When in the wake of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok town in Borno State in 2014 by Boko Haram, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, Hadiza Bala Usman and other women formed the group, Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) to pressure the Federal Government to be more proactive in rescuing the girls, they faced accusations that they were more motivated by politics, specifically to make the Jonathan administration look bad and hurt their chances in the elections that was a year away.
Those accusations were not surprising: after all, Mrs. Ezekwesili, a two-time Minister in the Obasanjo administration had accused the Yar’adua and Jonathan administrations of squandering $45 billion in foreign reserves, which did not make her any friends in the then government; while Mrs. Usman was openly a member of the then opposition All Progressives’ Congress (APC). With elections fast approaching, the atmosphere was quite toxic and attacks were bound to come.
In their defence, Ezekwesili and her BBOG colleagues maintained that they were merely playing their roles as citizens in exerting pressure on the government to live up to its responsibility of protecting lives and properties with the specific objective of the safe recovery of the missing schoolgirls.
Time has been the vindication of their defence, as despite the victory of the APC at the polls, BBOG has not ceased to be a thorn in the flesh of government in pressuring it, even to the irritation of many members of the Buhari administration and its supporters.
Besides Mrs. Ezekwesili and the BBOG, there are many others who have been very instrumental in making the Office of the Citizen an active one: from organizations such as BudgIT which simplifies public finance documents such as budgets and tracks government finances and the Policy and Legal Advisory Centre (PLAC) which publishes details of bills before the National Assembly to individuals like Saatah Nubari, who singlehandedly has for the past two years painstakingly gone through the entire Appropriation Bills, voluminous as they are, to highlight ridiculous budget line items and potential areas of wasteful spending and corruption – doing even a better job than the National Assembly elected for that purpose.
This is not to mention the thousands of persons who using social media are engaging with public officials, letting them know their frustrations with how they are governing and also offering their ideas. While a lot of those interactions are quite invective-filled, they are still very powerful as part of the social contract between the governed and the governing.
The idea of citizens expressing their minds to government officials and even pressuring them on doing the right thing has been one that our politicians are still grappling with, especially considering the fact that we just emerged from decades of military dictatorship 18 years ago. Little wonder there have been numerous attempts to muzzle online freedom of expression through numerous attempts such as the Frivolous Petitions Bill that was defeated last year.
It was Thomas Jefferson that said, “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” He could not have been more right about this, and the best way to make the government fear the people is to have an active and engaged citizenry.
This engagement could take numerous ways: it could be through interaction with public officials on social media, openly dissenting with it on its policies and actions, or forming pressure groups and civil society organizations to influence the course of government’s direction. All these are equally important in ensuring that citizens are the watchdog of government, and without this, governments will run amok and tyranny will ensue.
It may have taken Nigerians longer to get to this point, and we still have a long way to go, especially as regarding citizens organizing efficiently at sub-national levels. But one thing for certain is that the Office of the Citizen is alive, active and becoming more efficient.
After all, in a democracy, this office is the most important one.