As Nigeria’s New President Takes Office, What’s the Future for Civil Society?

For perhaps the first time in Nigeria, the leaders in power see the advantages of delivering results.

Today, as President Muhammadu Buhari takes office, Nigerians are celebrating a major milestone. For the first time since the country’s independence in 1960, after fifty-five years of corruption and stolen elections, citizens have ousted an incumbent president through the ballot box.

President Jonathan’s concession has been hailed as the biggest step taken by any Nigerian leader toward a healthy democracy. But more importantly, this transition should be seen as a major victory for Nigerian civil society.

Citizens played a significant part in the transparency of the election itself, and the results reflect civil society’s efforts to increase constructive dialogue with political leaders. While Nigeria has a long road ahead to achieve true “good governance,” I’m optimistic: civil society is poised to take a major role in holding President Buhari to account.

The Role of Civil Society in the 2015 Elections

The 2015 elections, while not perfect, were a huge step for transparency and legitimacy in Nigeria. This progress was the direct result of years of hard work by citizens and organizations, including Enough is Enough and the Transition Monitoring Group, who are continuing to push for improvements to the country’s electoral processes.

In response to these advocates (and iterating on the disappointing 2011 elections), the reform-minded Nigerian electoral commission chair Attahiru Jega improved citizen registration, accreditation, and voting processes in 2015. The registration process in particular, which was drawn-out and highly scrutinized, ultimately succeeded in setting a cap on the influence interlopers could have on overall voting results.

Importantly, in addition to these procedural reforms, Jega successful engaged citizens in the mechanics of the voting process. Civil society, especially Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, played an active role in elections monitoring. The counting, collation, and reporting processes were all conducted openly, increasing transparency. And, because election results were broadcast live via radio and TV, everyone—from gate guards to bankers—spent two days scribbling and analyzing results as they came.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of room for growth. The commission should have distributed election results in an easy-to-read format, for example, instead of creating a dense, complicated PDF spreadsheet.

Election reform will be an ongoing and heated debate in Nigeria for years. But the fact that this year’s election processes successfully engaged citizens as both voters and monitors is an exciting and positive step.

The Political Benefits of Delivering Results

As we shift from the campaign cycle to the work of a new government, civil society has a new opportunity to increase its voice in the shape of the country’s future: for perhaps the first time in Nigeria, the leaders in power see the advantages of delivering results.  

Buhari is part of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the first political party in Nigeria that relies on citizens’ votes to keep their jobs. For decades, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has maintained its power by fueling clientelism rather than winning popular support. With no credible opposition, PDP leaders have been known to blatantly mock the people’s will in public speeches and policy alike.

The APC can’t afford to be so reckless. Political leaders in this national coalition of multifarious factions from across the country, which was just created in 2013, know they have to rely on popular support to be elected, and must deliver results to stay in power. In addition to President-elect Buhari, APC leaders include the current governors in Lagos, Edo, Nasarawa, and Rivers states. Reboot has worked in all of these states as a partner on local reform agendas, and we’ve seen signs that give us reason to be cautiously optimistic.

These leaders are motivated to listen to civil society, and they are coming to power at a time when Nigerian civil society is coming of age.

A Case Study of Civil Society in Action

Reboot recently worked to support a media platform for education advocates and activists in the Niger Delta, a project that illustrates the increasingly proactive role of the civil society sector.

Working with Nigeria’s first all-news talk radio station, Nigeria Info, Reboot invested in co-developing a weekly program, “The Portal,” aimed at supporting a platform for civil society to engage broad groups of citizens around urgent issues. The show focused on education spending, a local political hot button, and aimed to not only create public conversations but also pressure the state government to respond.

Reboot embedded with producers at Nigeria Info to explore the business development side of the show, which had no real precedent in the market. We also worked closely with the civil society groups to support their capacity for creating compelling content, with a firm grounding in professional reporting and analysis. And, by developing a communications strategy for engaging the public in two-way discussion, we helped public voices contribute to the show’s content.

The approach worked. You can read our full case study on The Portal here, but the top line is: The show earned a dedicated following, and within six months secured public commitments from government officials (members of the APC) to increase accountability in education spending. Most importantly, these budgeting measures were undertaken in collaboration with civil society groups.

There is a growing community of civil society actors around Nigeria who, like our partners at The Portal, are making incremental steps toward a more accountable, transparent, and effective government. What is the international development community’s role in making sure they can reach these lofty goals?

Supporting Reform for Generations

Nigeria has a long road of reform ahead, and an increasingly deep bench of reformers. In addition to the civil society sector, there is a growing community of politically active youth in the country who feel strongly that they elected Buhari—and they are determined to hold him and his administration to account.

The idealism of the grassroots will be an important accelerator in the continued push for reform. One next step, which international donors would be wise to support, is for these activists and civil groups to take a larger role in politics. For example, finding ways to enable youth to field candidates will help elevate new leaders who are grounded in the idealism and values of progress, and who can make larger steps toward reform.

It’s an idealistic goal. But with a victory as historic as this one, Nigerians deserve some idealism.

Futher reading.