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Published On: Thu, Mar 26th, 2020

Civil society movements in a nation of contradictions

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By Jerome-Mario Utomi

“We need people who are activists with good judgement and interpersonal skills to move nations forward”-Anonymous.
In recent weeks, I have followed with real curiosity the efforts Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, a Havard trained lawyer and Executive Director, Spaces for Change, is making to document factors that propelled political activism in the country way back in the 80s and 90s. As part of that observation, I have read with interest various commentaries, opinion and reactions by those she interviewed-largely made up of former staff/volunteers of the Nigerian foremost Human Rights organization- the famous Civil Liberty Organization (CLO).
Essentially, a careful analysis of the subject matter and responses in some ways provides insight to what helped activism in that era (1980s/90s), to flourish.
To use the words of Felix Morka, Executive Director, Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC), “in the 80s and 90s, activism emerged out of severe necessity. The civic space was completely closed and something had to be done to forcefully open the doors of democratic expression and engagement. Then, activists acted out of the deep commitment to free up the civic space, and many of them paid severe price for it”
Also, to YZ Yau, director of CITAD, repression associated with military rule informed the focus of activism of the 80s and 90s. But, now that we say we have democracy, do citizens enjoy these rights? Can somebody travel from Abuja to Kaduna or Rigasa without fear of being kidnapped, killed or shot by bandits?
The right to life, in particular, now has a question mark. Can somebody facing such threats claim to have the right to life? The issues we advocated for many years ago haven’t been resolved and still beg for meaningful solutions. The police is not accountable to anybody. The army is not accountable to anybody. This is not what democracy should look like. We cannot promote democracy in an environment where human rights are not respected.
Arguably a well articulated observation by these men that fully participated in challenging, questioning and through the process breath human value constantly into the prevailing ideologies of their time and shared with others the wisdom of their own experience. Indeed, from their testimonies, repression associated with military rule informed the focus of activism in the past.
Indeed, they fought about the right to organize, the right to free expression, the right to assemble freely, the right to free movement and ultimately, the right to life. And today, they are daily celebrated at the global stage; they have interesting things to say. They forced the military to leave, and that was precisely part of the role they were expected to play
Unfortunately, however, when the military left, the activists also abandoned Nigerians and the absence without any nation building programme directly allowed politicians the opportunity to use sophisticated means to manipulate public opinion as well as selectively control information relevant to decision making process in our democracy. Aside from loosing the political ground, their departure intrinsically handed Nigerians over to politicians and the experience quoting Richard Templar has been unpleasant, selfish, narrow minded and petty as their antics invariably involves intimidating people,being sly, getting things done by lying and other dishonest means.
Comparatively, the greatest irony is that while the vast majority of activists of the 80s/90s, for yet to be identified reason(s) currently watch the nation’s affairs from the political galleries, efforts by the new generation activists to create a more human and humane Nigeria are daily rebuffed, frustrated or religated to the background by both the state and Federal governments.
Consider this disgraceful treatment reported in depth at a function in Lagos by a peace advocate in the Niger Delta region, of how in 2008, he, and some Niger Delta youth leaders in different communities/ kingdoms, with sincere effort to promote Martin Lurther Kings Jr’s non-violence philosophy/education developed a template for training of youths in the region- an initiative similar to what is today celebrated as amnesty programme.
But unfortunately, this ‘noble and sublime initiative’ had not gone without opposition from the militants as many of the proponents were intimidated, humiliated, kidnapped, beaten and their families threatened for working against their violence ideologies in the region. Despite this persecution, the government at both the state and Federal levels were all too silent that no effort was made to secure their release or words of sympathy and encouragement sent to their families.
Certainly, history will surely judge our leaders.
But while we wait, the questions before us as a nation are; what can we do to make the olden days activists to come down from the Olympian highs and merge today’s civil activism to make political action more effective? How can we bring back the experiences of the activism of the 80s and 90s and maximize the gains of the past? How can civil and political activism work together to take our great nation to the ‘next level’? Who will tell our ex-activists watching the political affairs of our nation from the balcony that activism is necessary but not sufficient as political participation is essential?
How will Nigerians communicate to our policy makers that;if achieving a people-purposed leadership or building effective justice system form part of our dreams,then, the nation needs to look for ways to co-opt the likes of Olisa Agbakogba,who is the founding father of the Civil Liberty Organization,Clement Nwankwor, Professor Chidi Odinkalu, Femi Falana,Richard Akinnola and other Nigerians blessed with the spirit of the late Chief Gani Fawehinimi.
Similarly, if promotion of peace in Niger Delta and youth’s empowerment forms our objective as a nation, then, we urgently need to search out personalities-the likes of Victoria-Ibezim Ohaeri, who was at the fore front pushing for the passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) by the outgone 8th Assembly. And other peace advocates in the region that are not just familiar with, but well respected. People who are committed and are development-minded, and not representatives of one political godfather or the other, to champion such initiative.
Evidently, Mr. President need to do this not for political reason(s) but because history teaches that for democracy to survive, ‘it needs economic development, and political institutions that supports free speech and human rights; and a civil society resting on shared values that make people with different and conflicting views willing to corporate with each other.
On the part of the activists, it will be rewarding in political and socioeconomic to recognize that globally, when non profit sector has grown and its economic impact expands, it is important that members identify and support non profit leaders who wish to run for elected offices.
Going by reports, it was similar thinking in the United States back in 2011, that led to the creation of the 501(c)(4)organization ‘CFORWARD’ and its associated political action committee (PAC) – that brought about the first large scale body with cordinated effort to identify, financially support and endorsed non profit leaders as candidates for political office in local, state and national races’.
Finding similar traditional progressive solution to the present problem in Nigeria is the purpose of this piece.

Jerome-Mario Utomi,(jeromeutomi@yahoo.com), is a Lagos-Based Media Consultant.

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