Nigeria’s National Conference And The Five Fallacies By Mahmud Abdullahi
Less than ten years after the Obasanjo administration’s National Political Reform Conference, President Goodluck Jonathan has sanctioned another such conference, to be called the National Conference, at the cost of seven billion naira. The aim of the conference, the government says, is “examining and genuinely resolving, long-standing impediments” to the cohesion and harmonious development of Nigeria; a country that just clocked a hundred years. And although the president has identified some “no-go” areas for the organizers of the conference, he might have sanctioned it in order to please sections of Nigeria’s elites that have consistently clamoured for a sovereign national conference over the years, or he may well be part of those elites himself.
Theoretically, a sovereign conference is a convention of all the groups or elements that make up a nation-state (such as ethnic, religious or interest groups) in which the existence and/or structure of that country is freely negotiated and any consensus is confirmed as law. It is essentially an overhaul of the political and institutional order, similar to the Magna Carta or the Unification of Germany. In Nigeria, it is argued by some, that such a conference is necessary if the myriads of social, cultural, economic, political and developmental challenges facing the country are to be overcome. However, any sovereign conference or even the less profound national conference, may not work for Nigeria because the major assumptions that underpin such are based on some fundamental fallacies.
The most fundamental of these fallacies is the belief that Nigeria is a uniquely artificial state as it was created by the British colonialists, primarily for economic and administrative convenience. In any random passage on Nigeria’s history one may likely come across the banal argument that the root of Nigeria’s problems is the artificial marriage of disparate ethnic groups with little in common. As such some see the need to go back in time and undo this “mistake”. While it may be true that Nigeria was born from the forceful amalgamation of different ethnic nationalities by the British, there is nothing unique about that. All modern nation-states are artificial in that sense – they are either the outcome of treaties, wars or colonialism – and the nature of the diversity of each is the consequence of the circumstances that have led to emergence of that state. Some are multi-ethnic, some are multi-racial, and others are multi-religious. Thus, nothing is unique about Nigeria’s diversity. Many colonized multi-ethnic and multi-racial countries such as India, Malaysia and South Africa are making rapid progress in areas Nigeria has failed.
Ironically too, most of the primordial identities that have been offered as criteria for the selection of delegates to this conference were also created or defined by the colonialists. For instance, the concepts of Northern Nigeria, Eastern Nigeria, the Delta, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Urhobo, indigene, settler, etc, were all created by colonial administrative officers, ethnographers and historians. It is they who also laid the foundation of the country’s middle class, labor unions, the military, academia, etc.
There is also the belief that democratic institutions are incapable managing the challenges facing Nigeria. Advocates of the conference say it is an avenue where Nigeria’s problems will be discussed and the future will be decided, as though there were no institutions that are already saddled with that responsibility. There is no issue or subject that has been discussed in the previous conferences, or one that will be discussed in the current conference, that cannot be debated in the National Assembly, the Federal Executive Council or the boardroom of one of the numerous MDAs in the country. From state creation to devolution of powers, from judicial reform to revenue sharing, all can be achieved through democratic institutions. Even secession can be achieved through the institutions and instruments of democracy (remember Bakassi?). This reduces the conference to a mere jamboree with a debatable legal basis.
The next fallacy is the notion that “Nigerians” will discuss. The conference is often portrayed not only as a panacea for an inclusive society the ultimate goal of which will be the adoption of popular, grassroots opinions in state matters, but also as an opportunity for Nigerians to have a say on how the country was created since they didn’t have the chance when the country was actually created. But then, how important is that and how exactly will it happen? How many Nigerians will attend this all-important “conversation” capable of altering the course of Nigerian history? Fifty million Nigerians? Sixteen million? Or one hundred thousand? It must be recognized that the art of statecraft will always come down to the actions (visionary or otherwise) of a handful representatives of the people. There can never be a juncture in Nigeria’s history where any significant number of Nigerians will sit together and discuss the future of their country, and that is because Nigeria’s history is just like any other nation’s history. The Magna Carta, which paved way for the transition of England from an absolute monarchy to a democracy was more or less an agreement between King John and the feudal barons; the pact for the Unification of Germany, which laid the foundation of modern Germany was signed by the princes of the hitherto autonomous German states; and the 1884-85 Berlin Conference on Africa, the forerunner to the Scramble for, and Partition of Africa, was attended by the ambassadors of a handful of European powers. So Lord Lugard’s (much criticized) role in the amalgamation of Northern and Sothern Protectorates of Nigeria may not necessarily be one giant, extraordinary mistake that must be revisited by the ethnic groups affected.
Furthermore, there tends to be some consensus that any national conference (sovereign or not) may be devoid of the problems that “necessitated” it in the first place. Since the problems that have bedeviled Nigeria are so grave and persistent, proponents of the conference would argue, there is need for a neutral avenue (legal or not) that will allow Nigerians to literally reset the country. This assumption is, at best, naïve, given that, historically, even the most revolutionary political developments derive from the existing order. If corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and inefficiency are the trademarks of Nigeria, then they will be the trademarks of the conference. It cannot emerge from a vacuum.
Already, it can be seen from the released list of the delegates that the responsibility of charting a future for Nigeria is placed on the shoulders of some of the most notorious architects of the country’s troubles. Some of the “exemplary role models” (for Nigerians) President Jonathan has nominated include Peter Odili, Zamani Lekwot and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. In addition, representation is clearly skewed in favor of some groups over others. This is precisely part of the reasons why any such conference will only be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Also, the view that the conference is an end in itself is misleading. Many countries have had similar conferences, but things have largely remained the same, if not worsened, in such countries. Benin Republic is yet to witness any fundamental progress since their sovereign conference in 1990. That is also the case in DR Congo and Ivory Coast. In Nigeria too, the fact that this is about the tenth national/constitutional conference in the country since 1957 (almost an average of one conference per decade) is also an indicator that a reform/sovereign conference is no silver bullet.
Essentially, what Nigeria needs is a visionary leadership that will have the ability to tackle key challenges facing the country. Nigerians must focus on ways of improving the quality of leadership and governance and not waste precious time and scarce resources on how to organize a conference that is entirely unnecessary. At this critical juncture, Nigerians have a choice between bickering over what happened in the last hundred years, or working towards building a great country in the next hundred.
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