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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Beyond The Rhetoric Of Campaigns: The Role Of Citizens And The Media In Ensuring Democratic Accountability

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The question of how to develop society has occupied the attention of scholars and citizens over the centuries. Various systems have been experimented including autocracy, monarchy and democracy, but from experience, it has been recognised all over the world that democracy is the best form of government. Autocracy characterised by one individual making all important decisions and oligarchy, which puts the government in the hands of an elite are less desirable when compared to democracy. Democracy is so important in the world today that it has become the driving force of development, making many scholars to draw a nexus between democracy and development.

Although different people put emphasis on different issues which they consider to be crucial to democracy, majority of people agree that liberal democracy contains some basic principles which include citizen participation; equality; political tolerance; accountability; transparency; regular, free and fair elections, economic freedom; control of the abuse of power; bill of rights; accepting the result of elections; human rights; multi-party system and the rule of law. But the challenge especially for the working people is that it has been recognised that liberal democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy and declining confidence in political leaders and institutions necessitating the need for democratic renewal through increasing citizen participation.

The primary purpose of government is the welfare and the security of the people, but in reality, for a variety of reasons, some governments serve purposes that are inimical to citizens and society. In many countries, there is elite capture making the laws, institutions, policies and processes to serve the interests of a few. This is why it is imperative to hold government accountable. In this paper, we examine the role of citizens and the media in ensuring accountability. But first, we look at rhetoric of campaigns and the fulfilment of promises and the concept of accountability, and the tools to hold government accountable.


It is well recognised all over the world that politicians make grand political statements and sweeping promises during campaigns which are difficult to implement while in government. This is why the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, made that famous statement: “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose”. As Edna Synder explained, campaign in poetry and govern in prose means that “when you are running for office, you can speak grandly about how much better you will run things than does the current officeholder or will your opponent, because you have not yet faced the everyday realities of the office. If you gain the office, however, you soon discover that it is a real job with real problems. You can no longer speak in vague generalities, because you have to react to actual problems. It’s the difference between writing a love song and making a marriage succeed.”

It is very clear that governing is more complex than making campaign promises. Governing requires the development of long-term, medium-term and annual plans; making annual budgets; making necessary laws and policies; setting up effective and efficient mechanism for delivery; appointment of competent and capable people with character; performance management and instituting an effective monitoring and evaluation system. The challenge is how to make poetry meet prose.

Accountability places a responsibility on government to acquire the necessary ability to perform; the obligation to provide information, explanations and/or justifications and the necessity to absorb the consequences of unaccountable actions including disciplinary measures. The UNDP has delineated some principles of accountability. We can distinguish between four forms of accountability: political accountability, administrative accountability, professional accountability and democratic accountability. Political accountability requires government to act following the political and programmatic provisions adopted by the government. In practice, these positions are usually encapsulated in the annual budgets, declarations and commitments. Political accountability involves vertical accountability where officials are supervised and controlled by higher offices in accordance with the institutions’ hierarchy; and horizontal accountability which is the accountability of the executive to the legislature. Similarly, administrative accountability involves vertical accountability where inferior administrative positions account to superior positions through a wide set of internal mechanisms of control and supervision including inspectorates, audits etc; and horizontal accountability where administrative positions are accountable to citizens and oversight bodies including ombudsman. In addition, administrative accountability involves a full subject of public officials and administrative units to a wide set of constitutional, legal and administrative rules and procedures that govern tightly their performance. Professional accountability refers to the existence of a set of norms and practices of a technical and professional nature that governs the behaviour and performance of members of a certain profession. Democratic accountability is a direct relation between government and civil society where civil society takes active role in ensuring accountability through popular participation, evaluation of government project and activities.

There are many reasons for holding government to account. First and foremost, holding government to account will promote accountability and transparency and prevent corruption. This is very important in a country like Nigeria where the level of corruption is very high. The problem of corruption is as old as society itself and cuts across nations, cultures, races and classes of people. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of our times leading to underdevelopment and poor service delivery. Corruption has a lot of negative consequences on every sphere of societal development whether social, economic or political. Corruption not only leads to poor service delivery but loss of lives. Corruption is pervasive in Nigeria with serious negative consequences. Despite the plethora of legislations and agencies fighting corruption in the country, corruption has remained widespread and pervasive because of failure to utilise universally accepted and tested strategies; disconnect between posturing of leaders and their conduct; lack of concrete sustainable anti-corruption programming and failure to locate the anti-corruption struggle within a broader struggle to transform society. This is why it is necessary to develop tools to hold government accountable.

Secondly, tools will help to prevent abuse of office and power. The long years of military rule in Nigeria entrenched executive lawlessness and abuse of power. There is therefore the need for tools to hold government accountable and prevent the abuse of power. Finally, it is necessary to have tools to hold government accountable in order for citizens to make demand on government. Government is meant to meet the wishes and aspiration of the people. Tools can help to make demand on government.
There are several tools which can be used to hold government to account. We will discuss three categories of them which can be used by legislators, citizens or through the creation of independent commissions.

Parliamentary Oversight: The primary roles of the legislator are those of legislation, oversight and representation. The legislator plays oversight role in budget implementation. This can be done through project visits to assess budget release, compliance with procurement procedures and assessment of work done. Parliament has powers to conduct investigations, issue summons and warrant to compel attendance (sections 128 and 129 of the 1999 Constitution.

Citizens Oversight/Social Accountability: Citizens can utilize different tools to hold government to account. The tools include:

Social Audit: community based auditing mechanism to promote greater accountability and transparency.

Budget Analysis: The word analysis is derived from a Greek word which means to ‘decompose” or “breakdown” or “separate” a whole into its component parts. Budget Analysis therefore seeks to break down the budgets to examine its component parts from different angles: issues, sectors, activities, groups etc. Consequently there are different approaches to budget analysis. Issue based analysis analyses budgets by looking at different issues such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights and the level of participation of citizens in the budgetary process. Sectoral analysis looks at different sectors in the economy such as Health, Education, Housing and Agriculture. Historical analysis is based on a trend analysis of the budget over a period of time. Programme/ Activity analysis focuses on specific activities like HIV/AIDS and Health services (ARVs, VCCT Centres), campaigns, research and capacity building. Group analysis focuses on certain groups of persons such as women, children and PLWHAs. Revenue analysis is focused on the sources of revenue to the government and the relative contribution of the revenue sources including donors. Macro-economic analysis focuses on fiscal issues, deficit, debt, inflation, growth and employment. Finally rights based analysis takes the rights of citizens as the point of departure and looks at how the state is able to meet its obligations to citizens. The rights based approach therefore considers Socio – Economic rights (work, education, health, housing); Civil and Political Rights (access to court, freedom from discrimination, right to life) and Development Rights (ODA Flows and participation in governance).

Bartle defines monitoring as “the regular observation and recording of activities taking place in a project or programme. It is a process of routinely gathering information on all aspects of the project.” Budget monitoring is therefore a regular process of observation of the entire budget process to see if the objectives of the budget are being met. The points to consider in budget monitoring include:
What are the budget estimates for that particular year or term?
Adequacy: How much is budgeted? Is it enough?
What are we spending on generally in a social sector (compare with other sectors or line items eg, Presidency or Defence)?
What are spending on a particular sector or interventions specifically?
Priority: How does the budget for this purpose compare to resources spent in other areas?
Progress: Is government’s response on this issue improving? Are there envisaged increases in Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF)?
Process: Is there transparency in the allocation of funds and expenditure? Accessibility of data?
Further Points to Consider….
Allocative Efficiency: Are the right programmes or mix of interventions being funded to have the largest impact?
Operational Efficiency: Is there value for money? Any wastage?
Outputs: Is the budget meeting its target goals/ outputs?
Outcome: What impact has the budget had on the lives of the citizens and the economy?
Equity: Are resources being allocated fairly? Targeted vulnerable groups.

Report card: are used to assess institutions and public officers on how far they have been able to fulfill their mandate.

Technology: Increasingly, technology can be used to hold government to account. In recent times, the new media, especially the sms, e-mails, facebook, twitter etc have become powerful tools not only for holding government to account but for mobilisation and change.

Public interest litigation: Citizens and organisations can take legal action against government agencies in interest of the public.

Protest/ Demonstration: When all other advocacy and campaign methods fail, protest and demonstration can be used to hold government to account. This tool is very useful in a country like Nigeria where the ruling class can ignore all evidence-based advocacy and campaigns.

Independent Commission: It has been documented that in Africa, and largely across the globe, interest groups and citizens now hold strong views that constitution of states must entrench certain fundamental principles that allow for the creation, existence, and functioning of independent oversight agencies that can safeguard the interests of people, mediate upon the excesses of governments, and help to enforce laws. Examples of such institutions include Independent electoral bodies, National Human Rights Commission and Police Service Commission.

As noted above, citizens have great roles to play in holding government to account. It includes citizen oversight/social accountability, social audit, budget analysis, report card, use of technology, public interest litigation and protest/demonstration.

For good governance and development to take place in any country requires communication between citizens and their government. The mass media is the means for communicating to large, heterogenous and widely dispersed audiences. The three main types of mass media today are print media (newspapers and magazines); broadcast media (radio and television) and social media. We can categorise the role of the media in the political arena into two namely traditional role and new evolving role.

Traditional role of the media is in terms of providing information, education and entertainment. The performance of this role can be further classified into three:

Influencing Public Opinion: The media can influence public opinion on what is reported and how it is reported.

Setting Political agenda: The media can set agenda through the issues that they identify that need government attention. The issues that the media focus upon become the issues that government decision makers and politicians discuss and debate.

Socialisation: The media socialise the people through the kind of news and programmes that they bring to the people. The media can reinforce the hegemony or dominance of the existing political culture and order and make people to accept the way things are or they can challenge the existing political culture and order and make people seek alternatives.
The emerging role of the media is coming on board because globally, there is increasing inequality, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the political elite are utilising power for their own benefit. This makes it compelling for the media to be at the vanguard of promoting social justice and holding government to account.

The concept of Social Justice has attracted the attention of several scholars and philosophers for the past three centuries- Thomas Paine, John Rawls, John Stuart Mill etc. Social Justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society measured by distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and privileges. There are several institutions in society that mediate social justice including taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labour laws and regulation of markets to ensure fair distribution of wealth and equal opportunities.
The struggle for equity and justice among humans historically started with the division of society into classes. There are two fundamental tenets of socialism namely equality and social justice. For Socialists, Social Justice entails even distribution of wealth and opportunities. Therefore, in a society where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, Social Justice ensure that there are policies and programmes that will lead to redistribution of wealth. The state can make this happen by intervening in the economy. Only the media and radical civil society can promote these ideas and issues.
One of the greatest developmental challenges facing the world today is inequality. The past five decades have witnessed monumental changes in the world. Global economic wealth has increased sevenfold and average incomes have tripled. Yet, poverty has increased to record high levels. The major problem is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people while majority of the people live in abject poverty. The UNDP in its 1998 report documented that the three richest people in the world have assets that exceed the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least developed countries. In 2014, 85 richest people in the world had the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent (3.5 billion people). By 2015, only 80 richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent.
In any case, Nigeria as a country has been battered and urgently needs rebirth and building. Nigeria is ranked 163rd in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) out of 191 countries in 2021. Nigeria life expectancy is 52.7 years in 2021 (compare with 64.38 years in South Africa, 72.22 years in Egypt and 87.57 years in Japan). According to UNICEF, Nigeria has 18.5 million out of school children, the highest in the world. The World’s Economist Intelligence Unit report which ranks the best and worst cities to live in the world indicated that Lagos in Nigeria is the third worst city to live in the World. The other cities are Damascus, Syria (1); Tripoli, Libya (2); Dhaka, Bangladesh (4); Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (5); Algiers, Algeria (6); Karachi, Pakistan (6); Harare, Zimbabwe (8) and Doula, Cameroun (9). Poverty rate in Nigeria increased from 15 percent in 1960 to 28.1 percent in 1980 to 69.2 percent in 1997 to about 40 percent currently hosting the largest number of poor people in the world.

It is instructive to note that by 2014, Nigeria ranked third in hosting the largest number of poor people in the world after India (first position) and China (second position). But by 2018, Nigeria was declared as the world poverty capital with around 87 million people living in extreme poverty compared with India’s 73 million according to the World Poverty Clock. It is important to note that the population of Nigeria in 2018 was estimated to be about 195.9 million which is about 15 percent of the population of India (1.353 billion) and 14 percent of China (1.393 billion), yet it hosts the largest number of poor people in the world. The change was partly as a result of social protection policies implemented by China and India combined with enlightened leadership and pressure from below. According to the McKinsey Global Report, 2018, China lifted 713 million people and India 170 million people out of poverty between 1990 and 2013. They achieved this feat through inclusive, pro- poor growth; fiscal policies for wealth redistribution; employment generation; public service provision and social protection. All of these underscores the importance of leadership in nation building and national rebirth.

Democracy still remains the best form of government despite declining confidence in political leaders and institutions. Election is the procedure through which people are put in positions of authority in the executive and legislative arms of government.

It is well recognised all over the world that politicians make grand political statements and sweeping promises during campaigns which are difficult to implement while in government. Governing is more complex than campaigns. It is therefore imperative for citizens and the media to hold government to account for its campaign promises.

Meanwhile, there are several tools that can be used to hold government and its agencies to account. Unfortunately, these tools are not being effectively utilised in Nigeria. Everyone interested in the development of the country must therefore popularize these tools, operationalise them and improve the transparency and accountability of government in Nigeria.

It is clear that political leaders have a great role to play not only in providing enabling environment for just and accountable government but in facilitating the process of holding government to account. This is why the citizens and the media must take more than a casual interest in the political leadership selection process in the country.

By Otive Igbuzor, PhD

Founding Executive Director, African Centre for Leadership, Strategy & Development (Centre LSD), 3B Niger Avenue, Villa Nova Estate, Apo, Abuja.

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