…it is the people, the general public who, through a constellation of their own experiences and opinions, grant or withhold legitimacy from any government.
One of the strongest merits of democracy is the component of holding public officers accountable to the general public. Unlike other forms of government, tyranny and monarchy, for instance, the life-line of democracy is that it is supposed to reflect and realise the will of the people at all times. In other words the will of the people, channeled through the public sphere, is the legitimacy barometer of any democratic government.
It is not a government that legitimises itself through the employment of sundry propaganda instruments. Legitimacy is not government’s granted power to impose duty or exercise force or coercion over the people. Rather in the final analysis, it is the people, the general public who, through a constellation of their own experiences and opinions, grant or withhold legitimacy from any government.
How the public opinion is formed and to what use it is put differs from society to society. Traditionally newspapers, magazines, televisions, cinema etc., in short all sorts of print and non-print media, more or less reflect the direction of public opinion. Added to these formal channels, informal conversations among men and women in salons, bars, workshops and homes constitute the unadulterated mirror of public opinion about social reality.
Today the advent of social media has added a middle-level to the grid of public opinion, with an advantage that people’s commentaries and opinions – by men and women who ordinarily would never be heard, and expressed among a circle of friends or acquaintances – gets accessed by a wider range of people outside the smaller units of its origin. But the ultimate advantage is that more and more people are getting connected to the communication flow serving public opinion.
The question of what use public opinion is put towards sustaining the ideals of democracy is one to which we should devote more attention. It is important to emphasis the crucial importance of such communicative flow for an evolving country like Nigeria and to push for a strengthening of this ensuing public sphere for the improvement of the democratic political project. Otherwise the majority of the people might just simply use it only for meaningless engagements or deploy it for things of little or no importance.
Public opinion is supposed to project the true state of social reality. As a sphere, it functions as a theatre for harnessing social views and transforming them into a political force. It mobilises the wider spectrum of the opinions of civil society and uses this as standard for assessing governments and holding officials to account. In short the public sphere must ensure that the actions of the state express the will of the people.
The public sphere is, therefore, supposed to be the basis for both the normative legitimacy of a democratic government and its political force. Normative legitimacy ensures that the people accept the government in power as their own, in so far as it represents the will of the people. It also retains a political force because at any time, without regard to tenure, the people can demand a change of government that is working against their common good.
To be able to serve these two purposes, the Nigerian public sphere must be strengthened. On the one hand, there must be a way of gathering widely dispersed opinions, systematising and then transforming them into a reliable bargaining instrument. But, of course, this is only possible if it can first be shown that indeed such an instrument reflects the true opinion and situation of the people.
It is not very difficult to do this. Transparent public opinion polling is one reliable way of doing it, another being through online surveys. There are also many other ways. To transform public opinion as a political force, it has to be clear that an undesirable current state of social reality results from political action or inaction. It would not make sense to blame government for a crisis that is not connected to them.
It is also important to say that the public sphere is also very fragile and can succumb to manipulation, intimidation or propaganda. Politicians or some hired officials might just see it that their primary loyalty lies with the party, and not the people. In that case some make it their point of duty to defend the party and its officials, even when they are clearly mistaken or underperforming.
The truth is that no government can manipulate the people without the collaboration of the media, which is the interface between the people and the government. But even if the government generates subterfuges, it is always easy or at least possible to set claims against verifiable public opinion.
For instance, government cannot claim to have improved electric power supply, assuming for instance that they promised to do so, if indeed the level of power supply has gone down. Government cannot claim to have recovered millions of naira from former public officials, if there is no evidence of this. An underperforming government might rely on propaganda to cover its weaknesses, and this is to be expected anyway. It might fan up ethnic or religious bigotry to its advantage.
This is why freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy. The people can always counteract such lies by means of facts and evidence. In this way the moral legitimacy of the government will evaporate. The point then is to make good use of this freedom of speech and utilise it for the transformation of society by holding a government accountable and responsive to the will of the people.
Ikechukwu M. Odigbo is a doctoral researcher in Political Philosophy at the University of Essex, UK.