Political Participation: A Linchpin for Democracy and Good Governance

By Modest Ibe

Man is by nature a political animal.’- Aristotle
“I must study politics … that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” – John Adams

The above notable quotations help to underscore the indispensability of political participation, if man must truly secure and broaden his inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness in any given political system, especially democracy.

Democracy and good governance is a function of the awareness and positive involvement of the citizens in civic and political matters.

In a political system, the citizens can be involved in the political process and decision making by joining political parties, voting during elections, participating in electoral campaigns, community affairs and other political activities. The level and pattern of political participation of the citizens, particularly her youthful population, determine, to some extent, the success of the political system.

In Nigeria, politics is seen by a number of people as a ‘’dirty game’’ which must be eschewed. This is as a result of the undemocratic tendencies, deception, violence and uncertainties that characterize have often characterized our politics like a recurring decimal.

Commenting on the political apathy displayed by Nigerians during the 2011 Presidential Election, the then INEC chairman, Professor Attairu Jega lamented:

‘’There exists voters’ apathy in Nigeria is no longer contentious. Voters turnout in the just concluded general elections had provided a scientific and empirical evidence of the existence of voters’ apathy and disinterestedness of sections of the electorates in elections…This ugly scenario has implications for popular participation and governance.”
There exist a nexus between Politics, Political Participation, Democracy, and Good Governance.

Okwudiba Nnoli conceptualized politics as ‘all activities directly or indirectly associated with the struggle for state power, acquisition of state power, use of state power and consolidation of state power.’

Political participation refers to the direct or indirect involvement of citizens in the governance of their country.
O. P. Gauba gave a lucid clarification of the concept of political participation:
“In short, political participation denotes the active involvement of individuals and groups in the governmental processes affecting their lives. In other words, when citizens themselves play an active role in the process of formulation and decisions, their activity is called political participation. Conventional mode of political participation includes voting, standing for office, campaigning for a political party. Interestingly, an act of opposition or public protest also involves political participation. For example, signing a petition, attending a peaceful demonstration, joining a protest march etc. come within the purview of political participation. They are the manifestation of a strong awareness of public interest.”

Political participation is relevant for any political system, but it is an indispensable feature of democracy: Where few take part in decisions there is little democracy; the more participation there is in decisions, the more democracy there is. Thus, the extent and scope of political participation are important – perhaps even decisive—criteria for assessing the quality of democracy.

Democracy in the 5th century BC was used by Herodotus as a rule by the people, which was characterized by equality before the law. This equality emphasized here demonstrates the very character of democracy, which brings it down to the common man. Accordingly, democracy is said to be practised where political authority is used for the good of the masses in a polity. It was based on this principle that Pericles of Athens explained the Athenian constitution saying that it is called democracy because power is in the hands not of the minority but of the whole people.

Democracy is characterized by individual empowerment whether economic, political, social or religious. In a sense, the intrinsic freedom governing democracy makes it possible for individuals to participate freely and actively in politics. Democracy in sum could be said to be best described by Abraham Lincoln as “the government of the people by the people and for the people”.

Active participation of the common man in the very major decision making of the state is key to the successful operation and functioning of democracy. Public offices also must be made open for the masses to join; to say the least; the people have the authority over their representatives who are servants to them.

These culminate in the respect of rule of law and human right, which represent a type of democracy. If we speak of democracy, then we must be ready to accept the fact that the power and even the sovereignty reside with the people. If this is the case, the people reserve the right to alter or abolish any government that becomes destructive or that goes against the will of the people so as to ensure their safety and happiness. This removal can take any form. To be precise, John Locke in his Treatise of Government advocated for revolution in a situation where any government begins to act outside the favour of the people. Often, revolutions appear to be the very last resort to the problems created by a particular democratic system.
Nigeria’s democracy, with all its imperfections, draws hugely from the American model. Her declaration of Independent in 1776 reads:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter . . . it.”

To wit, democracy has the intrinsic power both to create a government and to uncreate it, if and when necessary . But this cannot be without the active participation of the people who are the drivers of democracy, which in turn ensures good governance.

But what is good governance; is it some far-fetched and immeasurable desideratum. To understand ‘good governance’ we must necessarily seek to first define ‘.governance’.
Simply put, “governance” means the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented). Government is one of the actors in governance.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission (UNESCO) has identified eight major characteristics of good governance. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.

a. Participation
Participation by both men, women and youths is a key catalyst for good governance. Participation could be either direct or through legitimate intermediate institutions or representatives. Participation needs to be informed and organized. This means freedom of association and expression on the one hand and an organized civil society on the other hand.

b. Rule of Law
Good governance requires fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially. It also requires full protection of human rights, particularly those of minorities. Impartial enforcement of laws requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force.

c. Transparency
Transparency means that decisions taken and their enforcement are done in a manner that follows rules and regulations. It also means that information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement. It also means that enough information is provided and that it is provided in easily understandable forms and media.

d. Responsiveness
Good governance requires that institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders within a reasonable time frame.

e. Consensus Oriented
There are several actors and as many view points in a given society. Good governance requires mediation of the different interests in society to reach a broad consensus in society on what is in the best interest of the whole community and how this can be achieved. It also requires a broad and long-term perspective on what is needed for sustainable human development and how to achieve the goals of such development. This can only result from an understanding of the historical, cultural and social contexts of a given society or community.

f. Equity and Inclusiveness
A society’s wellbeing depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society. This requires all groups, but particularly the most vulnerable, have opportunities to improve or maintain their wellbeing.

g. Effectiveness and Efficiency
Good governance means that processes and institutions produce results that meet the needs of society while making the best use of resources at their disposal. The concept of efficiency in the context of good governance also covers the sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of the environment.

h. Accountability
Accountability is a key requirement of good governance. Not only governmental institutions but also the private sector and civil society organizations must be accountable to the public and to their institutional stakeholders. Who is accountable to whom varies depending on whether decisions or actions taken are internal or external to an organization or institution. In general, an organization or an institution is accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions. Accountability cannot be enforced without transparency and the rule of law.

In conclusion, democratic society came into existence through political participation, and its existence, survival and development can only be possible through political participation. For without authentic political participation, importantly youth active involvement, and good leadership, the political society cannot and will never attain a meaningful and sustainable development. In order words, political participation is the creator, as well as the major determinant of the successful commitment of the government to democracy and good governance.

Considering voting in an election, voting is a cornerstone of democracy which enables the citizens to choose their leaders, it also gives them the opportunity to change a bad government by voting against the leaders of such government. Voting gives the citizens opportunity to be heard and to have a say in important issues that affect their country . Voting is an opportunity given to citizens to change what they do not like and bring about what they like. Voting brings development as the thought of election makes the leaders to work hard so as to avoid being voted out.

Contesting election gives the contestants/candidates opportunities to contribute to the development of the society if he or she wins. On the other hands, it gives the electorates the opportunity to vote for the best candidate of their choice. When many people contest for the same political position, there is always variety of choices for the electorates to make and the possibility of the best candidate winning in a free and fair election is high.

As the 2023 general elections draw closer, the need for active political participation becomes more urgent. Every qualified adult citizen of Nigeria must engage politically to give effect to democracy and good governance.
Last words:

‘’A vote not cast is a vote against your preference’’ – Roger W. Hancock
“In the final analysis it doesn’t really matter what the political system is…We don’t need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation.” – Cesar Chavez

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

Modest Ibe writes from Lagos. He can be reached via: modest.ibe@gmail.com

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