Moribund civil society - The Nation
•Beko Ransome-Kuti's memorial recalls the golden era of civil society and what we miss today
ONCE upon a time, Nigeria had a plethora of vibrant civil society organisations that even the country's erstwhile military rulers could not ignore. We are talking of groups like the Campaign for Democracy (CD), Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) and Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), among others. The civil society groups, in collaboration with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) fought the military to a standstill by mobilising students, workers and even artisans for civil disobedience, protest marches and strikes during the June 12 struggle. Some of their members were maimed, some killed while others fled the country as a result of the persecution by the military junta.
In short, the history of civil rule that we have today will not be complete without a pride of place accorded the civil society groups. If these groups were so effective in the military era, why have they simply gone to sleep, as it were? This was the question being asked when, on Monday, some eminent Nigerians gathered at a memorial symposium on the 8th anniversary of the death of one of the country's foremost activists, Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, in Lagos. Beko, as he was fondly called, could easily be referred to as 'Mr. Civil Society' if there is anything like that. He helped to form the CD, Nigeria's first human rights organisation; the group opposed Abacha's dictatorship in 1993. Beko was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 by a military tribunal for bringing the mock trial of General Olusegun Obasanjo to the attention of the world, but was freed in 1998 after Abacha's demise.
However, Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. It is indeed an understatement to say that the struggle was Beko's life. He was so entrenched in it that many people knew him more as an activist than as a medical doctor that he trained as. As a matter of fact, it was his social activism that made the eminent Nigerians at his memorial symposium to so gather in his remembrance. We salute the organisers of the symposium for keeping Beko's memory alive. There cannot be a better way to immortalise him. Beko kept to the family's tradition in championing the cause of the down-trodden. As chairman of the Lagos State Branch of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), and the association's national deputy chair, he kept campaigning against the lack of drugs which was the hallmark of our public hospitals. He was also the president of the CDHR where he twitted power and served as a conduit to articulate mass displeasure against human rights infringement and the frigid military establishment's clampdown on political voices. He was in and out of jailhouses in the course of the struggle.
Sweet should be the memory of such rare a Nigerian who had the choice of the easy life, given his background and all, but chose to pitch his tent with the masses. When we keep celebrating such people in a country that has lost its moral soul, it is like giving an elixir to the young ones who might want to take after him. It is also a way of ensuring that the country is never in short supply of such a moral compass. But the question now is: what has happened to the civil society groups in the country today? Part of the reasons for today's ennui as against then was that the civil society groups left the trenches, perhaps because the military rulers were our common enemy. Now they have been forced back to the barracks. But what we have today is not the kind of democracy that we fought for. So, we need to reinvent protest.
Unfortunately, today many of them have been enlisted in the parochial agenda of the political elite. Sometimes they are tools in the elite's internecine fights. But then, the role of the civil society groups is crucial because they have to provide the leadership, alongside the opposition, to effect the desired change that the country yearns for. Sometimes too, they can check an overwrought opposition. We know they have their challenges, but these have always been there; what is now lacking is the will to make the kind of sacrifice that Beko and others made to overthrow a repressive era.