Prof Akin Mabogunje who just passed on this week was a man of many parts. It will be a big debate to determine which of his academic works is the most fascinating or grounded. But there was the contribution he made to the symposium of the Institute of Civil Society in 1997 that many would take note of. (The Institute of Civil Society was the cover under which what later became the PDP was operating until the death of Abacha. Then followed its transformation into a political party in 1998).
No such work can be a perfect one but his attempt at domesticating the notion of civil society in our clime will remain inviting. Intervention is publishing the piece as originally delivered.
While Prof Mabogunje was alive, he would send this piece to you as many times as you requested of him, showing how organised he was, even at old age. In that case, he reminded this generation of his own generation who set the records so high as for their records to remain unbroken, be it in Literature, History, Political Science and what have you. May he rest in peace!
By Akin L. Mabogunje (Executive Chairman, Development Policy Centre, Ibadan)
(Being contribution to the Inaugural Symposium of the Institute of Civil Society held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos on Thursday, October 30, 1997 at 3.00p.m.)
First, let me congratulate the Board of Governors of the Institute of Civil Society on this their impressive outing. For any modern state to thrive and flourish, it is important that its society has all the attributes of what is now generally referred to as “a civil society”. I, therefore, want secondarily to underscore the importance of the present symposium especially in beginning the process of public education and enlightenment as to the true nature of the current struggle going on in Nigeria and what is still ahead of us as a country.
The symposium, I believe, challenges us to find answers to at least five questions. These are;
(1). What is “civil society”?
(2). Is the Nigerian society as yet a “civil society”?
(3). If not, what must we do to establish such a society in Nigeria?
(4). How can we sustain such a society once it is established?
(5). What is the role of democracy or democratic culture in all this?
In the time available to me, I want to be provocative in terms of the answers I give to each of these five questions.
What is Civil Society?
There are innumerable definitions of what “Civil Society” is? According to Gellner (1995), civil society is that set of diverse non-governmental institutions, which is strong enough to counterbalance the state, and, whilst not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent the state from dominating and atomizing the rest of society. Such a society, according to Mouzelis (1995), reflects three critical attributes:
(a) the existence of the rule-of-law conditions that effectively protect citizens from state arbitrariness;
(b) the existence of strongly organized non-state interest groups capable of checking eventual abuses of power by those who control the means of administration and coercion: and
(c) the existence of a balanced pluralism among civil society interests so that none can establish absolute dominance.
In short, a civil society is one where the rule of law reigns supreme, in which considerable effort is dedicated to ensuring the education and enlightenment of all citizens through widespread and unfettered dissemination of information by various forms of media, and in which the citizens are encouraged to associate, express opinion, tolerate differences and dissent, organize themselves in various ways to strengthen and legitimize their nation-state through a process of continuous democratic consolidation.
Is the Nigerian society as yet a “civil society” (The challenges of a triple transition)
Against the above definition, the question may be asked whether Nigeria is as yet a “civil society”? The answer clearly is that it is not although it is in the throes of a complex struggle to becoming one. The complexity of that struggle arises from the fact that the Nigerian society is currently engaged in the process of a triple transition. I am, of course, not talking of the political transition programme of the present military regime. Rather, I am concerned with the historical realities behind our present predicaments. All over Nigeria, our society which was essentially communitarian have had imposed on it in varying degrees a feudal/colonial social relations out of which we are now trying to evolve into a civil society. In other words, our society is trying to emerge from being a collection of kinsmen and/or subjects of some potentates to becoming citizens of a liberal and modernizing nation-state. Indeed, it could be argued that the struggle in the country since our political independence is between on the one hand the forces of liberalization and modernization in which we are all citizens of a great country subject to the same rules of law and on the other hand the forces of feudal rights and privileges in which some sections of the population think they are more equal than others.
If not, what must we do to establish such a society in Nigeria? (The State role in the emergence of a ‘civil society”)
Paradoxical as it may sound, civil society cannot be established in Nigeria without the very active involvement of the state. As Hinkelammert (1992:199) rightly observed, the State and the civil society “are directly linked; civil society cannot exist without the existence of a State which accepts and promotes it”. The manner in which the State promotes the emergence of civil society in any country is a function of the system of social control that it chooses to encourage. The system of social control can take one of three forms: compliance, participation and legitimation. Compliance entails the use of sanctions and threats of coercion for the populace to accept the social control of the state. Participation involves more than compliance and entails gaining strength by organizing the populations for specialized tasks in institutional components of state organizations. Legitimation, on the other hand, is more inclusive than either compliance or participation. It is an acceptance, or even approbation, of the state’s rules of the game, that is, its social control, as true and right. It is, indeed, the most potent factor accounting for the strength and capabilities of any state.
Any state that, therefore, seeks to govern its citizens largely on its capabilities to force them to comply with or just participate in its organizations is shoring up a weakness that could prove fatal in a crisis situation. It was this fact that became manifest in the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and that highlighted the structural weaknesses of many Third World countries whose governments have paid little attention to gaining legitimation for their right to rule.
An important factor, therefore, in gaining legitimacy comes through wide distribution of power within the society through the process of decentralization and thorough devolution of authority. Decentralization and devolution entail that the powers conceded even to local governments within the constitution are sacrosanct and any infringement by higher authorities are stoutly challenged in courts of law.
The dominance of the rule of law in such a society also extends beyond the centre-local governmental relations to both state-society and interpersonal relations. Most relations in civil society takes on the character of contract. Breaches and conflicts are resolved through due process. Dialogue, bargaining and negotiation become critical elements of this process as against confrontation, coercion, and the use of force. The trend is to seek a cooperation, collaboration and a win-win outcome in every conflictual situation. Political parties do not see themselves as adversaries and enemies but as groups working at any one time on different sides of the power divide.
How can we sustain such a society in Nigeria once it is established? (The Free Market Economy and Civil Society)
The role of the state does not end with decentralization and the widespread distribution of political power in the country. It extends to creating the framework whereby not only are citizens encouraged to acquire property rights to some portions of national resources but those rights are stoutly protected and defended by state apparatus. Creating this framework entails the economic transformation of society from being pre-capitalist to being capitalist. It entails, in the initial stage, the commodification of each of the four factors of production – land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship – such that individuals can own not only the rights to use them (their usufruct) but also the rights to exchange them in a self-regulating market. The processes involved in this complementary transformation are the crucial steps in the economic transition from a subsistence communitarian and feudal/colonial economy to a free market economy. It is this attendant economic transition that fosters amongst citizens a strong sense of ownership and of commitment to constantly enhancing the capacity and capability of that which they own – whether this is real property, particular skills, a business enterprise or purely intellectual innovativeness or inventiveness. The rights to these various types of properties are stoutly protected by law and by the State and this guaranteed protection becomes a significant factor in promoting technological, organizational and economic growth and development in the society. The result is the growing realization of the importance of the concept of partnership between all stake-owners in the affairs of a country but, in particular, between the public and the private sector and between the state and agencies of civil society notably the non-governmental organizations.
In short, to sustain civil society on the long haul, a nation must become host to all those forces which foster and promote the emergence of a free market economy, stimulate rapid economic growth and development, and significantly improve the social and economic well-being of the vast majority of the population of a country. It is under such conditions that citizens and their innumerable associations and organizations can come to play an increasingly significant role in shaping the destiny of their nation and their society and checking the excesses and arbitrariness of those currently occupying the corridors of power.
What is the role of democracy or democratic culture in all of this? (The new rule of the game)
The question may be asked: how crucial is democracy to this notion of civil society? In this regard, it is necessary to attempt some understanding of what democracy entails and how as citizens we experience it. According to Gitonga (1987) democracy is about people ruling themselves, ordering, organizing and managing their own affairs in freedom. Or, in the celebrated words of Abraham Lincoln, it is about government of the people, by the people, for the people. From a structuralist perspective, Gitonga suggests that democracy can be experienced at three levels or in three dimensions of social existence. These are: the material (or infrastructural) level; the institutional (or techno-structural) level and the human relations (or superstructural) level.
At its infrastructural level, democracy is about the economy, the system of production, distribution and consumption of material goods and services in a free market which facilitates meeting the basic needs of the people. Five of such needs are emphasized: the sustenance needs of food, clothing and shelter; the security needs of freedom from danger, fear and anxiety; the identity needs for social belonging, acceptance and affection; the recognition needs for respect, social esteem and status; and the self-actualization need for accomplishments.
At its technostructural level, democracy relates to the system of institutions, organizations and mechanisms for ensuring its efficient functioning in a given society. Three principles are critical for ensuring that any governance system meets the democratic ideal. First, it must be open in the sense that it allows to citizens freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of choice of whoever they want to represent them; second, it must be simple to operate or manage so as to make it easily understood by the citizenry and thus less vulnerable to fraudulent manipulation; third, the role of each of its institutions or organs must be clear as to their authority, power and influence since it is this that helps to establish the necessary ‘checks and balances’ in the operation of the system.
At its superstructural level, democracy relates to values, beliefs and attitudes of individuals. Much of this is regarded as acquired behaviour. Or as Gitonga puts it, democratic behaviour is not a genetically conditioned, inborn or inherited faculty – it is learned. Citizens must be made to appreciate the profound implications of the gospel of equality, freedom and human dignity as well as of fairness and justice in their day to day interactions with others. Indeed, for democracy to exist, survive and prosper, it requires that the people be bathed and drenched in this democratic ethos.
In governance terms, therefore, democracy is not just about how representatives are chosen. More importantly, it is about how the citizens are regarded in the decision-making process – whether they are believed to be individually the equal of those making decisions and have the freedom to accept or reject any decisions made on their behalf or whether, as in feudal and pre-capitalist social formations, they are inferior beings on whom any decisions can be imposed. Accountability of elected representatives to those who elected them at each level of government and not to any other body however highly placed is thus central to the operations of a democratic system.
Such accountability, however, rests on the premise that citizens discharge their civic obligations of providing the resources and wherewithal needed by their representatives to carry out the numerous tasks of governance. Duly paying tax liabilities to the State is, indeed, a critical badge of right to being a citizen and to demanding accountability of representatives. It is also the basis on which democracy and civil society can thrive in any country. Taxation is thus the other side of the same coin of democratic representation.
The two forces contending in Nigeria today are real. Although there can be little doubt that in the long run the liberalizing and modernizing force which alone can promote democracy and the emergence of civil society would triumph, it is important to remind ourselves of the statement that in the long run we are all dead. It is, however, equally important to remind ourselves that Nigeria is still a long way from having a civil society fully established and able to be sustained. Those who aspire to lead the country especially after the exit of the military in 1998 must appreciate that this country still has to win its second independence, that is the independence of every community, however, small to be able to take in its own hand a significant portion of its destiny through being involved in a very real sense in the decision-making process that directly affect the lives of its members.
In concluding, three points need to be stress if true democracy and a virile civil society are to be developed and sustained in this country: First, the imperative of universal free education (at least for the initial six if not nine years of their educational career) for all Nigerians – a pre-requisite for making all Nigerians real and operational citizens of their country. A strong dose of adult literacy may be added to speed up the process of mass enlightenment. Second, the enthronement of strong good democratic governance from the grassroots. All citizens must be regarded as the equal of the other. No superior authority should be able to dissolve any government below it. The role of the opposition as the monitor for ensuring transparency and accountability must be appreciated by those in government and the general citizenry. Third, and finally, the inexorable impact of the globalization process on all countries must be a constant factor in the national consciousness. It should force our leaders to appreciate the importance of encouraging efficiency and meritocracy in national affairs and recognise the weakening effect on growth and development of unmerited patronage and ascriptive privileges.
Gellner, Ernest, (1995), “The Importance of Being Modular”, pp.32-55 of John A. Hall, (ed.), Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison, (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Gitonga, A.K., (1987), “The Meaning and Foundations of Democracy”, pp.4-23 in W.O.Oyugi and A.K.Gitonga (eds.), Democratic Theory and Practice in Africa, (Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya)
Hinkelammert, F., (1992), “Nuevo rol del Estado en el desarrollo latinoamericano”, in Asociación Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promoción ALOP(ed.), Nuevo rol del Estado en el desarrollo latinoamercano, (Caracas: ALOP) quoted by Alfredo Rodríguez and Lucy Winchester, (1996), “Cities, democracy and governance in Latin America”, International Social Science Journal, no.14, March, p.80
Midgal, J.S., (1988), Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press)
Mouzelis, Nicos, (1995), “Modernity, Late Development and Civil Society”, pp.224-249 in John A. Hall (ed.), Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge: Polity Press)