The Tottering National Conference

by Femi Olawole

In the past decade, several Nigerians have been making calls for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). Although these calls have been coming in different volumes and shapes, it still has not got a complete national appeal. This is because there are some other Nigerians who get fidgety each time there is a mention of a SNC. The funny thing though is that many of those who strongly oppose the conference have inadvertently (or is it unwittingly?) been supporting its proposal one way or the other.

This has been accomplished by their unrestrained public outbursts (to champion sectional interests), subversion (sponsorship of ethnic clashes), undue provocations (armed youth militia holding people hostage), undermining of the nation’s secularity (imposition of Sharia law) etc etc. When put together, both direct and indirect calls have reached such a crescendo as to make the conference tottering on the brink of an inevitable national disaster.

I do sympathize with president Obasanjo. Here is a war hero who, along with other gallant officers and men, placed their lives on the line to keep the nation together during the unfortunate civil war. This was a man who had the honor to receive the instrument of surrender from the “Biafrans”. He has also gone down in history as the very first Nigerian to rule the nation as a military Head of State and as a democratically elected civilian president. One can therefore understand his obvious reluctance to be the same person who presides over the nation when it faces possible disintegration at the proposed SNC.

With due respect to the president however, the future of the Nigerian project at this critical moment supercedes the importance of one individual in posterity. The issue here affects over 100 million people from about 300 different ethnic nationalities who have been forcefully lumped together in a nation they routinely slander and despise at the drop of a hat.

A rabid, malignant cancer of tribalism has eaten deeply into our national psyche so much that all mental and physical actions of almost every Nigerian are dictated by personal and sectional interests. And wither national pride and patriotism? These words no longer exist in our nation’s dictionary. It was a good thing that the Bakassi land tussle did not lead to a war with Cameroon. In modern warfare, intelligence gathering is the primary weapon of victory. In view of this factor, it would never have come as a surprise if some grudge-bearing Nigerians had gladly compromised the security of their fatherland by spying for Cameroon. And while this would have been another get-rich-quick opportunity for some, many others in this shameful group would have done it just to spite the “ngbati” man in Aso Rock. This is the horrible level that our nation has sunk in the name of personal and sectional interests.

In this nation of different and mutually-hateful people, there is just no way any leader, be it civilian, military, revolutionary or lackadaisical, can lay a concrete political, economic or social foundation for the future generations to build upon. Therefore, the only way forward is for the present government to set the necessary machinery in motion for the convocation of a SNC.

Politically, each of the nation’s ethnic groups wants its son to be the president. So much energy has been expended in calling for rotational presidency that no one has any strength left to fashion out the criteria for the presidential roster. For instance, will the turn of every ethnic nationality (about 300) to present a presidential candidate follow an alphabetical order, population figure or simply by lucky dip? This is one of the crucial assignments for the SNC.

And what about political stability? One of the excuses used in selling the 1983 coup to major participants was the Alhaji Shagari’s “high-handed” decision to pardon the erstwhile Biafran leader, Chief Ojukwu. And Obasanjo was called all sorts of names when he restored the ranks of all soldiers who fought on the side of the defunct Biafra. To the critics, the actions of both leaders were considered grossly insensitive to the plight of many families (on the Federal side) whose sons were casualties of the civil war. The point being made here therefore is that it would have been a different situation if those decisions were mandated by a SNC.

And talking of SNC, one of the earliest opportunities we had as a nation to call for such a national confab was immediately after the pogrom of 1966. Unfortunately, we lost that chance to the more “popular” resort to war. The second chance however would have arisen during the war itself. If only the advisers of the then Col. Ojukwu had persuaded him to seek a face-saving armistice through the U.N. or the O.A.U. as soon as it dawned on everyone that the war was about being lost?

Firstly, this would have saved a lot of lives while also paving way for a U.N. or O.A.U-induced dialogue between the two warring sides. Secondly, the war could have ended on the condition that national conference be convened immediately. The interest and focus of the international community would have made it difficult for the Gowon-led Federal government to oppose this idea. And thirdly, the “Biafran” people would not have suffered the consequences of a compelled unconditional surrender. But unfortunately again, the nation lost the opportunity of having a SNC and it has never known any peace.

Economically, every ethnic nationality is claiming to be the nation’s economic life wire. To this end, the South-south is demanding a special budgetary allocation in view of its oil wells that provide the bulk of the nation’s wealth. The North-central wants a special allocation based on the nation’s dependence on the Kainji Dam for power supply. And the South-west is asking for a special allocation because of the nation’s reliance on its sea ports. More over, the South-west also wants VAT proceeds to be distributed on the basis of derivation, knowing that it produces the greatest percentage of VAT earnings.

Poor Obasanjo! In spite of all these distractive noises, the thinking of his government continue to lay on the premise that, by improving the nation’s infra-structures and the security, the economy will have a solid base to rest upon. This also explains his government’s strong pursuit of the deregulation of the telecommunication/Oil industries, the privatization of NEPA, institution of several strategic reforms and the efforts to sanitize the nation’s security apparatus.

It is expected that with these foundations in place, the presently stagnant economy will be so stimulated as to provide a better enabling environment that will attract more local and foreign investments. And of course, among the many harvests of these efforts will be the creation of more job opportunities, increased corporate competitions, provision of better services/products and a stronger individual earning power. To some “experts” however, this is a longer route to an economic recovery. They want an “instant coffee” solution whereby the president will simply give people fish instead of wasting precious time teaching them how to fish.

These individuals (their dossiers reek of personal and sectional interests) would rather have Obasanjo commit the same error that he and Gen. Murtala Mohammed made in 1975. In those heady days of “immediate effect”, the government had imposed an arbitrary price control gag on local industries. It then went on to import food items that were not only available locally but were also sold to the people at heavily subsidized rates, just like giving them handouts for their daily sustenance. The government became very popular. Some few privileged individuals also made fortunes out of the importation business. But the larger society is still paying for that poor economic decision till today.

As a result of massive frauds, the government agency in charge of the “essenco” went out of business, local industries could not reconcile their costs of production to earnings and many workers were laid off. The government, on the other hand, had to grapple with depleted foreign reserves and (with Obasanjo taking over after Mohammed’s demise) ended up applying for an IMF loan. This is the same “bread and butter” economic policy that our dear “experts” are expecting from Obasanjo this time around.

And lest we forget, here is a nation where people don’t pay Federal tax and the few who pay State’s tax are those who are “unfortunate” to work in civil service or the Organized Private Sector (OPS). There are certain individuals who will, at one moment go to town to wonder aloud as to when Obasanjo will revamp the Oil refineries, NEPA and several other infra-structures in the nation. Yet, at another moment, these same individuals will waylay, thwart and play down with sentiments, every effort being made by the government to collect tax from the people. At the Local government and State level, many governors, with the exception of Lagos State and maybe a few others, have become glorified office decorations, no thanks to a people who believe every act of governance at the Local, State and Federal levels must be performed by the president.

Pipe-borne water, quality primary/secondary education, building/maintenance of LGA/State government roads and several other responsibilities of Local government chairmen and State governors are left undone because the leaders and elitists among the various people are too pre-occupied with their pursuit of selfish interests in Aso Rock. Each time an opportunity for a contract or public appointment slips out of their hands, they play up the ethnic card. And because Obasanjo is stubbornly determined to stand up to these powerful interest groups, they too are prepared to sabotage or even destroy the whole nation through the sectional divide.

If the president is still in doubt as to the fragmented state of our nation, I humbly suggest that he pay a visit to the various Nigerian-oriented web sites on the Internet. A glance through the many contributions will definitely give him an idea of the “Tower of Babel” that our nation has become. While the path to the destruction of the biblical city was spurred by an inordinate ambition, that of Nigeria is being fuelled with bitterness, acrimony, hate-mongering and war-mongering.

In spite of the strident calls for a SNC and its expected benefits to our multi-ethnic people however, we should not ignore or relegate the hesitant, restraining voices of those who fear that the proposed confab may lead to the disintegration of the nation. These Nigerians, especially those from the minority groups, are of the belief that a disintegrated Nigeria will not be in the best interest of their ethnic nationalities. And they are absolutely right! This is Nigeria we are talking about. Due to our poor exposure to the practice of democracy, we have been unlucky to have too many childish, corrupt and dishonorable legislators at both the Federal and State levels who exchange blows, throw chairs and break or even steal a mace over mundane matters. What therefore can one expect from a much larger gathering of bitter, mutually distrusting individuals at a SNC?

Ideally, professor Bolaji Akinyemi is right in his assertion that only the South-west and the North-west are capable of secession. The problem however is that only rational leaders consider logic and logistics when they can conveniently rely more on mere ego and self-interest/ambition which are elevated by the arousal of their people’s emotions and sentiments. More over, it takes only a few, privileged individuals to decide the fate of a multitude in sensitive matters such as self-determinations even though the goals of the leaders are often at variance with those of their followers.

Those who view the proposed SNC as an avenue for secession may end up realizing that the promised land of their romantic dreams will not be as rosy at the dawn of reality. And to those who are building castles in the air based on residual oil wells or some other natural minerals, their collective fate, in the long run, may be one of two ends. One, their new nation may become another Qatar with an eye-popping per capital income. Two, it may turn out to be another Equatorial Guinea (a.k.a. African Kuwait) where the entire oil wealth of a nation is coveted by the first family. Now, what’s the point in the life of a tormented piece of meat that jumps from frying pan into fire?

The tottering national conference is a great opportunity to give our nation a brighter chance to succeed. At the end of the exercise, there should be an emergence of a new Nigeria where our diversity will be turned into an asset. A nation where sectional rivalry will be so healthy as to engender a greater overall national growth potential. And ours may yet be not only the most populous but also the most powerful Black nation on earth.

Until then and in the meantime, the 2007 presidential election is just around the corner. Power will definitely shift again and no crystal ball is necessary in foretelling its next destination. It’s going to be the same old story unless the tottering national conference is held before or immediately after the elections. If care is not taken, the only difference in the post-2007 power shift will merely be that, instead of Obasanjo and the Yoruba ethnic nationality, the flood light of hatred, bitterness and whining will simply be switched over to the new president and his hapless ethnic nationality.

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Anonymous January 16, 2006 - 11:42 am

Nigeria is definitely not far from true democracy with this type of article and contrbution to knowledge.

Chima Oji December 30, 2005 - 7:28 pm

I think there are some historical falacies in what I would otherwise term a well writing article. I am unaware of any eggorts by the UN and OAU the mediate in the conflict that went unheeded. The only act of good faith came from the Ghanian Government and the results of the Aburi Accord are there for every one to read and judge for themselves. General Obaanjo has never both as a military dictator and a civilian president pardoned any Nigerian soildier or officer that fought on the Biafran side either by restoration of their ranks or conversion of dismissal to retirement. Except ofcourse on the pages of the newspapers. Just to mention a few.

Anonymous December 30, 2005 - 7:20 pm

I think the are some historical falacies in the write up that I would say was well written. Please kindly clarify the opportuinities presented by the UN and OAU during the conflit aimed at ending the war. Obasanjo has not in his two tenures as Military Dictator and Civilian President restored any bodies rank or converted any dismissals to retirement except o the pages of the newspapers. Just to mention a few.

Chima Oji chimaoji2000@yahoo,com

uzoma Abanihi April 3, 2005 - 9:18 pm

It beggars believe that the writer whom seemed exceedingly conversant with Nigerian history is conveniently blaming Chief Ojukwu for not doing enough to prevent the war. I implore him to re-visit the minutes of the Aburi accord and aftermath of the accord. Maybe he could understand how Awolowo and Gowon conspired to sabotage the Aburi accord.

I rather am my own master in my own little hut than to be a slave in a king’s castle.

NTFI. April 2, 2005 - 9:06 pm

With all due respect, how exactly are we supposed to get along better “saperated” than “together”?

Perhaps I’m missing the trees for the woods. Or is it the other way around.


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