People & Money

Getting Results in a Democracy: Activism Gets Things Done

Schumpeter does have a point. A vocal minority using activism could force policies on society even when such policies are not popular with the rest of the country. For instance, a million protesters spread across Nigeria’s major cities could grind the country to a halt and force leaders to placate them with policies that are not in the best interest of the nation. The anti-fuel subsidy removal protests of 2012 readily come to mind here.

In a democracy, citizens have three major ways to influence policies. One is voting in elections for candidates with manifestoes they agree with, while the second is standing for election themselves and, if successful, using the opportunity to advance policies they support. The third option is activism, where individuals or groups try to influence their government or society by leveraging their voices and actions.

People resort to activism because democracy often means that a simple majority carries the vote, while the voice of the minority is ignored. In many situations, citizens who care about an issue cannot rely on elections alone. Even if they campaign and vote for “good” candidates, there’s no guarantee that these candidates will stick to the policy positions that got them elected. Furthermore, some members of society lack voting rights and cannot use elections as a tool of influence. Given these scenarios, it becomes clear why activism is necessary.

However, despite its importance, many in society still discount the potential activism in a democracy. The renowned Austrian American social theorist Joseph Schumpeter once stated that the electoral mass is incapable of action other than a stampede. Carole Pateman, building on Schumpeter’s anti-activism idea, argued that the only means of citizen participation in a democracy are voting for leaders and discussion of the policies on offer during elections. Activist tools, such as petition writing, are considered antithetical to the spirit of the democratic method, as they allow citizens to use “non-democratic” methods to control representatives and policy agendas already chosen during elections. According to Schumpeter, the only control open to citizens is through elections, where they can replace leaders they disagree with.

Schumpeter does have a point. A vocal minority using activism could force policies on society even when such policies are not popular with the rest of the country. For instance, a million protesters spread across Nigeria’s major cities could grind the country to a halt and force leaders to placate them with policies that are not in the best interest of the nation. The anti-fuel subsidy removal protests of 2012 readily come to mind here. However, the possibility of this happening is not enough reason to dismiss the impact of activism, as my friend Adamu Tilde did recently on Facebook when he wrote that “activism doesn’t get anything done.”

 

In Nigeria, during colonial rule, activism compelled the government to extend voting rights to Nigerian men with wealth in 1923, and later to all tax-paying men in 1951, and then to southern women in 1954. The 1979 constitution eventually guaranteed universal suffrage, ensuring northern Nigerian women’s right to vote.

In reality, activism has achieved a lot in our world. While some outcomes may be good and others bad, activism has registered an impact, nonetheless. For starters, activism has often been instrumental in strengthening democracy and improving governance in many countries across the world. Schumpeter’s attempt to limit citizen participation to voting would only be possible if these citizens had the right to vote. Activism has been responsible for expanding voting rights in democratic countries. For example, in the United States, the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century forced the government to protect the voting rights of Black people.

 

Activism Won the Vote in Nigeria

In Nigeria, during colonial rule, activism compelled the government to extend voting rights to Nigerian men with wealth in 1923, and later to all tax-paying men in 1951, and then to southern women in 1954. The 1979 constitution eventually guaranteed universal suffrage, ensuring northern Nigerian women’s right to vote. Activists like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Hajiya Sawaba Gambo were at the forefront of this struggle. Switzerland also witnessed a similar situation where men, the only ones with voting rights, repeatedly voted down proposals for women’s voting rights until 1971. Activism was the primary way for Swiss women to get their voices heard.

 

Another important impact of activism is the improvement in labour conditions. The specific closing hours and rest days that workers enjoy today are possible because of the activism of labour leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Capitalists didn’t suddenly start caring about workers’ rights out of the goodness of their hearts. It was labour rights activists who fought for improved pay, better working conditions including pension, an end to child labour, and most importantly collective bargaining rights. All this helped bring about the emergence of the middle and upper-middle-class wage earners, allowing workers to share in the prosperity they create. Waiting for electoral power to force changes would have taken far too long, especially considering the wealth of capitalists and widespread limitations on voting rights.

Let’s end with the public health impact of activism. If you are reading this on an aeroplane, you should thank anti-smoking activists for helping to ban cigarette smoking in aircrafts. Activists rallied, published pamphlets, and campaigned vigorously to pressure governments to ban smoking in many public spaces. The link between cigarette smoking and cancer had been known since the 1950s, but due to pressure from powerful cigarette companies, the government dragged its feet for four decades before taking concrete actions. It was activists’ persistence that eventually forced airlines to ban smoking in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is no doubt that activism today continues to push the envelope on issues that are crucial to various groups of people. While politics is important, activism ensures that individuals outside the political arena (as not everyone can be in politics or hold political power) can wield influence on the government and society. While it is true that some activists may exploit activism for personal gain, this is not reason enough to dismiss activism. Its impact on society, historically and in the present, makes activism an essential tool for positive change.

 

Sodiq Alabi

Sodiq Alabi is a communications practitioner and analyst who has experience in leading and supporting communication processes. He has expertise in organising media events, preparing reports, creating content, and managing websites and social media platforms.

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