Last month, the committee set up by the government to consult with Nigerians on the need to conduct a national conference met in Benin City Edo State. Before the meeting got under way, the venue was packed full to capacity with Nigerians from all walks of life. As delegate after delegate rose up to express their fears, frustrations and hopes for a much more egalitarian Nigeria based on the principles of justice and equity, it was clear as crystal that the Edo State governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole was unhappy with the euphoria and enthusiasm that the occasion presented. For many of us who were watching and listening from the sidelines, the packed hall was indicative of the endorsement that the ordinary man on the street gave to the need to have a conference, and if you ask me, it was also an indictment of a vociferous and disgruntled elite bent on scuttling the conference ostensibly for their very selfish political inclinations and patrons. Subsequently, the governor gave indication that he wanted to leave. So the organizers gave him the floor to either condemn or re-invent himself as a true voice and champion of the people. As soon as he opened his mouth to speak, all hell broke loose. He said he didn’t believe in this particular conference. According to Oshiomhole, the conference was going to be a mere talk shop to be organized using tax payers’ hard earned monies. Therefore it was unnecessary. Before he was done saying this, he was booed and practically shooed off that stage and escorted out of the venue of the meeting. Before we conduct a critical examination of what he said, let’s review the man Oshiomhole himself.
Oshiomhole was a labour leader who ended up as a governor. As a unionist, he was in the thick of the fight to free Nigerians from the repercussions of policies of government that didn’t take the generality of Nigerians into account. In league with civil society organisations nationwide, Oshiomhole consulted with stakeholders in the labour movement and before long, we gave him the mandate of holding government accountable. Now as governor, Oshiomhole has found himself defending those things that he had fought against as a labour unionist. I remember when the matter of subsidy removal came up and Oshiomhole was asked what he thought of the removal of subsidy on fuel. I listened to him blab – i.e., he was neither here nor there. In fact, he was just a few inches short of an outright endorsement of the removal of subsidy on petrol, a position he fought tooth and nail against as labour union leader. In the long run, the man became the quintessential archetype representative of the Nigerian elite – those people who think they know everything, who would not let any other person have anything, think anything, propose anything unless in suits their thinking.
But it is not just Oshiomhole that has condemned the proposed conference. Some have questioned its timing. Why now? Why would a man who once opposed the idea of a national conference now turn around to propose it? Those who say that the idea is diversionary also say that it is a plan by the incumbent to break Nigeria up and alienate a certain section of this country that had been a thorn in his flesh. I do not subscribe to these hypotheses. In the wake of our relative recent past, I believe that that there cannot be a more fortunate time as this for us to sit down and discuss our future. Why? Everybody is complaining. Mutual suspicion is so rife and so palpable to the extent that we often sleep these days with only one eye shut. So, do we still want to continue like this? And in ‘this’, I mean do we still want to be part of a lopsided contraption that didn’t take me and my people into consideration before that contraption became the template for which my entire existence can be regulated or accessed? Do we still want to continue living in a country that places a premium on where you come from rather than on your individual ability and strength of character? And if we still want to continue with this contraption, what would be the terms of reference for our continued existence as one people? For me, I believe that it is better if we ‘waste’ tax payers money talking and charting another course of existence for ourselves than spending the money in a war that looms if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and politicise this matter the way people like Oshiomhole and his ilk are doing.
Nigeria is not a nation – not a nation like the English or French or the Welsh. It is a geographical entity and contraption sold to the British government by the Royal Niger Company. And purely for administrative convenience of the British, they lumped a people with no cultural, ethnic, religious and ancestral antecedents together. Now, when that lumping together was going to take place, nobody sought our opinion. Our interests then did not matter but it does now, especially as everyone is upset with the way we are conducting ourselves. Lumping a people with no ethnic, religious and cultural antecedents cannot be said to have been totally wrong considering the fact that there are other countries who have exploited their diversity for the greater good.
There are countries all over who were lumped together like this but who found out that being lumped together was counterproductive. So what did they do? First the Belgian example, a place where there were two major language groups – the Flemings and the Walloons. While the Flemings who made up half the population of Belgium suffered in terms of appointments, the Walloons who were just a third of the population controlled all appointments after that country became independent in 1830. But with the onset of the 20th Century, both parties sat down and agreed to a much more equitable representation with respect to appointments. They didn’t need to fight a war. The other country was Czechoslovakia with a population which ‘consisted of Czechs (51%), Slovaks (16%), Germans (22%), Hungarians (5%) and Rusyns (4%).’ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘many of the Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians and Poles and some Slovaks, felt oppressed because the political elite did not generally allow political autonomy for minority ethnic groups. This policy, combined with increasing Nazi propaganda especially in the industrialized German-speaking Sudetenland, led to unrest among the non-Czech population’. At the end of the day, that country became Czech and Slovakia, and that has not stopped them from relating with each other as neighbours.
My history professor used to say that events are contemporaneous. That big grammar ordinarily and eloquently amplifies the fact that things that happen elsewhere can happen here as well. The only thing that may change is the setting or the people involved. With Nigeria, our desire to live together as a state of nations has never really worked. At all levels and spheres of our collective patrimony, we hold on to the base and primordial rather than on what would make us become strong because of our diversity. We hold on so tenaciously to our tribes and tongue to the extent that as I pen this, I am well aware that there are people close by who have accused me severally that I support the need for a national dialogue because the proponent is my ‘brother’. But I do not care about these kinds of distractions. For most of us who support a national conference or dialogue, we believe that there can be no other time than now for us to talk among ourselves even though the proponent used to oppose it. We also believe that because the members of the national assembly are just there to feather their nests and collect their share of the Nigerian cake, they are not in the best position to represent our frustrations and chart a way forward. So instead of breaking up if we don’t talk, I believe Nigeria stands a better chance of surviving as a nation state by wasting money talking than spending those monies prosecuting a war.
< i>PS: This piece was written as an aftermath of the altercations between Col Nyiam, a member of the advisory committee on national dialogue and Gov. Oshiomhole. In the wake of the Oshiomhole versus widow wahala, I have dug it up again as a fitting reminder that even though the so-called comrade governor appears populist and goes to great lengths to give that impression, there is something fundamentally wrong with him and of how he conducts his person. Otherwise, I don’t see the rationale behind offering a scholarship to a boy who stowed away on a plane supposedly bound for the United States. In addition, I do not also see why everyone is hailing the governor for ‘apologizing’ to a widow who he told to go and die. The essence of man is when you find him in his true elements. Both the altercations from the national conference meeting in Benin and his brush with the widow he told to go and die ordinarily exposes the governor as a loose cannon with the same dictatorial tendencies that he once fought as a labour union person.