“Democracy must benefit the people it serves”: a conversation with Amina A. Salihu

By Yery M. Garcia (TAI communications officer)

In a world where the principles of democracy and its potential to improve people´s lives are under constant debate, ​​West Africa stands as a region grappling with both progress and challenges. The recent West African Civil Society Week (WACSW23) convened key stakeholders to deliberate on critical issues affecting democracy, peace, and prosperity in the region.

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) spoke with Amina A. Salihu, Senior Program Officer at the MacArthur Foundation's On Nigeria program, to delve into the outcomes and aspirations of this first-of-its-kind gathering.

TAI: Amina, thank you for agreeing to this conversation. Can you start by providing an overview of the WACSW23 and its significance in promoting good governance and democracy in the region?

Amina: The event was organized by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) in collaboration with the West Africa Democracy Solidarity Network and the Civil Space Resource Hub. This event held particular significance amidst a backdrop of repression and a rollback of democratic progress in West Africa. Over the past few decades, there has been a transition from military rule to more democratic forms of governance in many African countries. However, we can see a resurgence of military coups in recent years, which is a cause for concern. Events such as the coup in Burkina Faso and Gabon had raised alarms, with predictions that this trend could spread across the region.

The central argument presented during this convening was that democracy is a vital tool for development, but it must deliver. If elected leaders do not translate their promises into tangible improvements in the quality of life for citizens, people may question the value of democracy itself. In essence, democracy must work to bring about development for it to be meaningful.

TAI: You mentioned specific challenges democracy is facing in the West African region such as the resurgence of coup d'états. These challenges not only hinder economic development but also threaten the very existence of democracy itself. Could you elaborate on the alternatives that were discussed during the WACSW23 to tackle these challenges? 

Amina: Here are some key takeaways from the discussions:

  1. Rejecting Military Coups as Solutions:  Military rule typically leads to the suppression of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and movement, and the suspension of constitutional processes. Military regimes are ill-equipped to foster economic growth, protect individual rights, and maintain the rule of law.

  2. Strengthening Democratic Institutions: Democracy relies on the rule of law and the separation of powers, which are vital for ensuring that governments serve the best interests of the people. Efforts should be made to protect and enhance these democratic foundations.

  3. Addressing Trust Deficits: The attendees stressed the importance of conducting free, fair, and credible elections. When citizens vote, they expect their choices to be respected. Any subversion of electoral outcomes erodes trust in the democratic system.

  4. Engaging Regional Organizations: Civil society groups were encouraged to engage more actively with regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These organizations have the potential to act as moral authorities and facilitate dialogue between governments and civil society. The aim is to make sure that the voices and concerns of the people are heard and addressed at the regional level.

  5. Economic Development: Economic development and prosperity were highlighted as essential components of a well-functioning democracy. Civil society should advocate for budgets that prioritize the needs of the people and encourage economic growth. Access to basic services like electricity and opportunities for economic participation are critical for citizens' well-being.

  6. Expanding Civil Society: The WACSW23 emphasized the need to expand the concept of civil society beyond non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It should encompass a broader array of stakeholders, including the private sector and labor unions. Collaboration among these various actors can help amplify the impact of efforts to improve governance and democracy.

  7. Wealth Decolonization: The goal is to achieve inclusive growth and ensure that the dividends of democracy are experienced by all citizens. This involves asking critical questions about how wealth and resources are distributed. Intermediary organizations should collaborate with donors to channel grants in ways that prioritize reaching the most marginalized populations. Strengthening local government institutions is also essential to deliver governance that is inclusive and benefits the local population. 

  8. Community Engagement: There is a need for civil society to engage with development partners and donors to pool resources and enhance the capacity of organizations working on the ground. While some capacity exists, it may require further enhancement to ensure equitable resource distribution, promoting equity and inclusion. This approach aims to uphold the values of democracy by addressing the needs and concerns of the people, including marginalized groups such as young people and women, who often bear the brunt of inadequate public services, insecurity, and post-election challenges.

"If elected leaders do not translate their promises into tangible improvements in the quality of life for citizens, people may question the value of democracy itself".

TAI: And how can these strategies be effectively implemented in the region? What would be the role of civil society in implementing these strategies?

Amina: The role of civil society is indispensable in upholding the values of democracy by addressing the needs and concerns of the people, especially marginalized groups, and advocating for a society where every citizen can live with dignity.

First and foremost, civil society should collaborate with electoral institutions to drive electoral reform. This reform must view elections as a cyclical process rather than just a singular event. Civil society organizations need to be actively engaged in every aspect of this process. This includes acting as a watchdog to hold elected officials accountable for their actions, ensuring they deliver on their commitments to the people.

Particular attention should also be given to the engagement of young people in the democratic process. Addressing the trauma and disillusionment that can result from unmet expectations post-election is vital. By involving young people and ensuring they have a stake in the future, we can work towards building a better society.

Furthermore, civil society can advocate for reforms aimed at addressing economic growth and prosperity. This includes advocating for budgets that prioritize the needs of citizens, promoting equitable resource distribution, and ensuring that economic opportunities are accessible to all.

In this changing civic space, technology, local philanthropy, and collaboration with the private sector are powerful tools that civil society can harness to drive change and ensure that democracy not only delivers but also promotes development. 

TAI: Glad you mentioned technology. Military regimes all over the world often use internet shutdowns to suppress civil society. Can you elaborate on the role of information and communication advances in addressing governance challenges in West Africa? 

Amina: In West Africa, we recognize technology as one of the three game-changers, alongside women and young people. I always said there are two categories of people: the BBC (Born Before Computers) and the CNN (Computer Native Newbies). Young people are CNNs. When technology is in their hands, it empowers them to take part in civic activities, advocate for change, and engage in governance processes. 

Furthermore, technology can be a tool for women's economic empowerment, leading to improved livelihoods. Imagine women having reliable electricity to power this technology and the profound impact it can have. 

Since 2015, technology has been a key element in elections across the African continent. Bloggers, social influencers, and social media platforms like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook have enabled citizens to form communities, discuss political issues, and shape political agendas. These platforms empower citizens to critically evaluate candidates and make informed voting decisions.

Blockchain is revolutionizing elections by ensuring transparency and credibility. By transmitting votes electronically via blockchain, the results become an immutable record, resistant to tampering. This builds trust among voters, assuring them that their votes will be accurately counted and reflected in the final outcome.

Technology is also transforming financial inclusion by connecting producers, like farmers, to markets. With access to data and mobile technology, farmers can locate markets for their products, reducing waste and improving livelihoods. It enables economic opportunities and equitable distribution of resources.

Technology has played a critical role in ensuring education continuity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With online learning, students can access education remotely, minimizing disruptions caused by lockdowns. However, this also highlights the importance of ensuring equitable access to technology and the Internet.

Technology streamlines government services, reducing bureaucracy and improving efficiency. Citizens can access services online, such as renewing passports or driver's licenses, without the need for time-consuming physical visits to government offices.

"However, to harness the full potential of technology, it's crucial to address the digital divide. This means ensuring that all communities have access to services and infrastructure. Moreover, technology should be accessible in local languages to be truly inclusive".

TAI: Do you see a path for civil society and governments to collaborate to enhance the welfare of the people? And, what long-term impact do you anticipate from WACSW23, given that it was the first of its kind?

Amina: Starting with the last question about long-term outcomes, one key aspect we discussed during WACSW23 was the pivotal role of the diaspora. Historically, Africa has seen people leave to gain knowledge and then often return. However, since the 2000s, there has been a significant wave of migration out of the continent, especially of young people who may not intend to return to the continent. This diaspora continues to remit resources, demonstrating their commitment to their homeland.

Harnessing this diaspora potential is crucial, involving a "brain gain" strategy that taps into their ideas, attention, and accountability. Moreover, leveraging technology, such as blockchain, could facilitate diaspora participation, even in voting.

Looking ahead, the future lies in collaboration rather than exclusivity. This is the guiding principle of the MacArthur Foundation's On Nigeria theory of change. It emphasizes creating an environment where governments and civil society can work together effectively. Picture it as a sandwich or a growing tree; the core is building trust, understanding, and collaborative capacity.

Government and civil society have distinct roles, but they're interdependent. Governments must provide an enabling environment for certain services, while civil society ensures accountability. Both are essential for progress.

The WACSW23 highlighted the need for mutual understanding and cooperation. Civil society should grasp the basics of government operations, and the definition of civil society should expand beyond NGOs to include various actors, like the private sector. Respect and trust are key. Civil society's advocacy combined with government action can result in the passing of laws that protect and benefit the people.

Citizens also have a role, as they choose their leaders based on their agendas. It's a two-way street where citizens hold the government accountable, and the government fulfills its obligations to the people. Together, we can create a secure and dignified environment for citizens and ensure the effectiveness of truly democratic countries.

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