LAWRENCE — It wasn’t a seamless transition when Nigeria, following decades of military coups, held a democratic presidential election in 1999.
Some suspected cheating at the polling stations. Still, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was declared winner and took office, to the delight of many Nigerians.
Questions about election credibility arose again during the 2003, 2007 and 2011 presidential elections, and 2015 may be no different, said Ebenezer Obadare, associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas and editor of “The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa,” new this month from Springer Publishing.
While political corruption remains a large concern there, the fact that Nigeria continues to forge ahead as a democracy is reason to hope and to celebrate, Obadare said.
“The feasibility of military coups in Africa has almost completely disappeared, and it’s partly attributable to civic groups and organizations working for change in the public sphere,” he said. “There’s been a considerable shift, over the past 20 years, from military regimes to democracies — or at least the commitment to working inside the framework of a democratic process.”
Featuring 26 chapters written by a variety of African scholars, Obadare’s book explores how the concept of civil society has shaped the continent.
Civil society is often defined as a “third sector” that can include nonprofit and volunteer organizations, religious groups and labor unions. Although they are separate from government institutions, these groups can enhance communication, build trust and encourage cooperation between citizens and the state. Groups may be local, regional or international.
“They create a space for life outside the state, strong enough to hold the state politically in check,” Obadare said.
Experts, however, say civil society has a mixed record on contributing to successful government and economic reforms in Africa. Scholars Darren Kew and Modupe Oshikoya reflect on the potential and limitations of civil society in the chapter “Escape From Tyranny: Civil Society and Democratic Struggles in Africa.”
One of the more successful examples is Ghana, where civil society played a central role in the democratization in the 1990s. Here, activists rallied for macroeconomic and poverty reduction reforms and participated in negotiations for an economic recovery program. They were also successful in creating election monitoring groups that helped ensure fairness in the 2000 general election — the first Ghana election in which voters transferred power to a different political party.
Meanwhile, civil societies in other nations have struggled to take root.
Uganda has a history of restricting and, during some periods, even outlawing civic groups. The Ugandan parliament abolished presidential term limits in 2005. Peaceful protesters were harassed for claiming the 2011 election was rigged. The government has continued to create bureaucratic roadblocks for the civic groups that do exist.
In Nigeria, civil society’s strength has occurred in waves. Military rule hindered its progress in the 1990s, but civil society recovered as its leaders cooperated with Obasanjo on political reform policies after 1999. As the new government took tighter control in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections, however, civil society seemed to splinter, although some issue-specific coalitions remained vocal. The power of civil society in Nigeria may have reached a turning point in 2013 with the merging of four opposition political parties into a single national party.
Its participation in democracy building varies from country to country, but the Handbook of Civil Society in Africa also examines civil society’s role in the Arab Spring, neoliberalism in Kenya and South Africa, and its reaction to issues affecting the whole continent, such as HIV/AIDS.
“At first, it was a struggle to convince governments that HIV was a serious problem,” Obadare said. “That started to change when different groups began giving it publicity. By working to get information out to people, they helped begin the ongoing fight against the epidemic.”
While parts of the continent continue to experience corruption and violence, the achievements of civil society show unity and stability are possible.
“They are markers of progress,” Obadare said.