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This article is taken from the April 2000 Phatlalatsa newsletter

 

Learning and teaching in Africa

Our mission statement at S&T is to use our skills to put Africa first. In recent weeks, we’ve had the privilege of being invited to work in Nigeria and Kenya, offering us the chance to be true to our mission.

Training in public participation in Abuja, Nigeria

The change to democracy in Nigeria brought with a constitutional review, following similar undertakings in Kenya, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and of course South Africa. David, who was the official evaluator of the public participation process for the South African Constitutional Assembly, was invited to participate in a civil society training workshop held in Abuja.

Under the auspices of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an NGO that stretches across Nigeria and Ghana, civil society structures in Nigeria were brought together to analyse their own strategy and to learn from our experience in South Africa.

The South African team initially included Hassen Ebrahim, Deputy Director-General of the Department of justice and former CEO of the Constitutional Assembly, but he had to withdraw. John Tsalamandris, who had managed the Bill of Rights committee in South Africa, went with David.

A skewed process?

The President of Nigeria has appointed a constitutional review committee, with a mandate to travel across the country and solicit inputs, and to report back in 3 months. Bearing in mind that there are 120 million Nigerians – with over 250 different ethnic groups and languages – clearly the process is inadequate, when judged against what took place in South Africa.

The civil society structures heard about the South African experience, our strengths and weaknesses, based on the successive evaluations that David had managed. They were also trained in conflict management, negotiation techniques and a host of other important issues by John.

The African experience

We forget that we had a unique opportunity in the mid-1990s, to draw up a genuinely democratic and participative constitution. We had a government that wanted one; donors that put money into the process; and a powerful set of civil society structures ready to participate, and fight hard for what they believed in.

In Nigeria – as elsewhere – the situation is different. No real mechanisms exist for broad-based public participation, which is left entirely to CBOs and NGOs. This is as true in Nigeria as it is in Kenya.

But if there is little up-front space for mobilisation, the experiences of countries other than South Africa shows that a critical mechanism for legitimacy is a post-drafting referendum. The referendum in Zimbabwe is the best-known example of this, and shows how a process that is skewed to favour the ruling elite can be thrown out by the citizenry.

And it is it this kind of mechanism that the civil society structures in Nigeria are now calling for. A referendum opens space for debate and mobilisation, and for resources to be made available by wary donors. And – critically – it is a process that can confer or remove legitimacy, with important and far-reaching implications for ordinary citizens.

After days of intensive work in the 41 degree heat of Abuja, we felt exhilarated and exhausted. Civil society is alive and well and growing in Nigeria, and the more we can learn from each other, the more a common experience can be analysed and understood.

 

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