We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Thursday, December 4, 2008

NIGERIA: How about People’s Parliament at the Local Government Level?

How about people’s parliament at the local government level?

Thursday, 06 November 2008 00:14 Ebere Onwudiwe

In some emerging democracies such as ours, leaders tend to represent themselves and their cronies. Democracy becomes government of the leaders, by the leaders, for the leaders. In representative democracy, which in theory is what we practice in Nigeria today, the people elect their leaders, who are supposed to represent the people’s interests. This system of government is noted for accountability, constituency service and other forms of responsiveness when practiced by the book. But accountability and government responsiveness are hardly the trademarks of Nigeria’s representative democracy.

In our three tier federalism, the local government is possibly the least responsive and accountable even though it is the level that is closest to the people.

This column has argued recently that one way to ensure accountability at the state and local governments is to institute a policy of taxable revenue distributions (“The Alaska Option,” Business Day, 08 October, 2008.) Direct democracy at the local government level is another way of reaching the same goal. Direct democracy is not feasible at the federal or the state tiers, not even the modified version proposed here. But it is entirely feasible at the local government level.

In direct democracy, the people are the parliament. When the Greeks, especially the Athenians, instituted what is considered the origin of modern democracy, it was of this kind. The Athenians gathered at the Pnyx, a structure of concrete slabs, where they debated issues and made decisions. It was the ultimate manifestation of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The same practice is to be found in many African villages even today. At the sound of the gong, drum, or some other percussive instrument, the people would gather at the communal meeting place. The village head would state the issues and the people would debate them vigorously, often rancorously. In the end, a consensus usually would emerge.

Sometimes, the consensus is reached through a series of compromises. Other times, someone would have a brainwave and come up with the ultimate solution.

Why can’t we use this democratic tradition of our forefathers to reform our local governments where direct democracy is feasible in a modified form? We will still keep the local councils and chairmen. But in addition, there will be a periodic assembly of the people (representatives of villages and communities under the local government plus any other resident who wants to attend) where today’s council chairman and his councilors will render an account of what they have done, what they are doing, and what they plan to do, plus deliver an account of local government’s funds.
It would be people’s equivalent of what transpires in the British parliament. Periodically, the prime minister appears before the parliament to render an account on a variety of policies and actions. The members of parliament then pepper him with questions.

The sessions, which are televised live, are often raucous and feisty. Sometimes they are jocular or even whimsical. In all renditions, they are an age-long method of keeping the prime minister in check. The mere fact of having a leader account for his actions publicly and in a verifiable manner makes him think twice about straying from the proper and just.

For local governments in Nigeria, the people would constitute the periodic parliament and they would ask the questions. The parliament could be convened four times a year (on a Sunday to maximize attendance) and as necessitated by events.

The sessions would work roughly this way: The council chairman and councilors would render reports that specify the total allocation and revenues received by the council. They would then specify what the funds have been budgeted for or spent on. The expenditure would reflect priorities the people’s parliament had established during the last meeting. A concise and understandable summary of the revenues and expenditures will also be distributed.

The people would then ask pointed questions about any discrepancies between the government’s revenues and expenditures or between the people’s priorities and the projects pursued. They would also ask questions about budget lines or expenditures that seem bloated or unrealistic. Minutes of the meeting will be taken, circulated among the people, and sent to government auditors and the EFCC.

The strongest point about the people’s parliament is that there is strength in numbers. A major reason for the wanton pilfering of government funds is that individuals are afraid to speak out. Brave souls who speak out often suffer major consequences; from occupational reprisals to threats of physical harm. In contrast, the people’s parliament has the advantage of strength in numbers. More people speak out boldly when they are with a crowd, and reprisal against the whole is less practical.

Also, requiring local governments to publicly declare their revenues and expenditures makes possible the informed scrutiny by many people. As the saying goes, if only one person saw a worm, it could turn into a snake; if several people saw it, it couldn’t. Government officials can bribe accountants and auditors, but they cannot bribe all of the people, certainly not all of the time.
Even the EFCC can do its job much better if the people are given the chance to scrutinize their leaders.

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