The case for a national conversation (1)




In my column, “The burden of Nigeria’s unfinished businesses,” (May 24), I suggested that part of our problems as a nation is that we are hobbled by some unfinished businesses. I wrote: “We are where we are because we are burdened by the plethora of unfinished political, economic and social businesses. No country with its feet tied firmly to this millstone can run the Olympic race of economic, social and political development successfully.”

            I wish to take my argument to the next level – if you would pardon my resort to what has now become a cliché since President Muhammadu Buhari coined it for his 2019 re-election campaign slogan. I wish to argue here that we have never had a national conversation and because of that we have denied ourselves the chance to know what our problems really are as a nation and how to resolve or solve them. You do not need me to tell you that nothing is settled in our country. Consequently, we have accumulated a heap of unfinished businesses that impede our ambition to move forward. Had we had a series of national conversations at certain points in our social and political development, we would have prevented the accumulation of these unfinished businesses and set the nation free so the people could pursue their dreams; or more appropriately, the Nigerian dream.

We have had three of such opportunities. We either missed them or ignored the chance they offered us for a frank discourse and mutual understanding and appreciation of our problems.

            The first was our immediate post independence period. In the negotiations with the British colonial authorities towards their granting us independence, our nationalists in the vanguard of the freedom struggle agreed that Nigeria, being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation, the best form of government for it was federalism. They also accepted the three regional structure for the federation. Thus, two important issues were arguably settled or more correctly, agreed to between them and the British.

            Given the exigencies of the time, it was pragmatic of our nationalists to accept them as they were under the colonial authority, at least, to hasten independence. But even before independence, it was clear to us that these were unresolved issues. The problem was that our leaders did not think they needed further discussions at a gathering of the natives after the departure of the British. They have not stopped haunting us as a nation – evidence that we had papered them over but not resolved them.

The structure of the federation was the one problem, and one that the British stoutly refused to resolve by breaking the regions into smaller regions or states as suggested by the minorities who led the agitation in the three regions. The primary purpose of the agitations went beyond the physical restructuring of the federation. It was to free the minority ethnic groups from eternal domination by the majority tribes, one of which dominated each region. The towering Northern Region gave the Eastern and the Western regions sleepless nights.

            We needed to have had a post-independence national conversation to fully discuss and address two issues arising from our choice of the federal system, namely, the structure of the federation and the nature of our federalism. The structure was, of course, the most easily identifiable problem of the federation. We believed this would be easily resolved by breaking up the three regions. If no region dominated the others in size and population, it would make for a level playing field in our national politics.

It made eminent sense but when a solution looks so easy, it is an indication that it would give rise to more problems. This was the case. And that was why General Yakubu Gowon’s 12-state structure, a courageous response to the structural defects of the federation, did not stop the agitation for more states. Three military rulers after him, responded to those agitations and created more states. General Murtala Muhammed created seven in 1976; General Ibrahim Babangida created two in 1987 and another nine in 1991 and General Sani Abacha created six in 1996. We finally arrived at the present 36-state structure. The agitation for more states continues. President Goodluck Jonathan’s national conference recommended the creation of 18 more states for a new total of 54 states. I bet this would not have been the end of the matter either.

We needed a national conversation on the creation of states to agree on the most sensible formula or criteria for creating them. The states were created by military fiat. The generals used no formula or criteria for creating them. They merely created them to satisfy certain political interests or exigencies.

What do we have today? The clamour for restructuring or true federalism. It is actually a call for a national conversation on the most sensible physical structure of the federation and the nature and practice of our federalism. While we spent so much breath and energy on the physical restructuring of the federation, we have so far ignored the more difficult challenge: the nature of our federalism. Our leaders have refused to listen to these agitations because they believe that everything is alright.

The second opportunity for a national conversation was the end of the 30-month civil war in January 1970. We needed to have a national conversation on what led to the emergence of the gun as the basis for capturing and holding political power in our country. The sudden change from the ballot box to the barrel of the gun should not have been treated if it was a logical progression in our political development.

The conversation would have dwelt on military as an option, the war, the errors of political judgement that led to it and the lessons we needed to learn and apply as a nation. Because we failed to do this, today we have some young people who did not see the horrors of the mutual slaughtering at the battle field, beating the drums of war to revive Biafra. What is at the root of this is that neither the physical structure of the federation nor the nature and practice of our federalism satisfies the various ethnic takes on the Nigerian state itself. We pretend there is no resurgence of ethnic interests. Na lie.

The third chance for a national conversation was the end of the first stretch of military rule on October 1, 1979. The generals believed they were in government as a corrective regime. Each military ruler tried to live up to that billing by correcting what he believed made our unity and progress as a nation difficult. General Ironsi believed the multiplicity of governments was the problem and turned the country into a unitary state. It did not work. We returned to the federal system. General Murtala Muhammed believed the British parliamentary system was the problem. He instructed the constitution drafting committee to ditch it and recommend the executive presidential system. And with that military fiat, we adopted the executive presidential system. 

Under the generals, Nigeria became a laboratory for political and social experiments. Those experiments are now part of the many unfinished businesses that tie down the nation. A national conversation would have addressed those experiments, both those which were discarded and those that were retained to help us chart a lasting corrective course with the basic issues fully settled. (To be concluded)

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