National Conference: What Are We Talking About? By Olusegun Adeniyi
When on October 3 last year, I wrote on this page a piece titled “Another Organised Waste of Time” , on the “National Dialogue” proposed by President Goodluck Jonathan in his last Independence Day broadcast, there were people who felt that I missed the point. They belong to the three schools of thought that have always canvassed for a National Conference: Those who believe we “should renegotiate the basis of our unity” as a nation, those who have always argued that Nigeria cannot develop without “true federalism” and those who insist that our constitution is not derived from “we the people”.
However, with the release last week of the modalities for nominating participants to the proposed National Conference, none of these groups seems satisfied. But what I find rather interesting is that as I went through my old writings at the weekend, there was a particular piece that made me to shake my head, almost in disbelief at how the past sometimes resembles the future.
Exactly nine years ago this month, on February 16, 2005 to be specific, I wrote a column on the “National Political Reforms Conference”, then being organized by President Olusegun Obasanjo, following the release of the list of delegates at the time. It was the first in a three-part series that I titled, “What Are We Talking About?” I commend it to readers.
Following the execution by hanging of minority rights activist, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight other Ogoni kinsmen at a time the Commonwealth leaders were still making appeals for their lives in 1995, thenSouth African President, Mr. Nelson Mandela, described the action of then Nigeria’s military leader, the late General Sani Abacha, as “irresponsible”.
In a characteristic response, Abacha hit back by telling us (State House Correspondents), that Mandela, having spent 27 years behind bars, had become far removed from the reality of life outside the confines of prison, before adding the clincher: “I should not join issues with Mandela, black head of a white country”.
A few minutes after Abacha spoke, we were called back and warned not to use what he said while another carefully worded statement was issued. But I have never forgotten Abacha’s summation of South Africa because anybody who understands the society could not but agree it was apt.
However, notwithstanding the imperfect nature of the society, South Africa has trudged on essentially because Mandela and his successor, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, have been able to demonstrate how courageous leadership can sometimes reduce ethnic/racial tensions and move a divided nation along the path of its destiny even while the process could be slow. And that the essence of government is basically to bring about development while striving to create enabling environment for change.
The lesson here is that no constitution or system is perfect, and that what serious societies do is to make progress gradually through a strict adherence to the rule of law. Even in the advanced democracies of the world, a constitution is never a finished article; it is a document subject to continuous changes and amendments. But to us in Nigeria, having failed to forge a nation out of our diversity, and with a penchant for mismanaging our scarce resources, our leaders have for almost two decades now told us the only solution to the challenges we face is having a conference. Yet after more than three of such talk-shops, our lot remains essentially the same. But they are never tired of prescribing the same solution.
I have in the last couple of weeks received several mails as to why I have been silent on the National Political Reforms Conference by the federal government or the Sovereign National Conference demanded by PRONACO but my response is actually simple: It is not a solution to our problems because whether we adopt Presidential or Parliamentary system, if public office holders continue with the same attitude, nothing will change. What’s more, with the list of conference delegates just released, it is as if the federal government and the various states have decided to exhume many political Lazaruses from their tombs. Peopled mostly by big names who have been around from the First, Second and Third republics, questions should be asked as to whether those who more or less led us to the present abyss can also proffer any meaningful solution as a way out. But that is even not the issue today.
What is worrisome is that while other serious nations are thinking of how to improve the material conditions of their people, Nigeria has become more or less a debating society with workshops, seminars, conferences, committees and panels whose recommendations are never implemented. It is as if we like to entertain ourselves all the time while members of the political elite have for decades been talking about talk to the detriment of the people. It is for this reason that I am not excited by the conference of recycled old people about to begin on Monday.
Before I go further, I find it amusing that there is so much noise about whether some people should hold an independent conference in Lagos when even the one in Abuja has no force of law. The point here is that as many people as want to hold workshops and seminars on the direction the nation should be headed should be allowed to talk because notwithstanding our misgivings, we may actually have some basis for some forms of national interrogation which could also be helpful in a way.
Only those who are not living in Nigeria today would disagree that we have a problem since members and leaders of contending ethnic groups, whether they are presently discriminating against a subordinate group or they are objects of ‘discrimination’, often portray themselves as victims. Not because they really care about the plights of ‘their people’ but rather because a ‘victim mentality’ helps unite group members behind their leaders. That is why it is fashionable to shout about ‘resource control’, ‘true federalism’, ‘marginalisation’ and such other vote-catching fads. Yet when you examine the stewardship of some of these public officials who mouth these ill-digested clichés, you wonder what they truly stand for.
What is interesting is that having created the problems, our political leaders also see themselves as the solution by selling us all a fraud–that our problems can be located in the system or rather the constitution. This is not onlyfalse it is an insult on our collective intelligence as a nation. The questions to ask are: Is it the constitution that encourages the looting of treasury, the rigging of elections and the sending of assassins after opponents among other infractions? Is it the constitution that encourages the abuse of power that we have at different levels of government?
However, I am not opposed to this talk, not because it is necessary but rather because whether one likes it or not, it will hold. Curiously, there is a lot of suspicion in some circles that talking about the problems we have as a nation could engender reopening old wounds and consequently there is a desire that the idea of a conference be shelved. While I share the sentiment of the National Assembly members as to the doubtful legality of the conference, I think it is unhelpful to say those who want to talk should not. Because if indeed there are problems, as we all agree there are, if they are not addressed, they cannot be healed. My take, however, is that the wrong problems are being confronted by the wrong people and at the wrong time. The greater danger is that there seems to be more emphasis on what divides rather than what unites us.
I have tried to rationalise why President Obasanjo agreed to this conference and I have my suspicion but I would want to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now, that he is only bowing to the cacophony of voices that we need a conference. But even at that, I am not convinced the motive is altruistic. What I see is that because political power is limited in its ability to solve complex social and economic problems, he has opted for strategies with short-term payoffs but adverse long-term consequences.
While it is easier to start a process already set in motion, nobody, least of all the President himself, can predict the outcome. Essentially because many people are going to the conference with their different agenda and with such crowd of politicians, nobody can put his hand on what would happen when “Ghana-must-go” bags begin to fly in Abuja as they will in the coming weeks. But then, how would that help the cause of the downtrodden people of Nigeria for which this conference is supposedly being convened?
In their paper on “Ethnic Conflict and Economic Development”, John Richardson and Shinjinee Sen dissected societies like ours where political and religious leaders most often play a divisive role, appealing to ethnic sentiments and scape-goating rival groups in order to enhance personal political power. This recourse to ethnic-bashing, according to the writers, bind group members to each other by emphasizing the differences that distinguish the group as a whole and its individual members from other groups and their members. That unfortunately is what has been going on in our country, the same reason why no system has worked.
My colleague, Simon Kolawole, in a recent piece, pointed out some of those lies members of my generation were brought up believing. If we must tell ourselves the home truth, what our leaders emphasise today is a struggle between ethnic groups seeking to maintain or gain control of state power not necessarily to promote the public good but rather to promote some primordial interests for self-enhancement.
By their cold calculations, leaders of a dominant ethnic group are expected to gain office and then use state institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to their ethnic brethren. We of course know such assumption is a lie but that is the basis of some of the agitations concerning 2007 for which I believe President Obasanjo is seeking an easy way out. What is more interesting is that experience has shown that Nigerian public officials belong to a peculiar ethnic group that speaks neither Hausa, Igbo nor Yoruba. They speak only the language of raw power and ill-gotten money!
The danger however is that in societies where leaders promote these negative things as our leaders do in Nigeria, feelings of relative deprivation intensify, not only when benefits (including political as well as economic) decline, but also when expectations increase. Yet through good governance, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another’s concerns and collectively move towards a common destiny.
All the things we have discussed thus far contribute to a climate that encourages ethnic differences to polarize a society while the formation of militant groups becomes rather common with intolerance of compromise. That explains the popularity of violent ethnic based groups across the federation today. Charismatic – even mythical – figures with little or no formal education lead some of these organisations and maintain group cohesion through propaganda that reinforces xenophobic ethnic stereotypes. This recourse to violence also catapult some of these leaders from obscurity and penury into instant wealth and national recognition such that they become the envy of many as ethnic nationalism becomes a big industry for the growing population of the jobless.
Yet we have learnt from the example of many failed states that when militant groups become strong, the task of managing – let alone resolving – ethnic differences will become complicated. With the power derived from the barrels of the gun, the redress of grievances will no longer be sufficient to effect a resolution of whatever crisis might be on ground in such societies. Because for these ‘freedom fighters’ that now populate the landscape, it is ‘victory or death’ and there is no ‘political solution’ other than the triumph of their cause.
That unfortunately is the stage we are in today in Nigeria, a situation that was largely created by our political leaders who now think they can fix our problems simply by sitting in Abuja and talking among themselves. It is an exercise in self-delusion and President Obasanjo must surely know that.
Message for My Readers
Ever since I resumed this column in June 2011, following my four-year “sabbatical”, I have been receiving several encouraging mails. Even though I take time out to reply some of the mails, I cannot reply all. However, I want everyone who has written in to know that I appreciate their kind words. Of course, there have also been a few mails from those who feel that having served in government I am no longer “a fit and proper person” to write a column. While I accept responsibility for the choices I have made, especially since May 2007, I have no problem with those who may have issues with those choices.
However, as a tradition on this page, I publish “Right of Reply” only if and when the respondent disagrees with my view while I hardly publish those who write to support my position or commend me. However, I am taking a departure today because it is important to make a point about the activities of pirates as it relates to one of the books I have written. On the 17th of last month, I got one of those encouraging mails from Dr (Mrs) Chinelo Echeruo part of which I publish with her permission:
“I have just completed reading your very fascinating account of ‘The Last 100 Days of Abacha’. I have actually been a long-time fan of yours, since the time I started reading your back page articles in your respected newspaper, THISDAY. Thank you so much for keeping us informed about important issues concerning our beloved country. You serve as an example to inspire the upcoming generation about contributing positively to nation building through proper acquisition of education and hard work.
“However, I have an observation on the Abacha book. On pages 167 and 168 of the book, you listed the names of members of G-34 which was led at the time by Dr Alex Ekwueme. Your list had 33 names which means that one name was missing! If you do a little more research on the matter, you will probably find out that the missing name is that of Ambassador (Senator) Emeka Patrick Echeruo, my late husband. Senator Echeruo (Second Republic) and Dr Basil Nnanna Ukaegbu were the two members of G-34 from Imo State at the time. He became the first member of the PDP Board of Trustee from Imo State, but died in 2002 in Berlin, while serving as the Nigerian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany…”
Upon receiving the mail, I replied Mrs Echeruo and apologized for what I imagined must have been an oversight in the Abacha book given that I was also aware Senator Echeruo, whom I knew personally, was a member of G-34. Since the copies of the Abacha book being sold on the streets are pirated copies, as I explained recently (the last copy printed by the publisher was in December 2005), I decided to check the original copy of the book. As it would happen, Senator Echeruo’s name is indeed not missing in my copy, it is there.
While I am aware that pirated copies of both my Abacha book and the reflection on the Yar’Adua years are in circulation, I have always assumed that those behind such racket got the contents right and that the only problem might be in the quality of print. Now, I know better, especially having bought copies of some of the different versions that are being sold by vendors on the street. Even though I have no interest in reprinting the Abacha book (which was written to warn President Obasanjo against the idea of “Third Term” at a time he was being goaded by the same political crowd that pushed Abacha into the abyss), it is important for readers to know, as I stated last year, that the copies they buy on the streets are mine only to the extent that I wrote a book by that title. The original copy does not even carry the photograph of Abacha on the cover. Therefore, I will not be held responsible for what I did not publish. I think I should make that very clear, given the mails I keep getting about the book.
Meanwhile, the memorial symposium and launch of a N500 million fund for the “60 Angels Memorial Staff Residence”, in memory of the Loyola Jesuit College (LJC) students who lost their lives in the December 2005 Sosoliso crash, took place last Thursday. The ceremony was organized by the Abuja branch of the LJC Parent Teacher Association (PTA). The keynote speaker was Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah who spoke on the theme, “The Effects of Air Disasters on National Development”. But the major highlight of the day was the speech (by video) of Kechi Okwuchi, (one of the two survivors of the crash but the only one among the LJC students) who is now based in the US. I enclose the text of her speech.
Memories of a Deadly Crash
My name is Kechi Okwuchi. I am 24 years old, currently a senior at the University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic college in Houston, Texas, USA. I am a burns victim, and have been for eight years now. It’s almost hard to believe it’s been that long since my accident. Still, it feels like no matter how much times passes, the memory never dulls.
As everyone is probably already aware, I am one of the two survivors of the Sosoliso plane crash that happened on the 10thof December, 2005. On that day, I left from Loyola Jesuit College, a boarding high school in Abuja, with 60 other schoolmates to board a plane headed to Port Harcourt for the Christmas holiday. It was about 20 minutes to landing that everything went wrong, because what we thought was turbulence became something much more serious. Chaos erupted in the plane and I held my friend’s hand from across the aisle. The last thing I remember is hearing a painfully loud sound, like metal scraping against metal, before I blacked out. I have no recollection of what happened between that moment and when I woke up a month later in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was sent for emergency treatment by the company Shell, which sponsored my entire care over there.
I don’t think I should rehash every single moment of my recovery process, but I will say that it has been a physically painful and emotionally draining experience. I think one of the most difficult moments was facing the fact that none of my other schoolmates had made it. That day I understood the true meaning of grief. Luckily, God surrounded me with the kind of family and friends that I believe everyone should be blessed with. They were my rock, my support, and through them I was able to achieve the level of spiritual growth necessary to recover physically and psychologically.
I have been in America since, undergoing long-term treatment. At Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston TX, I was treated for free by Dr. Macaulay, until I turned 22. Since then I have been under the care of Dr. Spence at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore. All through this experience I have received help from all over: Dr. Moses of Shell Hospital in Port-Harcourt and Eng. Basil Omiyi, the MD of Shell at the time, played a major part in making my treatment possible, from the beginning in South Africa to here in the States. When I started my treatments in Baltimore, two very close friends (also LJC alumni) put together a successful fundraiser in Lagos to raise money for my upcoming surgeries, and as a result of that fundraiser, the Lagos and Rivers State governments were also led to provide financial support for me. Really, to everyone that has played a part, however small or large, in my recovery, I will remain grateful to each and every one of them for the rest of my life. It hasn’t been easy and it still isn’t, especially because the situation has forced my family to live in separation, with my dad mostly in Nigeria since his business is based back home. Added to that, my mom has had to put her life on hold for me for the past eight years, and since I still have future surgeries and treatment, that won’t change for a while. Still, I feel that I can say that as things stand, everything is working according to God’s great plan.
I want to mention that while here, I have heard about every single plane crash that has occurred in Nigeria since 2005. In fact, there was the plane crash that happened exactly a year after, on my birthday incidentally. When it happened (this was in 2006), I was catapulted back to my own memories of all the pain, the sorrow, the tears, the loss, and I thought about all the families and friends of the 107 victims from my accident who are still grieving today. It’s like that still. With each plane crash I hear about, a new pain is born. As my own memories replay in my mind, I know that somewhere back home a new set of families are grieving because they have lost loved ones. Then another accident and still more families in pain.
Too many people in our country lose their lives in ways that are out of our control: Disease, car accidents, even just walking down the road. But this kind of loss can be controlled. I’m talking about the aviation sector of our country. The truth is that people need to get to places; we can’t just stop flying. The aviation industry has improved the overall efficiency of the lives of many Nigerians. But while there is a level of risk in almost any endeavour, the frequency of plane crashes in our country increases this risk a hundredfold. I have friends that till this day when they board a plane anywhere in the world, they pray nonstop throughout the flight until that plane has landed safely. It’s even worse when they are flying within Nigeria, their own country. So, here we are. Yes, I was in a plane crash, and through God’s grace I survived it. Mrs. Bunmi survived it. But 107 people did not. Even more have died in plane crashes since 2005. What do we do, what can we do about this?
This is what I believe: the aviation industry isn’t an isolated sector of the economy. In order for any improvements on it to work, several other related factors must also be improved alongside it. The first one that comes to mind is rescue. After the plane I was on crashed, the first fire truck that made it to the scene of the crash had no water. This shouldn’t be. Countries with developed aviation industries should have good emergency response systems. The second factor would be aircraft quality; the airworthiness of the planes we allow in our skies. There should be a standard for the quality of planes allowed to fly. Accidents happen everywhere in the world; there are plane crashes in the United States too, but they are not nearly as frequent, and even when they do happen, the loss of life is relatively minimal. Here, they try to provide the most efficient aircrafts for use. Airworthiness goes hand in hand with the skill level of the pilot flying the plane. There should be a standard back home, too, because pilots are responsible for lives of many for a period of time and this can’t be taken lightly. A third factor worth mentioning is rehabilitation and infrastructure. Let’s say that in the event of a plane crash, there are a lot of survivors who suffered the same level of burns I did. But we don’t have the health facilities and rehab centers necessary to care for that level of burns. I had to be flown out of the country to even have a small chance of survival. I am not trying to compare any nation with another, not at all. I am only trying to emphasize that we want our country to protect the lives of its citizens as best as humanly and technologically possible.
I’d like to thank the Loyola Abuja PTA for allowing me to be a part of their efforts. It means so much to me to have been given such an opportunity to speak to fellow Nigerians. I just want to let them know that I am always available at any time, to lend my voice to any future initiative taken to better the aviation sector of Nigeria. I personally believe that through this project, the memory of our 60 angels will be forever immortalized.
Do not hesitate to leave your opinion in the comment section below.
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