Fellow Since 2001
Public & Private Rights Watch
This description of Chibuzo Ekwekwuo's work was prepared when Chibuzo Ekwekwuo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Chibuzo Ekwekwuo is using the courts, schools, media, and other avenues to deter corruption among government officials, and through that effort, to instill a new ethic of citizenship in Nigeria.
The New Idea
Chibuzo is helping to solve the problem of widespread corruption among Nigerian government officials. Previous efforts to address high-level corruption have been based on the premise that citizens are either victims or pawns of those in power, and hence, they are powerless to effect meaningful change. Chibuzo, who believes that it is up to the people to make democracy function effectively, has created the first initiative that is addressing the issue of corrupt leadership in Nigeria as a consequence of ineffective "follower-ship." Chibuzo believes the foundation of an effective civil society can be forged through elected politicians being held accountable by the courts, citizens and local leaders. Citizens need to be educated to see the correlation between corrupt leadership and lack of public investment, he argues, and a new generation of young people must learn that politics in a democracy is a noble profession. Based on these convictions, Chibuzo works to re-educate and reorient Nigerians toward becoming active, ethical participants in the democratic process. He achieves this objective through taking legal action against erring government officials and through offering civic education through radio, television, schools, and his own direct involvement in community issues. His approach can be replicated in places where other relatively new democracies are encountering challenges similar to those Chibuzo is addressing in Nigeria.
Nigeria has had five failed attempts at civilian rule, and the military has governed the country for thirty of its forty years of independence. During most of this time, governance has been characterized by looting and plundering of government funds and lack of accountability, all of which have ensured that the rich get richer and the poor, poorer. Consequently, even with the most recent return to civilian rule, elections are fraught with fraud and deceit, and the electoral process has lost all credibility in the eyes of the populace. Local courts are bought off, and because the cost of appeal is high for the average person, few people seek redress in court. While the populace bears the brunt of the consequences of corrupt and ineffective leadership, it also has some responsibility for maintaining it. For example, people pretend to worship as heroes all those in elected office in the hope that they, individual citizens, can obtain some personal gratification from the official. Hence, rather than seek accountability and good governance, people are content to accept what little personal gifts and gains officials offer them.The majority of ordinary citizens have lost the will to seek change and struggle for it. Many believe that government is all about personal gains and the distribution of resources at the whims and caprices of whoever is in charge. This situation encourages a culture of sycophancy and blind ethnic loyalty. As a result, a large majority of Nigerians prefer short-term personal profit to long-term social and economic advancement for all. The end result, of course, has been and continues to be stagnant development, inefficient use of resources, andespecially damaging for a democracy a highly underutilized and powerless citizenry.Young people in Nigeria are growing up believing this kind of governance to be normal. They have no avenues to question or seek explanations about why things happen as they do. The culture of dialogue and debate is absent; often violent demonstrations are seen as the only means of social dissent.Chibuzo believes that Nigeria needs a culture of coherent, group pursuit of lasting societal aims. The people need to acquire the confidence to stand up for their rights. They need to be guided to understand their role in a modern democratic society, including their responsibilities and privileges. They need to be educated to articulate and present themselves and their needs through proper democratic channels. Chibuzo hopes that through re-channeling societal consciousness, citizens will become responsible voters, who will vote because they have seen the merits of a candidate and not because he has offered financial inducements, and who will hold elected officials accountable for ethical and competent conduct.
Understanding that changing people's way of thinking and behavior is a difficult task, Chibuzo has begun by suing erring government officials for malpractice in federal courts. For example, in 1991, Chibuzo sued the Abia State government for passing into law an infrastructure tax that federal law prohibits. Although still in court, the suit prevented the state government from carrying out its threat to prosecute those who refused to pay the tax. This case and others like it, in addition to Chibuzo's appearances on television, have brought him notable publicity both on the streets and in official quarters, making it easier for him to gain credibility in the eyes of the citizens he wants to involve in the work of democracy. Having established himself and his mission in this way, Chibuzo is now hoping to engage the populace in meaningful dialogue through a forty-minute weekly radio program via a station that is widely received in both towns and remote villages in most of eastern Nigeria. This radio program will be produced in Igbo, the local language of the region, and will concentrate on educating the general public about their responsibilities to themselves, their society, and their country; the need for vigilance and participation in elections and the greater goals of government and society; the effects of complacency; the advantages of properly articulating and pursuing credible group interests through democratic channels; mutual understanding and cordial conflict resolution; ways to positively influence government actions and policies; the direct link between the performance of leaders and the action or inaction of the people; and adherence to the rule of law.Chibuzo is also working directly with local communities to educate them about lobbying for government assistance. He has so far been able to help one community, Isingwa, procure electricity through government assistance. By bringing tangible gains to these communities, Chibuzo is able to get their attention and teach them the merits of responsible, ethical citizenship. Chibuzo also plans to establish annual competitive secondary and tertiary school debates, involving prizes, on issues pertaining to the democratic process. Chibuzo has already made contact with local organizations that will fund these debates. Other components of his plan include guiding selected communities to articulate and present their needs to the government through established democratic channels; teaching them the effective use of lobbying in a democratic setting; organizing pre-election debates at constituency, local government, and state government levels to shift emphasis during the elections from embezzlement of public funds to accountability and articulation of the social and economic problems of the day and each candidate's strategy for solving them; and undertaking socially-oriented court cases as part of his pro-active litigation plan.To spread this idea, he has recruited twelve other professionals to work with him. He is also in touch with several large Nigerian-based companies for sponsorship, and preliminary responses have been favorable.
Chibuzo, a practicing lawyer, is well informed about the structured processes for achieving effective democratic governance. In 1993, he served as the personal assistant to a former civilian deputy governor, a position which exposed him to the pressure to respond to financial and other demands that Nigerian leaders routinely face from citizens. He subsequently ran for elected office and lost, but the process of seeking public office helped him to further understand the shortcomings of the electoral system and the psyche of the electorate. He realized then that the capacity to help solve the country's corruption problems lay with the citizens themselves, and he made up his mind to bring about change by educating Nigerians to become better citizens.