Analysis: The user-friendly guide to being a good government critic

by Joachim MacEbong

The now famous “I don’t give a damn!” line from President Jonathan’s media chat last week Sunday is not the only interesting aspect of his performance. He also commented on the criticism he gets on a daily basis:

“Criticising Jonathan and the Jonathan administration is big business. When I took over as president, I told my close friends that they will hear people abusing me in 2012 until 2013 when they will start to see results and the insults will reduce.”

It is my fervent hope that things do improve in 2013, and I’m sure everyone else feels the same. However, for as long as that doesn’t happen, it is well within the rights of different arms of society to continue to be critical. After all, if Nigeria didn’t mean anything to anyone, no one will bother.

Having said that, it is perhaps important to turn the spotlight on the quality of criticism being dished out. Much of what is out there specialises in insulting the government and the person of the president. Our political culture is evolving as a result of the huge interest a lot of young people have in politics, to the point that there’s now instant feedback on proposed government policy through social networking websites and blogs. Everyone has a voice, everyone has an opinion.

It is important, however, that this commentary is done from a place of knowledge, not ignorance. Public debate should be conducted in such a way that the discussion is richer at the end of the day. The best way to do this, is to suggest alternative courses of action wherever possible. This exercise demands more than just the ability to put words together in an entertaining way. It could mean painstaking research into what other countries with similar challenges have done, and applying those lessons to Nigeria. It also means knowledge of how the government works to provide some context to analysis.

The overall idea is to educate people and leave them better informed. This might be less glamorous then excoriating the President and his party on a daily basis, and it might not get you the same number of followers on Twitter, but in the end everyone learns something new.

There is also a lot to be said for the main opposition parties and the quality of their criticism as well. There is a lot of room for improvement. Here’s a chance to sharply differentiate themselves from the PDP in between elections, and they are wasting it.

Being constructive with criticism is not so much for the government’s  benefit as it is for theirs. Telling the public why a particular government policy is wrong, and what your party would do differently, opens the floor for debate and gives an alternative to the electorate. On the other hand, constant government bashing has the ability to turn people off and is already doing so. It doesn’t do much to project the opposition, and it is not enough to say ‘we are not the PDP’ come election time.

Feedback is a crucial part of democracy. Done properly, it can improve the way government is run and educate the citizenry about the issues, which are important parts of building a strong, inclusive democratic culture.

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Comments (5)

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  2. Civil activism that springs forth from a desire to see the government in power is a more dangerous force than the most malevolent government. The ignorance is a much milder cancer, the hunger for government blood is a lot worse. The sad part is that, as people who are knowledgeable and in media positions, we wield a certain influence and it behoves of us all to use that wisely.

  3. First of all, even in more sophisticated societies (by sophisticated I mean – higher proportion of enlightened people, greater levels of political participation by people of all classes and stronger institutions) there is still the malfeasance of ignorance in political discourse or outright misinformation.

    However, I do agree strongly that the political discourse in Nigeria conducted on social networks and in all but a few media outlets resembles market women in a free for all, more than it resembles progressive – usable discussion. The ad hominems, insults and 'yabs' Peddled by people who should know better. Unfortunately, the Nigerian people reward such individuals with greater following – rather than boycotts – because the disatisfaction and unhappiness of the average Nigerian is so palpable. The political field is a playground where patriots have been overrun and subsumed by undesirables (to borrow Eric Hoffer's classification) the inordinately selfish, the misfits, the ambitious, the sinners and the bored).

    If you are wondering, I fall among the bored.

    God save Nigeria, cos we have no clue how to do it ourselves.

  4. Very well written.

    However, you must know that every citizen is within his/her right to criticize without offering (better) alternatives. "I may not know what should be done, but I know what's being done is not working", or something along that line.

    Of cos I agree totally that opposition parties should take advantage of the situation to sell themselves by offering better alternatives to the public, but even that is a matter of party policy. We all know that our political parties do not have ideologies.

    Gboyega Bamgboye

  5. God bless you for this Joachim. I have seen too much ignorance on social media lately. Folks readily spew out the "GEJ is clueless" line when in actual fact, they are even more clueless about the issues at hand. Nice write-up. I look forward to us having more constructive and informed criticisms and not just uncultured attacks on the personalities in government.

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