By Kanayo Esinulo
The drumbeats and soundbites that favour a National Conference are getting louder and clearer. The objective conditions that make the conference necessary and inevitable are rapidly assembling themselves with so much ease. The latest soundbite, happily, came from the Senate President, David Mark. The message and the messenger are both important and strategic. And despite the efforts of those who hate dialogue, the clamour for Nigerians to sit and talk about the future and direction of their country is gaining ground and winning more converts. The clan of those who oppose the idea, through ignorance or sheer mischief are shrinking, and would most probably continue to.
Why a National Conference at all and at this time? Well, that is a familiar question that we keep hearing from those who refuse to learn from history. The truth of the matter is that there are many fundamental issues that ought to be discussed and agreed on, if this country must be saved from itself. It is because these matters have either been papered over or largely ignored by a succession of Nigeria’s former administrations that our country has been unable to fully realise its potentials as a great African nation. And for as long as we continue to pretend that this important national conversation is unnecessary, then this country will remain exactly where the military left it: on a life-support machine, awaiting to be pronounced dead and evacuated to a mortuary.
Yes, some of our more serious and reliable political leaders are beginning to realise that we cannot continue to run this country on flat tyres. There is the need to put on the table our different ideas of how to get Nigeria moving again. We should also discuss the type of constitution Nigerians want – is it unitary, federal and confederal, or any other type of political arrangement that is unknown to history, but which suits our political temperament and situation? Nigerians want to talk about our commonwealth, resource control, federal and state structures, inequality among our people, revenue sharing, taxation, transportation, common services, foreign policy, human rights, tolerance, citizenship, respect for religions, the place of women in our society and the future of our children, etc. There is so much to talk about and agree on. The decisions to be reached would go a long way in helping to repair some of the critical injuries and damages that we have collectively and individually inflicted on Nigeria.
But even more importantly, Nigerians need to discuss and agree on what constitutes federalism and how, and at what levels, the component parts of the federation should operate and relate. And I keep asking this question: Is it fair and just, for instance, to exploit oil and gas from a section and leave the latter criminally underdeveloped and its people out of the entire bargain, and still expect the people of the cheated areas to keep quiet and not cry out? The conference will have to deal with this brazen robbery by the unitary government in Abuja. The quota system is yet another amorphous political arrangement that has not been properly defined in Nigeria. Does quota system mean the promotion of mediocrity and total absence of any creative and professional competition among peers across the country? Hasn’t this quota phenomenon retarded the growth and development of Nigeria enough? It is now known that this policy engineers and sustains a situation where our bright minds are frustrated and dropped, making Nigeria the poorer for it. Should this policy be continued? We need to talk about it.
It surprises some of us that some so-called men of letters and legal experts would be defending and justifying the system we operate in Nigeria as federal, whereas it is not. The simple truth is that our system is exactly unitary in form, shape and content. And this is one of the painful legacies that a succession of Nigeria’s visionless military regimes left behind. It was started and legalised by the infamous regime of Yakubu Gowon. All political power became concentrated at the centre, leaving the states as beggars and very vulnerable. Certainly, this was not the system that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello practised and left behind for this country. The military scattered the arrangement that allowed each region to develop at its own pace, husband its resources, make its choices in the interest of its people, draw up its own list of priorities, etc. That was the situation until the unfortunate intervention of the military on January 15, 1966. The four regions were doing reasonably well. Nigeria’s founding fathers knew and cherished the advantages of a true federal system.
Nigerians need to talk about the national question. The ethno-religious clashes that occur almost regularly (Jos), the havoc and embarrassment that Boko Haram represents, the agitation for resource control, the demand for a return to genuine federalism, the argument that the 1963 Constitution should be brought back, complaints about marginalisation and inequality, the menace caused by the annulment of the June 1993 presidential election, etc, ought to be discussed and decisions taken to address them. And it is only at a forum like a (Sovereign) National Conference that Nigerians can discuss these important national matters. The fact that organisations like Boko Haram, MEND, OPC, MASSOB, MOSOP, exist in our country today ought to be seen for they truly represent: dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the existing arrangement. Many nationality groups that make up Nigeria are dissatisfied with a system that cannot guarantee a predictable and promising future for them and for their children.
Good a thing, the Senate President himself accepts the need for us to have this national conversation. And the issues to be treated at the conference are so many and diverse. If we must have a genuine conference, it is important that there should be no-go area(s). Let every consideration, position and grievances be canvassed without any inhibition or restrictions whatsoever. Is it heartening and cheering that as the contradictions in our system become more visible, the idea of a national conference is beginning to attract and win more converts and proponents? And this is happening at a time its antagonists are retreating and getting fewer and fewer as new realities dawn on us.
Somehow, Nigerians are aware that some unpatriotic members of the National Assembly are afraid that what the people of Nigeria and democracy stand to benefit from a successful National Conference could tamper with the roguish privileges and stupendous lifestyle that they now enjoy. And the legislators are aware that their conspicuous consumption is happening in a country where majority of our people can hardly afford a square meal a day. Should we then allow or permit the comfort and luxury of a tiny group to occupy a position superior to the popular position now being canvassed by a good number of our thinking community? In the considered opinion of experts on Nigeria, the anticipated fallout from the National Conference will make Nigeria better, encourage healthier competition among its components, promote development, encourage hardwork and make this country more governable. And besides, a National Conference is an idea whose time has come.