Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Open Society

What is an 'open society' ? Are there any dangers in having an open society? Is there an alternative to having an open society? 

Some years ago, in Abuja the capital of Nigeria, I had the privilege of 'attending' a  meeting that was called by the American Billionaire,George Soros. I was not invited as a participant,neither was I there as an official observer, I was there more like a fly on the wall, I had been contracted to take photographs.

It was the launch of the Open Society Initiative of West Africa, OSIWA. I find myself at events like this once in a while, and I always keep my ears open. George Soros was there and he spoke eloquently on the value of an open society. I believe the meeting was almost a decade ago.

Something recently got me thinking on the subject again, then I asked myself the question, how close is Nigeria to being an open society?

An open society, I believe is a place where there is a legal instrument in place to ensure access to information, Nigeria has being 'trying' to pass the Freedom of Information Bill for more than ten years now.

It is also a place where the rule of law works, before his hibernation,or should we say suspended animation, President Yar'Adua kept saying that his government would be guided by the rule of law, but we all know that the gyroscope that determined his government's trajectory was the Peoples Democratic Party, his political party. Ordinarily this should not be a bad idea if the party was law abiding, and internally democratic, but we all know that it is an institution dedicated to breaking the law to hold on to power.

One could argue too that an open society is one where citizens are informed, and are willing to engage and challenge any act that undermines the 'openess' of the society, and where necessary make sacrifices to correct infractions.

Finally an open society is a place where the colour of your skin, the place of your birth within that society, and your ethnic group, or religious beliefs do not preclude,or disqualify you from aspiring for political office.

Lastly, it is one where there is an incorruptible civil society and a vibrant and free press.

The points I have listed are by no means exhaustive, but for me will suffice for now. How far are we on the way to an open society?

On the issue of the Freedom of Information Bill, we have failed abysmally. The politicians have ensured it's stillbirth each time, from all indications it may die with this current legislature. We have not fared any better on the second point, governments at all levels set the pace in how to break the law, and disobey court orders. Sometimes I believe those in government think that 'the rule of law' means the rule by those who are custodians of the law, who are not subject to that law themselves.

Another question to ask is whether we are informed and willing to challenge issues that undermine the 'openess' of our society, to a large extent we are informed, where we have fallen short is the engaging and challenging aspect of the equation. Nobody wants to stick his neck out. That is why I stand in awe of what is going on in Thailand, people are willing to literally shed their blood for a cause. If it were here, the only thing you would hear is the eternal lame excuse for doing nothing,'God De'

The next point speaks for itself, the current acting president has been informed that he should not bother standing for election next year, in an open society, I believe, no one would speak openly the way the Peoples Democratic Party has done on issues like this.

Another condition I indicated is the issue of an incorruptible civil society, while we have some noble NGOs working to make life better, we cannot deny that the motives for setting up others have not been altruistic or egalitarian. NGOs have become cash cows for getting money from governments and international organizations. Our press is vibrant, but not free. The ownership structure has ensured this. Most media moguls are also contractors to government, and some journalists regularly collect money to kill stories.

What are the benefits of an open society, for me they are the Watergate Scandal, the Monica Lewinsky Debacle, the Iran Contra Scandal, Ehud Olmerts troubles in Israel and a host of politicians in the western world resigning when exposed. I always tell people that President Barack Obama of America, lives in fear of breaking the law, every president in America does. In Nigeria, you ability to break the law, and the frequency and gravity, actually show how much political power you have.

An open society is a stimulus for good government, and an antidote to bad ones.
One does not need to look far to see how we have scored, our president has not been seen in public for five months, and less than five individuals have resisted the legitimate transfer of power demanded by the constitution. Not too long ago a politician was accuse of killing the attorney general and arrested, while in prison the ruling party nominated him as their candidate for an election, he won from prison and his case died an unnatural death.The journalist, Dele Giwa was assassinated with impunity and those accused are still walking about free.And at the moment a politician has just married/bought/trafficked a thirteen year old girl across international boundaries, and he is defending his right to break the law because his religion prescribes it.
How open is this society. Your comments should be interesting to read.


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