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January 02, 2013

"Old" and "New" Participation in Democracy (Part 1)

People participation is essential in Democracy.

Hang on! Democracy is such a slippery concept that defining how essential participation is to its nature is dependent upon the form or model it takes. Where democracy promotes individualism, communitarianism or deliberation, the corresponding expectation for participation flunctuates.

In this series, I intend to think through Democracy to define Participation. Many of the thinkers who consider the Internet (digital media generally) a breath of fresh air for democratic culture, mostly ride on the idea that these tools provide people with a means to contribute to how they are being governed by the state. Where media elites dominate and dictate the agenda (or set the agenda as it is in Agenda-Setting theory), the web provides the platform for a plurality of voices - men and women alike, minorities, subaltern, counter-publics etc (Kellner, 2000). Where states and corporate powers trampled on the people, the rise of the Internet has given them a voice to come together and fight back (Shirky, 2008). These a just a few of the optimistic examples.

I thought since we fling this term, participation, around so generously in discussing democratic culture and the public sphere, it is perhaps hightime one investigated what it once meant (pre-digital age) and what it means now. How has it changed? What does the change mean, if it has?

I casually threw the question out on Twitter some weeks back:

"What exactly is political participation in this digital age? Clicking, commenting, blogging?"

I received a range of responses. @Payme2cents said, "I'd take all those as social participation which are necessary. For political ones, you'd actually need to be in a functioning group". Similarly, Perkins Onome (@operko) responded thus: "'Political Participation?' Get on the van of politics, get your hands on the things of politics and decision making."

However, this on the other hand is a random tweet I found (not in response to my question):

My further search on the web yielded a few other people's thoughts about democratic-participation via digital media. Here is a blog post by Dyawhie on Indonesia: Why Democracy and Why Social Media. She said:

I have concluded some aspects that made combination of writing and social networking as the best personal way to promote democracy in a country like Indonesia...One of my friends purchased a plane ticket back to her hometown to vote in the general election. Some clicked their “like this” icon in Facebook. Some people told me that they enjoyed my writings and were waiting for more. Some other thought that the arguments are quite logical and informative...The fact that Indonesia has recently become the third largest user of Facebook is only strengthening my conclusion...

In India, social media is credited with exposing government's mishandling of the truth in the Delhi gang rape case; and in the Times of India, social media is democracy's direct pipeline. Here is an excerpt from this article:

Social media not only gives each individual a voice, it gives him a direct pipeline to people who matter. The sense of having an opinion that counts, of being able to reach out to the void beyond and find an echo in a kindred spirit, of being able to galvanise others and in turn be galvanised creates a new feeling of significance and belonging. Social media both individuates and aggregates. It makes the abstract real, the impersonal personal and the individual collective. The sense of being part of a growing and increasingly noisier crowd, of feeling the heat of one`s own passion and the gathering of strength from others like oneself, and the knowledge that the collective upsurge is visible to others, particularly those against whom the anger is directed is a potent and almost tactile experience of power. By the time the movement spills over into the streets, it already exists in a pre-cooked form in that there is already an assurance that many others feel the same way.

In the heat of all these discussions, there is a need for one to understand what has happened to participation. A public sphere thrives on participation, people deliberating with one another on issues of common concern - whether at a coffee shop or in a forum online. Is there a boundary to what is or not participation in democratic culture? Has the definition of participation changed - shrank or expanded?

These are the questions I will be asking (and searching for answers to in literature) in the second part of this post. First of all, I would identify how the different perceptions of democracy influence the expectations of how people should participate; followed by examples of what used to be participation (old) and what can we call participation today (new).

What would you describe as participation is in this age? Pleaase comment.


Kellner, D. (2000) Habermas, the public sphere and democracy: A critical intervention. [online] Available from: (Accessed November 29, 2012).

Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody - How Change Happens When People Come Together. London: Penguin Books.

December 07, 2012

The Citizen asked the Governor…

This post is inspired by a quick exchange I witnessed on Twitter on December 7, 2012, between a Nigerian citizen and a Northern state governor in Nigeria, Governor Aliyu Wamakko.
To me, it is a very potent illustration of what I would like to describe as the democratic digital public sphere.
The prelude to this exchange is this:sokoto_governor.png
On October 23rd, 2012, news organisations in Nigeria carried reports that the Sokoto State governor Wamakko, allegedly flogged a PHCN manager for failure to supply power to his community. Some of the news organisations include, PM News, Osun Defender, Nigerian Tribune to mention a few.
The Nigerian blogosphere, citizen media were not to be left out of the sensation. Forums like the Nigerian Village Square, Linda Ikeji's blog, NairaLand, made this a topic of discussion. Members of Nigeria's digital sphere discussed the issue inside-out online (see comments section of hyperlinks).
Nigerian blogosphere is not a new development, it is indeed a growing community. However, what's new is the gradual openness of public officials to relate with citizens online. Public policy is not quite certain how handle itself in the digital sphere.
America has been more adventurous about this idea.
The following points struck me about the exchange between Alkay and Wamakko:
  • Digital (new) media was being used to bridge the gap between the government and the governed
  • In old media, Alkay would have needed to call in to a radio or TV program where Wamakko was being interviewed to pose this question (what are the chances of that?)
  • Alkay may have needed to write an open-letter to the governor, or letter to the editor in a newspaper to get this question off his chest (too much trouble for such a simple question don't you think?)
  • What was democratic about Alkay's tweet and Wamakko's response? Everything.
  • Asking such a question required someone who was an informed member of the citizenry, who was conscious of his status as a citizen and most importantly, was willing to take action.
As Douglas Kellner puts it, after old media have failed in their democratic functions of informing the populace, asking the right questions with the right analysis and generating genuine public opinion for the state to act on, "new media technologies such as the Internet are...serving as a new basis for participatory democratic communication politics."
It is not my concern here whether Governor Wamakko is speaking the truth or otherwise. When Nigeria's digital public sphere develops to the point where public officials are willing to engage with citizens directly online in order to access public opinion, the fledgling democracy would mark a milestone on the way to recovery.
I am aware that there are many questions heralding that position. For instance, how many Nigerians are online, how public (of general interest) would the opinion generated be...?
These and more questions I ask myself as I go on this research journey.

November 28, 2012

Tribalism & Nigeria's Democracy

I recently read a Viewpoint by Professor Calestous Juma (International Development, Harvard) on the BBC website, How Tribalism Stunts African Democracy. In this article, he was very clear about the infamous role of tribal sentiments in Africa's stunted socio-political progress, and how its influence in Africa politics is somewhat underestimated whilst we beam our spotlight on theelection process.

As a quick recap, my research is on building democratic culture through an effective (digital) public sphere, and a few questions are currently guiding my study. They are:
  • What is the new digital public sphere?
  • In what ways has digital media facilitated democracy?
  • What new culture, social and political changes have been affected by this digital public sphere?
  • What existing societal forces are disadvantageous to its development?
  • What strategies can be found to to be instrumental in developing a fully effective public sphere?
(More on my profile)

I have highlighted the question that best addresses the issue of tribalism.

Nigeria is the focus of my study. Since the Professor illustrated his points with mainly Kenya and Somalia, I thought I'll do a blog post on how tribalism is also a big issue in Nigeria's democracy.

I have not begun to tackle this question in detail (i'm still on the first two questions), however, I feel it is necessary for me to touch upon it albeit briefly here. Let me call this post a mini-preptowards the real deal. I have no doubt that in the course of research, I will find other social forces that are detrimental to the creation of the digital public sphere. Hypothetically, tribalism may be on the list of findings. As a researcher, I am often self-reminded not to go into the field with ready-made assumptions.

Moving on, I have a few texts that aptly capture how tribalism began to rear its head in Nigeria's social-sphere, especially in Journalism; not being nipped in the bud, it gradually sipped into party-politics and found a clear pathway to strongly impact on the country's democracy. If not so, in late 2000s, we wouldn't still be talking about the concept of zoning the presidency in Nigeria.

Where did this start?

Once upon a time, Nigeria and the people within it had a common enemy, colonialism. The race was on to get colonialists off the land and secure political independence. Unlike others, it was a bloodless war fought on the pages of newspapers.

The first newspaper in the country was founded in Abeokuta (a thriving centre of missionary activity) by Rev. Henry Townsend. It was called Iwe Iroyin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba (the newspaper for the people of Egba and Yoruba).

Albeit that this newspaper was primarily a religious pamphlet, carrying news on missionary activity, it also published content on local politics. Fred Omu (1978) says Iwe Iroyin must have had a robust editorial policy because it was reprimanded by the British Colonial Office, for "aggravating problems of foreign policy".

The birth of a radical press emerged in the 1880s, the kind of press that had no affiliation to the church. These were newspapers by educated Africans, returnees. By 1937 there were no less than 51 newspapers in existence (Olatunji Dare, 2000:12). Here are a few names of the pioneers: Richard Beale Blaize (Lagos Times), Benjamin Blackall (The Observer), Owen Emerick Macaulay (The Eagle and Lagos Critic), John Payne Jackson (Lagos Weekly Record)...

Herbert Macaulay, regarded as the Father of Nationalism took over Nigeria's first daily in 1927, Lagos Daily News and transformed it into 'a ferocious anti-government news paper and a political springboard, and the organ of his political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party" (Dare, 2000:14-5).

In 1937, Nnamdi Azikwe also joined the league of journalists when he set up West African Pilot, and proceeded to establish Nigeria's first newspaper chain. Azikwe's newspaper chain even 'secured a foothold in Northern Nigeria,' with the publication Daily Comet.

It was about fighting the idea of colonialism, hence tribal differences were kept aside.

In the North, the first newspaper was the Hausa language, Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, established in 1939 by the colonial authorities.

In 1949, Obafemi Awolowo also set up the Nigerian Tribune to serve as a vehicle for his political party, the Action Group.

As Dare (2000) puts it, a distinct feature of the press in Nigeria before independence was that it was almost entirely owned and controlled by individuals or political parties.

This was the foundation of journalism in Nigeria. Given the significant role journalism plays in the democracy of any society, it's quite evident the road Nigeria's was headed.

I can't put the description of events that occurred after Nigeria's independence any better than Dare (2000 citing Omu (1978):
With the attainment of political independence in 1960, the cleavages that had been subsumed by the nationalist struggle came into bold relief. Britain, the "common enemy", had departed. The regions, the ethnic groups and the political parties around which they were organised, turned inwards on themselves. So intense was the rivalry and the bitterness among the contending political groups that editors and staffers working on newspapers of different political persuasions, were hardly on speaking terms...

In summary, the Nigerian press was already divided along party lines (pre-independence), and the parties were equally divided along ethnic lines. Hence, tribalism became enshrined in Nigeria's democracy even before practice or perhaps I should say attempted practice.

Professor Calestous suggests that concerted effort to build modern political parties founded on development ideas and not tribal bonds is needed to counter this cankerworm of tribalism. Also, that building clear party platforms requires effective intellectual input, usually provided through think-tanks and other research institutions.

Ironically, the intellectuals-of-old in Nigeria were the players in the history I have attempted to narrate in brief. One would have thought they would know better than to than to allow tribal differences fester in politics - there has been no end to it since then. However, there can be an end to it.

How do you suppose tribalism can be eradicated from Nigeria's democracy? What steps would you take?

Your suggestions are welcome. Please comment.

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Most recent comments

  • Participation is basically about getting one's voice heard, recognised and taken into consideration … by Noel Ihebuzor on this entry
  • @Kwamina – thank you for your comment. May I have the link to your blog on Ghana's elections? I woul… by Tomi Oladepo on this entry
  • Participation in democracy takes the form of constructively critiquing whatever goes on in my societ… by Kwamina Ekremet on this entry
  • l cannot comment on Nigeria Specifically but I just wanted to add that tribalism in Africa has led t… by mandlods on this entry
  • Dudu thank you for this comment. Indeed the issue of the digital divide (locally or globally) will a… by Tomi Oladepo on this entry


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