The West Africa Civil Society Week which took place from 29 August to 31 August 2023 in Lagos, Nigeria brought together over 80 actors in the civil society ecosystem from Southern Africa, East Africa and predominantly from West Africa. The overall theme for the conference was ‘Civil Society in West Africa: reimagining the role of the third sector in protecting civic space and consolidating democracy for regional development’. The entire programme can be summarised in the opening words of Nana Asantewa Afadzinu, that “…we want democracy and good governance. We oppose coup d’états and prefer constitutional rule and good electoral governance…”. Undoubtedly, the engagements during the programme proved that this is what the peoples of Africa want: good governance that transcends into development.
The conference dealt with critical issues the sub-region is battling with such as issues of security, democratic backsliding, technology and good governance, and the role of civil societies in all these. One of such thought-provoking discussions was on the ‘Shrinking Civic Space and Democratic Backsliding in West Africa: innovative actions from civil society and partners.’ Two views seemed interesting from the discussions: the views of Prof. H. Kwasi Prempeh and Ms. Nnena Paul Ugochukwu.
The selected topic for the discussion was a critical one that needed to be dealt with. It has become obvious that issues of bad governance, insecurity, poverty, etc. have been reasons for the upsurge in coups in West Africa and across Africa as a whole. Yet, these has been described as an “unacceptable” excuse for coups. The argument is that human beings are not perfect and may poorly govern their people at some point. This is why there are elections and opposition parties waiting to replace the existing government. This was expressed in the views of Prof. H. Kwasi Prempeh during the discussion as he explained that:
“I don’t think a coup should be an accepted corrective for bad governance… Bad governance will happen… that’s why there are opposition parties waiting to replace you [the government] … This idea that because people have governed badly, a coup becomes acceptable is not an acceptable answer for me”.
Even though Prof acknowledged that this is not to pardon the bad governance some countries are experiencing, it is important to note that citizens and governments have a social contract. This social contract allows citizens to offer part of their freedoms to the government, who is to ensure that citizens are protected, and is seeing to the welfare of the citizens according to the three contractualists, Thomas Hobbes J.J. Rousseau and John Locke’s conception of the social contract. In the view of Locke,
“The obligation to obey civil government under the social contract was conditional upon the protection of the natural rights of each person [right to life, liberty, and private property] … Sovereigns who violated these terms could be justifiably overthrown”.
In this line of argument, it is the “obligation” of citizens to rebel against a government who fails to adhere to the terms of the contract, thus seeking the welfare of the people through their right to life, liberty or freedoms, and private property. Let me hasten to add, that this is not to justify the coups that have occurred based on the theoretical approach of Locke. It is to point out to governments that nothing should be taken for granted. They have a responsibility to execute, and they must do that to the satisfaction of the citizens in the country. This was echoed in Ms. Nnena Paul Ugochukwu’s statement during the discussion. She explained that:
“The baseline of democracy is that this is a government for the people, by the people; if it is not people centric, then it cannot be democracy.”
This is to say that the focus of democracy is the people. Therefore, in all the activities of the government, the aim should be to improve the living conditions of the people. Bad governance occurs when the “people” variable is replaced with another variable. If features of good governance entail efficiency and effectiveness, participation, rule of law, transparency and accountability, responsiveness, etc. all of which focuses on satisfying the citizens, then the reverse is also true of bad governance. Bad governance therefore fails to take into consideration the wishes of the people. If the reiteration by Mr. Braimah Sulemana that “democracy dies in steps” is to be used, then bad governance is one major step to the death of democracy.
Governments cannot be given even a little room to manoeuvre on the issue of bad governance. There should be zero tolerance for the term. This is why civil societies are paramount in democracies. They are to constantly remind governments of the social contract governments have with the citizens. Civil society groups cannot only be concerned about the processes in democracy. They cannot only seek to promote good governance by promoting democratic processes. But the results of such processes also matter. The results which have been seen as unsatisfactory hence sparking a lot of unrest on the African continent are to be faced head-on by civil society groups.
This makes civil society’s role in promoting good governance crucial. It is true that governments cannot replace civil society groups and vice versa. These parties all perform distinct but interrelated roles to ensure citizens get what they bargained for. This calls for a strong collaboration between both parties.
But aside the collaboration, Ms. Nnena Paul Ugochukwu pointed out the need to employ Artificial Intelligence to improve governance. Ms. Nnena argued that Information Technology has the potential to draw citizens closer to the governing process. She explained that
“If this kind of system is brought into government, you can have conversations with your leaders in real time… This could help foster citizen engagement.”
Conversations on the use of technology to improve good governance is hence an area that governments will have to look at. Employing this, technology, can promote governments responsiveness, accountability and transparency, and draw citizens into the processes of government. When citizens feel part of the governance process, it increases legitimacy of the government and reduces the likelihood for coups to occur.
Indeed, the West Africa Civil Society Week introduced critical discussions into sensitive areas. This is how it is supposed to be. The tough issues, sensitive issues and critical issues are what civil society groups need to be focusing on. This should be the direction of civil society groups in the sub-region. Such steps will put governments on their toes and citizens will breathe a sigh of comfort in the end. The lasting effect is that this will promote good governance and subsequently reduce the political unrest in West Africa and on the African continent.