A darkening plain



Once again, we are missing the point.
Two weeks ago, Secretary to Government of the Federation, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, gave details of the national conference being organised by President Goodluck Jonathan, a firm believer in dialogue. The president had promised all areas, whatever they are, would be open to discussion. But Anyim said the conference would be barred from discussing what he called the ‘indissolubility’ of the union.

Fear not. The conference will not putNigeriaasunder.
Put it down as major error number one. The desirability or otherwise of the union should be the starting point for this conference. We grumble that Lord Lugard made some fundamental mistakes in his amalgamation of the protectorates and the colony of Lagos 100 years ago. The feeling seems to be that those mistakes, whatever they were, must be corrected before we can begin to turn this mere geographical expression into a nation. Putting this outside the purview of the conference misses the point about what forced the president to initiate it in the first place.

Former President Obasanjo made the same mistake in 2005 when he convened the national political conference. As befits a man who found God where he is most often found – in the cold, lonely prison cell –Obasanjo put a divine imprimatur on a purely British politico-administrative action. He said something to the effect that the amalgamation was the Lord’s doing. His pronouncement carried a veiled warning that those opposed to it are opposed to God and should be prepared for the divine consequences. Roasting slowly in hell fire comes frighteningly to mind.

The most important question before the conference should be: should we continue as one country or should we go our separate ways into any number of countries the dissolution might throw up? If, the answer is negative, then the conference should proceed to deal with how the union should be dissolved. If, however, as I would imagine, the answer is yes, then the next issue should be the terms under which the union should be preserved and our national unity and cohesion enhanced.

At the 1953 London constitutional conference our nationalists opted forfederalism asour form of association. Chief Obafemi Awolowo put up the sensible argument that Nigeria being a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic state federalism was the most suitable form of government for it. Theyalso agreed on the structure of the federation: the three regions, each with sufficient autonomy to look after itself. Regional autonomy was the nature of our federalism in line with the spirit and the letter of federalism.

Theregions were truly autonomous. They attained, at different stages, self-government before Nigeria became independent. Each region had its own laws, its motto, and its own police.Itfunded a native authority system best suited to its needs. There was nothing uniform about the nature of our federalism then. Uniformity is anathema to federalism. That is political science 101.

Even then the uneven structure of the regions gave rise to agitations for a more just structure, if only to a) remove theover-bearing numerical advantage of the Northern Region and b) create spheres of self-governance for the minorities. The latter led to the setting up of the Willink Commission by Her Majesty’s Government in 1957.

The generals solved the problem somewhat with the present 36 states and 774 local governments.Unfortunately, they saddled the country with at least 781 governments, all feeding from the single trough of oil wealth.The structure of our federation, such as it is,today baffles the best minds in political science.The nature of our federalism is even more complex and complicated.Taken together, they are the sources of agitations for a sovereign national conference at which its agitators hoped these and other fundamental creases in the union would be ironed out. The 2005 conference represented, as this new one does, an attempt to stifle the agitation for a sovereign national conference.

I thought the first order of business for the conference should be the tackling of these fundamental issues. If the structure of our federation and the nature of our federalism remain as muddled as they are, this country will be condemned to run in circles in the foreseeable future. If these two issues that form the core of the terms of the union are treated cynically in our misplaced self-confidence that the amalgamation was a union blessed by God and therefore no man can put it asunder, we would saddle every president with the unnecessary burden of convening a conference of some sort to find the formula for a less atomistic nation. This conference would not be the last, trust me.

Error number two is the composition of the conference. There will be a motley crowd of 492 delegates, all of whom would be nominated by the president, state governors, political parties as well as social, religious groups, professional associations -the lot. Theoretically, the multi-nature of the delegation is intended to enrich discussions at the conference. After all, every Nigerian knows what can move the nation forward. It misses the point though. This is not a matter for a motley crowd in the name of inclusiveness. A motley crowd of this nature is its own problem.It robs itself of both informed views and intellectual synergy – the very things the conference requires to make some sense of its assignment.

I fear that the conference is being treated as an expensive joke.I fear that no problems would be seriously addressed and the waters of our national politics would be muddied even more. By the way, if the president, the federal government and the state governors have no positions on the unknown issues to be discussed at the conference, why should they have nominees? All delegates ought to be elected.

Error number three is the time given to the conference – all of three months. It is difficult to understand the rationale for this. What is the conference intended to accomplish? Is it to ratify a blueprint prepared by the advisory committee?Or is it intended to make the point that since Jonathan has a new agenda on his plate arising from the work and the report of the conference, his continuing in office beyond 2015 recommends itself for national endorsement such as he is receiving from the zones, elders and youth councils, traditional rulers and church groups?

I thought the president had a more fundamental reason than the limited objective of winning support for his re-election. I thought he wanted to be seen as the man who had the courage to take steps that would enable this country to take steps to settle those issues that agitate its citizens and lift the cloud of mutual suspicion.

This country has been searching for too long for the magic formula does not even exist –to our failure collective frustration. Would it not be nice if the Jonathan conference were to end the search and become the watershed in our quest for inclusivenessin which the content of the individual brain and the quality of his mind matter more than his tribe, his state, his zone and his religious faith?

I thought it would. And that is why I thought the president would see this as perhaps the most important national assignment of his political career so far in spite of the obvious awkwardness about its timing. But the timing, the motley crowd and the 90 days given to the conference are dampeners. I am not surprised that even before it takes off, the conference is looking more and more like a calculated attempt to take us round the bend at the princely cost of N7 billion.

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