Significance of Public Opinion and its Constraints
By Ibrahim Ahmad Kala, LL.M
In his book, ‘Public Opinion and American Democracy’, V. O. Key defined public opinion as ‘’those opinions held by private persons which governments prudent to heed’’.
Bernard C. Hennessey similarly in his book ‘Public Opinion’ argues that ‘’public opinion is the complex belief expressed by a significant number of persons on an issue of public importance’’. Public Opinion may therefore be seen as the aggregate opinion or impression held by the public on public issues at a particular time.
It is always a reflection of the interests, feelings, support or the objections of people to specific public issues. Such public issues could include suggestions on the desirability or otherwise of privatization of public enterprises, obtaining foreign loans, system of government to be adopted, and more recently, the propriety or otherwise of social media regulation, marginalization, Independent of States Judiciary and Legislatures, and removal of national minimum wage from the exclusive list to concurrent list among others.
It does not implies that unanimous decision should emerge or that public opinion should not be controversial. All members of the public cannot hold the same opinion. Majority opinion may not always carry the day too. Infact, minority views if properly articulated may even have more influence than the rest of other opinions poorly expressed or articulated.
Public opinion may be expressed through several forms or agents. Such means of propagating public opinion may include political party (mostly opposition party), social media (Twitter, Facebook, Whatzup, and Instagram plateforms), Labour organization, and civil society group etc. Political parties and civil society group in particular are crucial in the relaying of ideas from citizens to the government and vice versa. They help to stimulate and educate the public.Through their campaigns, rallies etc seek to sharpen opinions and impressions.
The social media and the main stream media are particularly crucial in the dissemination of information to the public, and consequently building public opinion on issues. They use hash tags#, commentaries, interviews and editorials to influence public opinion.
Public opinion is therefore, very useful instrument in the act of governing any modern state. Aside from the periodic elections where leaders are chosen, the opinion of the electorate as expressed from time to time is still very crucial in determining the well being of the government and the people at large. Public opinion is a way of allowing the citizens to participate in their own affairs and to influence the direction of decisions.
Public opinion may also show to indicate to the government the expressed opinion of the people with regards to certain projects. Where alternatives exist, it is a guide to the government on what to choose or to neglect. It has always been a fairly accurate indicator in some countries in testing the popularity or otherwise of the leaders,and or policies.
Moreover, public opinion is a way of making government more accountable and sensitive to public wishes. Public outcry against a particular issue may force government into carrying out useful investigations on such. The recent nationwode #EndSars demonstration and the Panels instituted for public hearing across the country are clear example, here. Government is therefore, forced into being more accountable and transparent in its dealings.
The importance and role of public opinion notwithstanding. There are still some constraints, one of which is that government absolute reliance on public opinion can still lead to some problems. There are times when government may have to bye-pass public opinion and still go ahead to execute a decision once they are convinced by other data obtained by them. In fact, total reliance on public opinion can sometimes lead to economic problems and even instability.
For example, workers’ frequent demand for higher wages cannot always be implemented by government without causing fatal injury to the national economy in the face of dwindling accrued revenue. Similarly, Government had to gloss over the public trepidation that came in the heel of the campaign against Covid-19 and went ahead to administer the vaccine on the general public when it was convinced by other data on the effect of the pandemic to the nation.
Public opinion is also subject to manipulations by some political and interest groups being concern always with how the government could be embarrassed or discredited contrary to the role of opposition in an ideal democratic setting which goes beyond merely taking the ‘opposite positions’ to all government policies and projects.
In fact, some interest groups are all out to destroy the very fabric of the society with violent campaigns, unprovoked attacks and insurrections. The destruction of lives and properties that besieged the #EndSars nationwide demonstration last year,and the recent agitations of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOP) in the South-East and the Nigerian government – Twitter Face-up are part of the dangers inherent in Public opinion. Ditto exhibited by Boko Haram Terrorists and militancy in the Niger Delta some years back, the ashes of which are still yet to burn out from our faces.
In another sad situation where some so-called civil society and socio-cultural organisations, the least of which is Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA) would join the foray recently in defending insurrections and been quick to denounce the government action in contending with the situation and even labeled it “state-sponsored terrorism”, or “ethnic profiling”, but no word from them even of caution to the dissidents, and this to say the least, is disheartening.
Adding more foray into the mess is over reliance on the End-User-Contents as source of news by some so called mainstream medias nowadays, which often than not, turn out to be fake news thereby sowing the seeds of discord among the populace and incitement against the peoples and government of the day.
On realistic side, all these sad happenings is seen in the society where economic backwardness and illiteracy dominate the vast majority, hence, the task of appreciating government’s programs is herculean, talk-less of ever objectively criticizing it.
On the other hand, the few enlightened ones who can contribute constructively to public debates depend on government appointment for their survival – so the fear of government reprisals shut them up!
However, the sad reality is that most African leaders seem to detest the least of criticisms, even if these are constructive and without ulterior motives. These leaders go all out to suppress other voices that do not sing their praises. The heterogeneous natures of many African states with their ethnic cleavages do not allow public opinion to flourish. Leaders either in government or opposition seem to have their primary allegiance to their ethnic groups rather than the larger nation. Thus, there is an easy resort to tribalism each time a criticism is made, either for defensive or offensive purposes.
Despite the numerous problems encountered by many in their bid to air their views, it is gladdening to note that public opinion may be relevant in the administration of the state especially, when it is made objectively (emphasis) to influence the decision making process for the overall well-being of the nation.
Kala Esq, is of the Court of Appeal, and wrote this piece from Calabar. ([email protected])
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