of four municipalities to pass a governance assessment. One authority wanted to use its resources to build a holiday resort, but popular mobilization prevented the project from going forward. The Citizens Center for Integrated Development and Social Rights is using a scorecard to track the responsiveness of elected representatives and improve constituency relations. Many NED partners in the Delta are focusing on the grave security problems, with programs including the amnesty and reintegration of militants, human rights training for police, the establishment of effective human rights desks in police stations, community policing, and documentation of abuses, including extrajudicial killings.
The NED’s partners in the Southwest have come together to form the One Voice network, with ten organizations collaborating on such issues as the Freedom of Information Bill and constitutional reform. Good governance is more advanced in Lagos, which has become a democratic bridgehead and model for the rest of the country, even though it has problems such as the banning of okadas (motorcycle taxis) forced removals of some residents, and there is still a need for local government accountability. Yet many creative ideas emanate from Lagos, such as the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria’s proposed police television drama and the Women Arise for Change’s political street theater. NED partners communicate through a list-serve and are in the process of developing a website, Facebook, and twitter accounts.
Northern Nigeria faces a very different set of challenges, including the Boko Haram insurgency, but many of partners emphasized that the conflict is primarily a symptom of political and economic issues, rather than religious sectarianism. The Social Justice Advocacy Initiative is training human rights activists in Borno, Bauchi and Yobe, building their capacity to document abuses committed by both fundamentalists and security forces, which is dangerous and sensitive work. In fighting impunity, denying visas may be the most effective sanction against abusers. The Centre for Democracy and Development is making use of social media to promote accountability in Kano, where the new governor has reached out to civil society. He has expressed a desire for transparency, publishing the budget every week, with CDD’s facilitation.
CDD’s Jibrin Ibrahim linked Boko Haram to democracy’s failure to deliver across West Africa, including the breakdown of traditional religious orders and the atomized individual believer turning to Salafism and Pentecostalism to find a new family. But Boko Haram has been weakened as the security services focus on intelligence rather than military power, and the Muslim clergy is no longer terrorized, but is criticizing Boko Haram. It is necessary to win hearts and minds, and the judicial machinery needs to work properly. The Fund for Peace is expanding its UnLock program to northern Nigeria to start building the social capital that could help mitigate conflict.
The cities of Kaduna and Jos have both been polarized by conflict, but communities on both sides of the divide seem tired of the violence and resolved to reconcile. Muslims celebrated Christmas with Christians and Christians shared iftar with Muslims. Many communities are taking charge of their own security as they reach across the communal divide, a kind of democratic silver lining to the conflict. We also experienced an instance of illegal taxation when we were stopped on a main road through the city and a group wearing plastic vests purporting to be official tax collectors for the local government demanded $120 from us for riding in a commercial vehicle. Several of our partners have been working on this problem.
After many years of effort by Connecting Gender for development, the Gender Bill has made little progress in Kaduna, while the Center for Development Research and Advocacy’s campaign to reform the almajiri child begging system has been folded into the Child Rights Bill and seems to be running into stubborn resistance, apparently due to the provisions on the age of marriage and a general reluctance to recognize that children have rights.
NED’s partners expressed appreciation for consistent and institutional support that has helped strengthen civil society, for demonstrating more flexibility than most other donors, ensuring that funding goes directly to organizations on the ground, and for lending prestige that attracts other donors.
Democracy has to succeed in Nigeria or it will fail throughout Africa; Nigerians are clamoring for democracy, they have seen an improvement in the elections, and some corrupt officials have been jailed. Civil society has kept the focus on the real issues and challenges facing Nigerians.