Citizens Participation for Good Governance in Africa

Rebecca Roberts

Ballot Papers - Source: Original picture from Nejeed Bello

Ballot Papers – Source: Original picture from Nejeed Bello

For African governance, the most significant barriers blocking better governance remains corruption and poor service delivery. As indicated by the 2004 World Development Report, the relationship between citizen empowerment to actively participate in holding their government accountable and demanding for better has vital implication for better governance. Because Africa’s democracy is relatively young, the term ‘good or better governance’ revolves around trial, error and building on what works.

Recommendations by international organizations to aid the process of governance for Africa, tends to focus on longer term grandiosity; making it complex, time wasting and harder to attain. As a result, better governance approach requires an alternative approach which focuses on shorter term goals to build momentum going forward. In this regard, establishing quick-wins are possible by harnessing the relationship between citizens and their government.

This post, seeks to explore possibilities and how such relationships could be harnessed for better governance system in Africa, drawing on Nigeria’s case.

Source: Original picture from Nejeed Bello

The idea of “good or better governance” typically draws attention to the destination of how a healthy democracy functions – seeking to enhance by illustrating disparities between the ideals and reality, while ignoring the processes involved. Typically, ‘good governance’ discourse centers on the grand scheme of things, having intangible strategy and counterproductive process of focusing on influencing the government as opposed to equipping citizens to hold their government accountable and demand for better. Yes — transparent elections, functioning rule of law, healthy private sector and fight against corruption are all desirable components. But supporting structures for a lot of these components are challenging — and advocating for it in most cases falls short of laying out realistic framework to aid the process. Without proactive lineup for action, the norm is to end up fuelling disillusion and disappointment which in the end becomes an expensive failed experiment. The problem with this is it sells democracy short.

In essence, democracy’s advantage over all other forms of governing is the invitation it offers citizens to participate in shaping how they are governed, according to their unique visions of what freedom, justice, service delivery etc., is.

The processes involved with citizenship participation is a challenging one — with the element of consent attached to democratic processes, fear for safety and corresponding setbacks along the way. Regardless of these, once citizens become actively engaged in the process, the benefits are monumental and central to democratic vision ─ it’s advancing and its source is sustainable. The immediate goal of citizenship participation is to establish and nurture a thread of effectiveness ─ to recognize entry points for centralize engagement between stakeholders and to reinforce the fact that citizens should be free to vote and replace a government who they feel isn’t serving their best interest.

Source: Original picture from Nejeed Bello

The recent election in Nigeria which saw to an incumbent government being replaced indicates progress and highlighted the benefits of citizenship participation. There are many factors responsible for the progress of Nigerians active participation, but the following points could make for good strategies;

  • Internet and Social Media Penetration: In the last decade, internet evolution and social media engagements have become an undisputable force for economic growth and social change in Africa. Leading to creation of new industries such as ecommerce and e-government; internet penetration is fast becoming change enablers. Due to the bureaucratic processes involved with service delivery, it is vital that citizens are able to share their perspectives and reality with their government. Internet penetration has the potential to transform service delivery and measure reported deliverables against realities. For example, in 2013, Nigerians took to social media to discredit President Jonathan’s claims of better electricity in an interview to Christine Amanpour. Also, social media played a major role in the just concluded Nigerian elections; young people mobilized to participate in voting, counting and tweeting their polling unit results real-time to reduce the chances of rigging. In the past, it could have been nearly impossible for the voice of the people to reflect reality as the idea of free press in most African nations remains a myth.
  • Privately Funded Initiatives: Privately funded initiatives have the capacity to make available reliable information, provide actionable recommendations for public policy and improve service delivery. For example, on the federal level, a privately funded initiative called BudgIT makes budget data available to the citizens and also tracks internationally funded projects in Nigeria. While on the state level, beaconNG working with the state governments, monitors budget, particularly capital expenditure projects, comparing spending to reality and makes such information available to citizens to enable them check and hold their government accountable.
  • Participation through Voice: The internet, social media and privately funded initiatives have collectively made mobilizing participation through citizen’s voice an easier task. Observing African democracies, Nigeria stands out in its ability to mobilize a common voice and get citizens engaging in issues that concern them. A Congolese friend and I recently talked about what makes the case different for Nigeria and I drew her attention to the fact that, it wasn’t necessarily easier as it was a case of an inevitability of a process that began with a strategy and an end goal. For example in January 2012, organized youths mobilized a nationwide protest against the fuel subsidy removal and the increase in pump price, the weeklong protest which held the economy captive didn’t reduce price, but it drew the government’s attention to the fact that citizens know their rights and are beginning to use their power. However, fast-forward to March 2014, when Nigerian Chibok school girls were kidnapped and the government for almost a year refused to acknowledge the issue. Global attention was drawn to the missing girls’ singlehandedly by citizen’s voice through social media campaign.

Source: Original picture from Nejeed Bello


Regardless of good intensions of the international communities, it will never be able to replace the role of citizens in advancing democracies. The benefits of citizens’ participation might seems small but building up overtime could translate into huge steps in the right direction, affirming the positive promises of democratic societies.


4 Responses
  1. Ramson Bundee Reply

    excellent narratives, Observing social media engagement it is obvious that Nigeria seems to get this one right, the guts of the citizens is something we in Zambia need, It will be nice to know how we can engage can start getting young people in other Africa nations to share reality of how they feel about their govt and their policy. So far Nigerian has very strong opposition and able well able to stand up to their government. I friend told me Mo Ibrahim foundation and other organization funded initiatives to enable organizing and creating common voice from youth, how can they do this for us in Zambia we need help.

  2. Emmanuel Bundee Reply

    To be honest I admire the courage of Nigerians on social media, I followed their recent election on Twitter and I was blown away by their passionate to monitor this election with very little or no fear for their safety. It makes me wonder how can Zambia motivate it’s youths to become actively involved in these things, bcos it is necessary. Nigerian democracy is slowly evolving from to the government fearing the citizens. A friend said a lot of funds made this possible for them overtime, such as the Mo Ibrahim etc, this article is stop on aid needs to move from handout to empowering citizens to hold their government accountable. P.s. I am impressed that Future Foreign Policy is beginning to look at Africa’s narratives from the African perspective.

  3. Bunde Emmanuel Reply

    Nigeria is getting this one right. I followed their election on social media and I was highly impressed, meanwhile the South African story is getting very few South Africans engaging in this conversation, it makes me wonder what drove Nigerians to this point of forming a strong alliance against their government? It seems Nigerians wake up daily fishing for stories to criticize their government about daily. Slowly their democracy is moving to the point where government is desperately seeking their approval. My question for Future Foreign Policy is how can Nigeria assisting other African countries to embark on this process as well? At last Africa’s story from an African perspective

  4. Interesting. Aid donors need to refocus from the grand ideas to cheaper, quicker results, as your report suggests, citizens engagement is a cheaper and more efficient way to do it. Giving money to African government is counterproductive, as the money ends up in a Swiss account under false name on behalf of African politicians. Great one.

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