Imperative of citizen engagement to save democracy

by | March 8, 2018 12:56 am

After passing through the legislative process without citizen input, citizens of Lagos State are alarmed at the new Lagos Land Use charge that incorporates a 400 percent increment in basic charges. In the National Assembly, a Senate bill proposing the death penalty has gone through a second reading, without citizen contribution and debate. Across the land, similar laws and policies are coming into place without the knowledge, involvement and contribution of citizens.

Citizen anger at the new Lagos charges for land use and other statutory registrations is growing. On the positive side, middle-class groups such as employers’ organisations, the organised private sector, landlords associations are leading the charge. The middle class are instrumental to the economic growth and the survival of democracy in every clime, and so we applaud their rousing from slumber to protest and hopefully contribute to issues of governance.

Indeed, one of the defences of the Lagos State Government for the obnoxious land use legislation is that representatives of the people in the State House of Assembly debated and passed the bill. Citizens should have raised their objections at that stage!

All of these underline the imperative of greater citizen engagement in the Nigerian democracy project. Democracy dies in darkness and without the participation of the electorate. As some have said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Citizen vigilance and involvement is the price of democracy.

Nigeria has now witnessed nineteen years of uninterrupted democracy. We are the fourth largest democracy in the world. Since 1999, democracy in Nigeria has featured regular change of government. There have been four changes: Olusegun Obasanjo, 1999-2007; Umaru Musa Yaradua/Jonathan, 2007-2011; Goodluck Jonathan, 2011-2015; and Muhammadu Buhari, 2015-date. Similar changes have also happened in the Legislature and the federating states.

Unfortunately, the Nigerian citizen has featured mainly as a source of votes for the cyclical process of replacing or returning governments to power. Elections are only one of the four significant elements of democracy. Central to democracy are the three other elements of the active participation of citizens in politics and civil life, protection of the human rights of every citizen and the application and enforcement of the rule of law, ensuring equal application of the laws and procedures to everyone.

Ideally, the Legislature is the arena for expression of the interests, concerns and views of the citizen. Legislators at all levels have since secured budgetary provisions for constituency offices ostensibly in pursuit of the objective of interfacing with those that they represent at State and National levels. They have also enshrined constituency projects as part of this framework.

Alas. These are only surface manifestations. Years of anti-democratic governance under military rule created detachment and aloofness of citizens from the governance process. The citizen stayed away as the Military rulers hardly ever sought the contributions of citizens in making laws or applying the laws. Poverty and insecurity as well as the continuation of the practices of the military have further alienated Mr Citizen.

Enough of that. As the example of the Lagos land use charge shows, Mr Nigerian Citizen needs to show keener interest and participation in the governance process. Participation is the main role of citizens in a democracy. That participation comes through active membership in independent, non-government organisations and groups. Civil society can take various forms and includes groups such as residents associations, community development associations, professional and trade associations. Nigeria has a large number of such groups. It is now time to activate them for engagement in the governance process.

They should participate from the ground up in contributing to legislation and to the enforcement of laws. They should question the decisions of government without rejecting the authority of government.

Taxation has historically always been a trigger for increased democratic participation. Denial of basic freedoms also precipitates involvement. It would be a great development should the Lagos taxation whammy serve as an inflection point to change the curve of citizen participation in governance. How is that possible?

The issues of economic and social well being directly affect the middle class. The middle class are instrumental in growing democracy across the world. It is Keynesian. Just as the middle class is pivotal in growing the economy, it is also essential in growing democracy. A strong middle class provides a stable consumer base that drives productive investment. The middle class is a significant factor in encouraging other national and societal conditions that lead to growth. We welcome the rousing of the middle class as a bastion of civic engagement on the issues of the land use charge in Lagos and the hate speech bill. May it lead to increased involvement and participation by this critical demographic in the evolving Nigerian democracy.