Civil Society and Electoral Mandate Protection in Southeastern Nigeria

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 1, December 2006

B. U. Nwosu1

The lack of accountability on the part of elected officeholders in Nigeria is easily discountenanced by the incumbents. Their brazen alibi is that people’s votes did not bring them into office, so accountability to voters is irrelevant. Indeed, candidates who receive the most votes can be denied victory. Some literature traces this problem to the learning status of Nigerian democracy, which should mature with time. Yet a stronger current links the trend to the postcolonial character of the Nigerian state, which predisposes it to intervene in the economy. Ruling groups use state power to strengthen their weak material base. As a result, seeking access to state power becomes a contest without rules. The same overbearing postcolonial state renders civil society weak and unable to counter certain tendencies of the state.

The above explanations simply rationalize the docility of Nigerian civil society. Elections in the Southeastern part of Nigeria in 2003 and the lackluster role of civil society in them offer little basis to expect either the maturing of Nigerian democracy or a democratic transformation of the postcolonial state.

This article contends, by contrast, that civil society itself could create an environment conducive to true democracy, if it became a social force and participated in the electoral process to protect the popular mandate. The solution lies in stimulating civil society to rise beyond episodic activities and become a continuing force.


One way to simplify the understanding of civil society is to view it as those interactions above the individual and the family but beneath the state. By implication, then, we speak of civil society in the context of other variables, namely the family and the state. The space between the family and the state is the sphere of the civil society.

The character of interaction between the state and civil society defines the nature of the society. A state that overwhelms civil society is likely to be absolutist and repressive, whereas a civil society that overwhelms the state may tend toward creating anarchy. Striking a balance between the two categories becomes necessary.

Many aspects of the state in Nigeria are inconsistent with a liberal democratic form. The ruling class engages in corruption to strengthen its weak economic base. Public power offers the opportunity to steal state revenues. Consequently, the contest for state power becomes a desperate affair (see Ibeanu, 2005). Elections are massively rigged, and popular electoral mandate is absent. The state’s regulating framework is weak, with only limited capacity to protect people’s electoral mandate. Consequently, civil society, in terms of influencing politics and governance, is subordinated to the state.

Hegelian and Marxian theories envision different relationships between the state and civil society. Because electoral mandate impinges on the state, it is important to explore civil society’s permissible role at the level of epistemology. This is particularly so because of the importance of elections to democracy. Civil society is significantly affected by the government, whether it is a democratic and responsive one or a repressive and unaccountable one, so it is appropriate to examine civil society’s role in protecting the mandate of candidates favored by the public.

This article argues that the civil society in Southeastern Nigeria has limited engagement with the state, and that its weak role in protecting electoral mandates results from the character of the postcolonial state.

Civil Society, State, and Electoral Mandate Protection

A plethora of conceptions of civil society exist, most of which find shade under either Hegelian or Marxian notions. John Hall (cited in Kukah 1999:43) defines civil society as “an opposite of despotism, a space in which social groups could exist and move something which exemplified and would ensure softer and more tolerable conditions of existence.” Hall stresses civil society in terms of freedom from tyranny. But the conception could have been stronger if it placed civil society in the context of the relationship between society and public power. Once we speak in terms of public power or the state, we have a framework for the activities of civil society within which Hall could more appropriately speak of “more tolerable conditions of existence.”

Agnelli (in Helmich and Lemmers, 1998:12) designates civil society as “the meeting of autonomous subjects of the state and its institutions, united not only by values and cultures but also by the desire to act conjointly and to assume specific responsibilities in projects of general interest.” For Agnelli, civil society is made up of all voluntary associations, local community organizations, and cultural and research institutions, in addition to representative bodies of private enterprise and business sectors. This conception by implication gives civil society space to assume a wide range of roles, including engaging the state on issues of democracy and elections. Uniting out of desire to “act conjointly … in projects of general interest” is wide enough to accommodate electoral mandate protection.

Civil society, according to Larry Diamond (cited in Kukah 1999:44), is

the realm of organised social life that is voluntary, self-generating, self supporting, autonomous from the state and bound by legal order or set of shared rules…. It involves [people] acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions and ideas, exchange ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state and hold state officials accountable. It is an intermediary entity standing between the private sphere and the state.

Diamond’s conception is comprehensive in terms of civil society’s social location as well as its frame of activities. He enriches his conception further by characterizing an organized civil society as follows (see Kukah 1999:45):

  1. a check against excesses of government;
  2. an accelerator of participation and skills of various segment of society;
  3. an alternative to political parties;
  4. a promoter of bargaining power of interest groups;
  5. a mitigator of fundamentalist extremists and maximalists and provider of alternatives for negotiation on a multifaceted society; and
  6. a field of leadership recruitment.

Although the above characterization covers organized civil society, in the sense of entities that may qualify as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (see Racelis, 2000), it nevertheless captures relations within the sphere between the family and the state. Diamond’s notion clarifies roles that can engender democratic transformation. This proceeds from the dynamic characteristics he correctly assigns to civil society.

Our conceptual point of departure could be enriched by blending the Diamond thesis with the functions that Thijn and Bernard (1998) identify with civil society:

  • mediator;
  • countervailing power, increasing the accountability of the state;
  • vehicle for participation by citizens;
  • promoter of social cohesion;
  • contributor to a sense of community;
  • creator of learning and socialization;
  • stimulator of plurality; and
  • creator of social capacity.

Taken together, these ideas suggest that an optimal civil society exerts force throughout the political conjuncture.

To be sure, civil society does not compete with the state. Rather, it opposes excesses of the state – a veritable platform for demanding accountability. This, of course, means that a state’s undemocratic tendencies can be questioned by a civil society whose constituents are also subjects of the state. It follows that civil society can confer a mandate on managers of the state and guard that mandate.

This argument touches on the epistemological issues associated with Hegelian and Marxian notions of civil society and state. Put briefly, for Hegel, the state is superior to the civil society, while Marx sees the opposite.

In Hegelian theory, family and civil society are merely dialectic steps to a higher synthesis, the state, which is greater than its components (see Stumpf, 1977). Hegel contends that the relationship between the state and civil society is mutual, yet the state is superior and its authority absolute. In fact, the state creates civil society for its own ends, and civil society needs the state for intelligent supervision and moral significance (Sabine and Thorson, 1973). Hegel’s grant of superiority to the state derives from the origin and character he assigns it. He holds that “the state is divine will … which unfolds itself into actual configuration … and into the organisation of a world” (Friedrich, 1954:282). Given the theosophic nature of Hegelian theory of the state, civil society exists at the pleasure of the state and cannot challenge the state. Under this theory, an absolute and undemocratic state denies civil society the latitude of relevance; electoral issues, including mandate protection, are closed off.

The Hegelian state is inadequate for understanding contemporary civil society. Indeed, modern conceptions and theories of relations between civil society and the state largely diverge from Hegel’s (see Bayart, 1986; Lehning, 1998; Hadenius and Uggla, 1998; Breed, 1998).

Here as elsewhere, Marx stands Hegel on his head. Marx holds that “civil or bourgeois society is the basis of the state” (Tucker, 1978:16). Put differently, the character of the state reflects the character of the civil society. Insofar as civil society serves as the foundation of the state, civil society can establish the patterns of state organization. Accordingly, democratic norms, including the protection of electoral mandate, belong in the sphere of civil society.

Electoral mandate protection is tied to a seminal question raised by Jinadu (2005:24):

are the conditions that are precedent to and on the election date, including the administration of the electoral process, ones that ensure the ex ante indeterminacy of the election, in other words, is the electoral process generally fair and free?

Civil society in new democracies is challenged by the above question, given that a weak regulatory framework can sometimes subvert electoral mandate. A deficit in mandate protection generally creates a democracy deficit (cf. Jinadu, 2005). But it is important to stress the point made by Jinadu (2005:25) that “electoral mandate is bound up with a country’s constitutional and political history. It grows out of the struggle for the expansion of the democratic space in the country.” This brings us to the character of the state as determined by material and historical forces, which shapes its nature as a mediator in the society, including mediating whether citizens decide who governs the state.

The Nigerian State and Civil Society

It might be necessary to clarify, at least theoretically, whether it does “make sense to speak of civil society in Africa” (Sedogo, 1998:111).

From the Hegelian perspective, “Africa has no history.” It signifies an ahistorical and underdeveloped world, entirely enslaved to the natural mind (Sedogo, 1998:113). By implication, it lacks the “divine will” (state) that unfolds in historical moments, along with the civil society that the state creates. Here Hegel’s idea clashes with reality: the state actually exists in Africa.

Contrary to Hegel, Mamdani (2002:13) posits that “civil society exists as a fully formed construct in Africa as in Europe, and the driving force of democratization everywhere is the contention between the civil society and the state.” But civil society in Africa is not the creator of the state but “a creation of the colonial state” (Mamdani, 2002:19). This creation has not yet achieved a balance in its relationship with its creator.

The imbalance between state and civil society does indeed persist in contemporary African states, including Nigeria. The cause is the character of the postcolonial state.

The colonial state was conceived, nurtured, and sustained in violence (Kukah, 1998). It was absolutist, and either excluded politics altogether or viewed it in terms of administration (cf. Bayart, 1986). The civil society of the colonial state consisted of the few enfranchised colonists and settlers, with enfranchisement based on such factors as income, education, and urban residency. The 1922 Clifford’s constitution in Nigeria introduced the elective principle based on limited franchise, with qualification based on similar conditions. Peasants in the colonial state were not accorded these civic privileges (cf. Mamdani, 2002).

The civil society aimed to circumvent pressures that could create social instability. But some who were excluded from the political space occasionally challenged the colonial state. Particularly instructive was the women’s riot in 1929 at Aba in Southeastern Nigeria. This incident and other episodic eruptions of the peasantry suggest that the society suppressed a crucial category. To sustain its exploitative essence, the colonial state had to retain its absolutist and undemocratic character, leaving only limited participatory space for civil society.

The postcolonial state that emerged at independence retained the trappings of the colonial order. The end of colonialism brought about a change of government personnel without a reconstitution of the state. The postcolonial state in Nigeria thus circumscribes the participatory latitude of civil society, especially on critical issues of democracy and governance. As in the colonial order, the postcolonial order controls significant economic resources in the state. State power offers opportunity for embezzlement. A result is the common quest to personalize public power and make the state unduly coercive.

Personalizing state power brings about the client-patron relationship between state officials and their loyalists. Supporters of the current government are rewarded with perquisites such as contracts, gifts, and public appointments, whereas the opposition is hounded and punished. This trend has so deeply pervaded social consciousness that civil society virtually worships power. Various types of people’s organizations make solidarity visits to the government in power, no matter how it emerged. Such visits do not reflect goodwill or genuine support, but rather the political economy of corruption, in which genuine “civil society,” according to Kukah (1999), is “driven and choked by the thorns of the contradictions of the post colonial state.” Such an environment can hardly foster the sort of sustained civil society necessary for electoral mandate protection or democratic transformation; it can generate only episodic agitations that yield piecemeal and inconclusive ends. The buildup of civil society that ended military rule, for instance, fizzled with the inception of civil rule, instead of remaining as a vanguard of democratic transformation.

Civil Society and Elections in Southeastern Nigeria

The nature of elections in contemporary Southeastern Nigeria exemplifies a disturbingly pervasive trend in postcolonial Nigeria. Two terms summarize the trend: vote-rigging and “godfatherism.” Vote-rigging is no longer limited to the state and political parties. Political entrepreneurs now sponsor candidates for public offices so that they, the godfathers, will receive public funds as well as political influence. This is not unique. In such democracies as the Philippines and Mexico, political entrepreneurs try to buy votes of the poor. Ghana is accused of similar practices (Ojo, 2006).

Unassailable evidence proves vote-buying in the 1999 and 2003 general elections in Nigeria (Pamsha, 2006). The case of Southeastern Nigeria in the 2003 elections is particularly instructive. In Abia State, one of the five Southeastern States, Elder Imo, a man who ran on the platform of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), received a majority of the votes cast and was declared the winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission. However, a certificate of victory was given to Adolphus Wabara. Elder Imo was robbed of his public office, it was alleged, because the hierarchy of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had earlier chosen Adolphus Wabara as the next Senate President (Global Rights, 2005).

Similarly in Anambra State, Dr. Chris Ngige was declared the winner of the 2003 gubernatorial election, even though the candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) received more votes. Indeed, President Obasanjo openly told Nigerians that Chris Uba, the purposed godfather of Anambra State politics, admitted to having rigged the 2003 election (Global Rights, 2005). Chris Uba himself declared, in a gathering of World Igbo Congress, that he rigged the 2003 elections in Anambra State (see Okonkwo, 2003). Further, the Senatorial victory of Ben Obi from Anambra State, stolen through political manipulations of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was recovered only through litigation.

In all the above occurrences, the political heat of the moment seemed to melt civil society. Apart from poll watching by the Justice, Development and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church and a few other groups, there was hardly any response from the civil society in the Southeast. Of course, the vibrancy of the media cannot be denied. But the shocking political events in the region seem a normal outgrowth of power worship. This contrasts sharply with the actions of civil society in the Philippines. Strong civil society brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the populist but corrupt government of Estrada (Kotte, 2001). Poll watching for mandate protection is also a part of civil society’s commitment to democracy in Philippines. Southeastern Nigeria’s vote rigging is not an isolated case. Other parts of the country suffer too. The problem is symptomatic of a strong coercive state that overwhelms the civil society.


Civil society in Nigeria is a victim of the state. This arises from civil society’s failure to reconstitute the coercive state in line with liberal democracy. Hence, the character of the state resembles that of its predecessor, the colonial state. The contradictions of the state suppress civil society and prevent the consolidation of democracy. Elections remain a farce, while protecting the electoral mandate is regarded with levity. Civil society in Southeastern Nigeria is too weak to perform its functions.

In spite of the experiences in the Southeast, a flicker of hope remains. The same 2003 elections that were rigged in parts of the Southeastern region could not be rigged in Kano State gubernatorial elections. A civil society coalition protected the mandate of Shekarau of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), despite the determination of the ruling PDP to return the incumbent Kwankwaso to power through rigging (Global Rights, 2005).

Civil society’s limited and weak engagement with the state in Nigeria could gradually be overcome by strengthening institutional civil society into a social force. The intelligentsia can commence proactive actions on matters of governance, including elections. This can open the space for other professional, community-based, and religious associations to turn proactive in protecting the electoral mandate, demanding accountability in governance, and, ultimately, transforming the nation into a true democracy.


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1 B. U. Nwosu teaches in the Department of Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Southeast Zonal Conference of the Nigerian Political Science Association in November 2006.