Enlightenment thinkers were the liberals of their day. They believed that rational thought could lead to human improvement and was the most legitimate mode of thinking. They saw the ability to reason as the most significant and valuable human capacity. On the surface, the most apparent cause of the Enlightenment was the Thirty Years’ War. This horribly destructive war, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, compelled German writers to pen harsh criticisms regarding the ideas of nationalism and warfare.
American political leaders like Jefferson, Franklin, James Otis and John Adams were heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking. In fact, it provided the philosophical basis of the American Revolution. An effective model for Public enlightenment should be one that will enable all stakeholders gain easy access to each other. The salutary aim of course, is to achieve efficient dissemination of information; take into consideration the geopolitical and socio-economic nature of the region in question. In the Nigerian situation, we have had the likes of Herbert Macaulay publishing the Lagos Daily News, Ernest Ikoli, using the (Daily Times, 1926) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (The West African Pilot in 1937) with a similar focus on public enlightenment. They brought news from the outside world to grab the attention of the growing middle class. It was also to highlight the challenges of national development as well as to demand for political independence from the colonial masters.
Decades later, attention shifted to enlightening the public on the demand for democratic government from the iron-grip of the military dictators. So, magazines such as Newswatch (Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Muhammed and Dele Giwa, of blessed memory), The News (Bayo Onauga) and Tell (Ayodele Akinkuotu), went to town to stir public consciousness in this regard. Ever since the return of democratic dispensation in 1999, attention has since moved to the persisting quest for good governance in Nigeria. There are several top-rate television and radio stations, newspapers and online publications trying to bridge the information gap between our political leaders and the led majority. The truth however, is that much still has to be done, to sensitise Nigerians on their rights and responsibilities. Other areas include instituting an electoral process devoid of violence, ballot box snatching and of course the recent manifestation of vote-buying. We want our votes to count because free, fair and credible elections remain the firm foundation on which to build the house of democracy.
But we are still battling to have governments peopled by honest Nigerians- those who make promises and keep to them; those who take responsibilities for their actions instead of becoming masters of blame-game. That the issues of nepotism, lope-sided political appointments, calls for political restructuring, high costs of accessing political power and running the machinery of government, religious and tribal sentiments, insecurity, disunity, joblessness and mass misery persist means that sustained public enlightenment has become an imperative. As reflected in his book, ‘The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe’, the author, James Van Hom Melton highlighted the rise of the public in the eighteenth century Europe. Back then the public assumed a new significance and relevance when it came to decision making.
Governments came to recognise the power of public opinion, especially in political life. This was buoyed by the expansion of print culture which had created a new reading culture leading to the emergence of an enlightened public. Soon, it became quite evident that government could no longer take the public for granted.
“Thus, in order to ensure that communication gap does not exist between the government and the citizenry, governments across the globe now pay utmost attention to public enlightenment campaigns. This is a deliberate and conscious strategy to duly inform and educate the citizenry as well as share ideas about government policies, plans, activities and programmes”. Indeed, we have come to the point where we have to learn from the Greek history of political governance. Out of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy the people evolved to choose the last listed.
According to H. A. Clement, author of The Story of the Ancient World, “their cities were small enough to enable all the citizens to meet together and make decisions and did not need to elect representatives as we do….Whenever anything important was to be decided they all met together.” Perhaps, we can translate this to a situation whereby, people’s decisions and not that of politicians at the ward, local and state levels take the day. Government must now adopt the bottom-up approach in decision making, to make the dividends of democracy to benefit the people instead of the self-serving political elite.