Who Is Afraid Of Sovereign National Conference In Nigeria?

by Olusegun Fakoya

The nation continues with its wobbly steps to the future. It is a macabre dance, like that of aggregated zombies without clues of consciousness or reality. Yet, some who are deluded call this progress. Others lament at the slow demise of a conglomeration of ethnicities that never understood each other. Nigeria continues to wobbly and dazzle. She dazzles with the incompetence, greed and avarice of its leaders. She continues to wobbly with the abysmal failure and extreme reluctance of its leaders to forge a potentially great nation borne out of sincerity, equity, freedom, prosperity and justice for all. And so it goes on, a cycle of one week bringing about a fresh problem. Daily tales of grand corruption, greed, betrayal and economic subjugation of the masses. Regular tales of massive electoral fraud, political deception, subtle and overt aggrandisement on the part of the political leadership. This is the story of a giant under the sun, the Nigeria of the twenty-first century.

Our approach to nation building since independence has been fraught with nepotism, absence of trust, self-serving parochial interests and every factor that mitigates against the creation of a genuine and true federation. While for a while this approach may foster a false sense of nationhood, it is obvious that this situation could not be sustained perpetually. Never in the history of Nigeria has there been so much awakening on the part of the citizens. Nigerians are now better educated and more assertive citizens of the world. Nigerians have travelled far and wide and hence have that knowledge and experience that cannot be befuddled by myopic political shenanigans. It is thus normal, for once in the history of this nation, that the echoes of the demands for righteous co-existent assume daunting proportion. It is thus normal that we demand a say in the way we live as a nation. It is perfectly acceptable that we boldly state that this geographical entity called Nigeria, as currently constituted, has failed to inspire the basic tenets of patriotism in us. That this nation has so far failed to live up to our aspirations and yearnings, and that is, a nation we can be boldly proud of, a caring and progressive nation dedicated to the economic comfort of its people and committed to the welfare of its citizens. This is the Nigeria we crave for. This, I dare submit, is the Nigeria we want.

Unity cannot be enforced on a people with an enduring sense of captivity. Nigeria as presently constituted is a nation of masters and servants. The average Nigerian has no sense of belonging and little hopes for the future. An irony in a nation with all the potentials to be counted great. The political equation is so bad that we all pretend to live in unity while we brazenly do anything we can to have a share of the national cake. It is a rat race of no mean proportion. In our desperation at a national problem that seems to have defied all peaceful solutions, corruption, nepotism, favouritism, tribalism all became the order of the day. Thus unity in the Nigerian context is a mere superficial attestation to project a sense of belonging. In reality, a Nigerian belongs first and foremost to his ethnic group. In this melee, sprang ethnic vanguards like the Egbesu boys, the Odua People Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP), the Movement for the Actualisation of Biafra (MASSOB), and the various groupings within the Niger-Delta band, including the now famous or infamous (depending on your school of thought) Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

With the repeated failures of our numerous economic formulas vividly manifested in extreme poverty, non-existent social infrastructures, social deprivations, unemployment and high crime rate, what else could be the catalyst for a re-thinking on our part as a nation. I repeat, once again, that Nigeria is a nation with God-given blessings and potentials. It has all the ingredients to be a truly great nation. Why then must we be satisfied with unproductive political engineering aimed at fostering a false sense of nationhood. Why must we continue to tolerate repeated cycles of corrupt, visionless and inept political leadership. I mean, why must we continue to allow the inglorious reign of a confused and selfish oligarchy that have bled its own ethnic group dry. So many years of political domination in Nigeria has not educationally or economically emancipate the average northern Nigerians significantly.

The fragmentation of our dear country predates our ceremonious independence from colonial rule. Post-independence Nigeria has done precious little to cement the cracks. The need has never been more urgent than now for a serious tête-à-tête. Our God-given heritage as a potentially great nation should be our focus in our attempts to find a lasting solution to our socio-political imbroglio and continued economic deprivation. Professor Sagay once stated that: “Political domination and economic centralization has characterized the current arrangement in Nigeria since 1966.” Dr Layi Abegunde of the Political Science department, Howard University, USA, also supported this by maintaining that: “Nigeria is a nation within nations. With about 450 ethnic groups, unitary constitution/system cannot solve Nigerian problems, but genuine federalism. And with our chaotic situations since the end of the civil war, we should convene a sovereign national conference to restructure the Nigerian polity”.

Interestingly, one of the greatest statements made in support of the inevitable need for a sovereign national conference came from that man who had all the opportunities to carve his name in gold in the history of Nigeria. General Olusegun Obasanjo underscored the seriousness of a national conference in 1998 before declaring his intention to run in the 1999 presidential election and said, “Every Nigerian has a stake in the survival and prosperity of this country. This stake should be recognized, no section or group should be made to feel disenfranchised or alienated. The obstacles to voluntary and enthusiastic identification with Nigerians should be removed. I believe this can be achieved through open dialogue among the constituents of the Nigerian Federation” (The Guardian, Lagos, November 3, 1998). This was the repentant and borne again Obasanjo who later became a turn-coat. He went further: “”Nigeria was taken captive by conspiracy of deception, oppression, corruption and injustice all for greed and selfishness and it needs liberation. Nigeria is too fragile and the situation is too dangerous for anything but the truth and justice and too small for anything but brotherhood and sisterhood. And the world is moving fast that it may leave us behind,” (Olusegun Obasanjo, This Animal Called Man, 1998, p. 219). Events after Obasanjo was sworn in as a civilian president told a much different story. The animal called man indeed!

The benefits of a sovereign national conference are immense, if only those who control power in Nigeria would allow it. For once Nigerians would be given the unfettered chance to sit down like brothers and discuss their future. In the words of Theophilus E Osezua, “the sovereign national conference will give the ethnic nationalities an opportunity to examine the questions that have made Nigeria such a disaster and come up with some answers such as the right of every nationality to have greater control over their resources”. However, the type of conference being clamoured for differs greatly from the talk-shop organised in 2005 by General Obasanjo. Obasanjo’s ambivalence and sudden loss of eloquence on the issue of sovereign national conference, on assuming the mantle of power may coma as a surprise to some but remains typically Obasanjo. The same man who spoke with so much passion on this issue in his much touted book in 1998 turned round to label talks about such a conference “idle talks” on becoming the nation’s president.

Obasanjo’s attitude may be significant in understanding the mindset of those who are afraid of a sovereign conference to resolve the inherited and lingering logjams in the life of our country. The often raised concern of this group of people is their discomfort with the term “sovereign”. I remember someone once wondering how a “sovereign” body can exist in parallel to a constitutionally elected sovereign national assembly. However, this logic flies in the face when one realises that Nigeria would not be the first country in the world to toy with the idea of a sovereign conference. Even on the African continent, other countries have attempted this option. The Republic of Congo is a country that explored this option during the reign of Mobutu Sese-Seko. The answer is that since power comes from the people, the people’s wish remains ultimate. The national assemblies were voted in by the people and in situations where the popular demand did not express explicit confidence in a presumably compromised national assembly, I obviously see no conflicts.

Contrary to expressed objections, the reasons why our leaders feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a sovereign national conference are many. Theophilus Osezua hit the nail on the head by declaring that: “the first reason is of course the overweening self interest of the ruling elite. The Nigerian nightmare is no accident. There are people who have been and are profiting from Nigeria’s underdevelopment…. Some interest groups are deeply interested in the continuation of the status quo because they have benefitted from it”. It is obvious that a truly re-organised, progressive and functional Nigeria remains a threat to some. There could be other myriad reasons why the idea of a sovereign conference may not hold much appeal. Such reasons could include the potential loss of oil revenue and other economic factors. However, the northern governors have just made us realise that their region is juicy and capable of surviving without oil. So, presumably, this particular objection to national conference may not be relevant (that is if the governors are correct!). What is not contestable is that a well organised and fully implemented sovereign conference would spell the end of political opportunism, adventurism, godfatherism, feudalism and nepotism. It would spell the demise of undue favouritism and lack of direction in the running of our national affairs. It would bring an end to unwarranted privileges.

There are still so many hurdles to cross in our demand for the convening of a genuine and truly representative sovereign national conference. We should not forget that the process of change often has a heavy price attached. It never comes on a platter of gold. Mobutu demonstrated this much with his handling of his country’s conference. He turned an otherwise peaceful conference into a tortuous one with significant loss of lives. He failed to set up institutions to implement the recommendations of the conference and the whole thing would have been a waste if not that it initiated and accelerated the hounding out of power of Mobutu himself. This is another source of fear on the part of those actively opposed to the Nigerian conference! In our continued demand, we should take cognisance of the various pitfalls inherent in the actualisation of our goals, especially the mighty battle with the powers that be. This not withstanding, the demands should assume agitated dimension nation-wide. There should be no North or South divide about this because, whether we accept it or not, we are united by poverty, political exploitation, suppression and subjugation.

The actualisation of our desired goal would spell the end to isolated, regional or generalised calls for self-determination. Then late Bola Ige can rest in his grave and Mujahid Dokubo-Asari would willingly lay down his arms. MASSOB would have no basis for existence; neither would OPC or Egbesu boys for that matter. Nigeria would be given the chance it truly deserves, an opportunity to be called a nation. A nation blessed with abundant human and natural resources, on poised to meet with the challenges of this century. A nation built on mutual trust, unity, equity and justice for all. That, my friend, is the nation I would be proud to call my own!

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