One of the measures of a vibrant democracy is how active and free civil groups are, groups which are non-governmental and exist so as to monitor and influence government activities and also act as advocacy groups. Nigeria as a democracy of over 10 years has quite a number of such activist organisations, especially in the areas of human rights and health issues such as HIV/AIDS. Of recent, a lot of young people have been setting up their own advocacy groups to pursue issues. Two excellent examples are Light up Nigeria and Enough is Enough, which I have mentioned severally on this blog. This is in addition to the very numerous ones that exist only online, on networking sites such as Facebook.
However, most of such groups are focused exclusively on the activities of or influencing the Federal Government. Rarely does one ever see a state-focused activist organisation, talk less of one for a local government. I do not know whether this is due to a lack of politically-minded youths in our states willing to advocate for causes or due to an ignorance that not everything is to be solved by the FG. I am disinclined to go with the former opinion, because I believe there is an even spread of people who are aware of what is going on in their environment across Nigeria. It is more likely the latter opinion, as we tend to blame the President for everything wrong in this country, forgetting that we have governors and local government chairmen who are responsible to and for us too.
There is a great demand for activist groups at the lower levels, from the grassroots so as to make this democracy go full circle. This is not to even mention the fact that we could have a greater impact than trying to battle things out on a federal level. It is way easier to see your local government chairman, commissioner or even state governor than to see a minister or the President. Once we realise that the cause we are fighting for can be handled at the state and local government levels, it should be there we align our forces. There is no doubting the fact that we would achieve a lot.
A very good example of activism at grassroots level is the story of a young man, Samson Itodo in the city of Jos, Plateau State. Mr Itodo and his organisation, Youth Action Initiative Africa, started by mobilizing the young people in their locality to go out, register and vote in the last general elections. They then became election monitors in the state, monitoring from movement of electoral materials to the voting and the collation of results. But their job did not end after the elections. They have gone on to start a radio talk show where young people engage state government officials and has so far had high-profile guests such as the Secretary to the State Government. And this is just the start of it.
A lot of inefficiency and waste goes on at the lower levels and a large part of it is because there is no one to beam the searchlight on those governments. In many states, there is no political opposition; the houses of assembly are in the pockets of the governor and the local media are state-owned, which means no criticising the boss. But if there were activist groups who can exert pressure on them at that level, a lot could change. Compare for instance the buzz generated by the local government elections in Lagos and Niger States, which were a mere 2 weeks apart. While the ‘landslide’ victory by the ACN in Lagos State raised a lot of eyebrows, the same ‘landslide’ victory in Niger State by the PDP passed without notice. The big difference was the fact that Lagos has groups and individuals who are politically active and form a sort of watchdog over the government, something virtually absent in Niger State.
There are many ways of starting this grassroots activism. One simple way is to make efforts to take Facebook activist groups offline so as to create more effect. When you consider the results of a recent study that says 80% of your Facebook friends live within a 50-mile radius of you, you cannot but start to imagine the impact you could create if you should organize just half of that number, who do the same to their own friends, and so on in a domino-effect.
Let us get off our seats, and off our computers and smartphones, and start organizing groups at all levels to advocate for issues. Not every problem is a national one. Not every solution must come from the federal government. Not every activism must be directed at the federal level.