By Moses Ebe Ochonu
The communiqué issued by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation talkshop on the proposed national conference is spot on, and its points dovetail with what I’ve always argued. Folks are right to be skeptical about the timing of the national conference. They may be vindicated if as they suspect Jonathan takes the country through another wasteful, inconsequential farce–if he mimics Mr. Obasanjo.
The truth, even those of us who have a long record of advocating for a national conference, have to admit is that, without a commitment from Jonathan and other “elected” principal officials of this republic to put the key outcomes of the conference to a national referendum that would inform the inauguration of a new constitutional order, the conference’s failure is almost guaranteed. The dismal implementation records of previous conferences do not inspire confidence.
Nonetheless, a national dialogue is timely in the present circumstance of multiple threats to Nigeria’s very existence. Not only that, the structural defects that undergird corruption, electoral malfeasance, and unhealthy political quarrels need to be addressed. The conference should obviously not usurp the sovereignty entrusted in the current elected officials, however problematic this process of sovereignty transfer was. The idea of a sovereign national conference is a fanciful overreach for those desiring a forum for perfecting or, failing that, dissolving the house of Lord Lugard.
I love the communique for rejecting the no-go-area canard. What are the powers that be and some respected intellectuals afraid of when they argue that the break up of Nigeria should be off the table? You can’t inaugurate a political conversation on the many existential questions plaguing the Nigerian state and refuse to entertain the broaching or discussion of break-up.
You can’t corral political conversations into preferred boxes or outcomes, avoiding uncomfortable questions and proposals that depart from predetermined trajectories. What if the discussions return with or congeal to a verdict that the Nigerian union is irretrievably broken and needs to be destroyed in the interest of everyone? What then?
Do you regiment the discourse away from its logical, considered conclusion in an arbitrary effort to preserve a union that representative interlocutors have declared unviable? It would be the analytical equivalent of a coitus interruptus, not to mention a waste of money, time, and opportunity. Let those who want to pursue their political aspirations outside of the Nigerian framework and those who simply see Nigeria as a an insufferable drag on all her constituents be given a chance to convince the rest of their compatriots. It is the civilized, democratic thing to do.
A national conference that is not about advancing compelling arguments and counterarguments, about dueling proposals and counterproposals, and about consensus building and persuasion is not worthy of the name.
I do believe that the secessionists are vastly outnumbered by those who want Nigeria preserved in one form or another—ranging from the broken status quo to a confederacy of autonomous jurisdictions. I believe that if given a chance, most Nigerians would vote to retain at least some of the organic connections binding Nigeria’s various constituencies together.
But I realize that unions that do not work and are widely perceived as tyrannical and dysfunctional impositions can cause even ardent believers to imagine their political futures elsewhere. I also realise there are many who are invested in the structural status quo and have dubiously and self-interestedly demonized secession while valorizing the present union as a way of preserving their privileges, which a different structural configuration would undermine.
I also realize, as a historian, that centrifugal pressures are regenerative, creative ingredients in nation building, for they help to shake stakeholders from their complacency and to prevent citizens from taking the nation as a settled, sacrosanct, final product. Besides, providing a platform for those who desire separate states will afford us an opportunity to understand the depth and breadth of the current disenchantment with how Nigeria is presently structured and run.
Additionally, it is a way to channel the more virulent forms of these separatist political imaginations into a democratic and deliberative medium that would tame and mainstream them before they morph into something threatening and violent.
The more I think about this national conference idea, the more I am reminded that:
1. There are several unfinished/truncated nationalisms and decolonizations all over Africa.
2. There is a fetishization of the nation-state as a final, linear end-point of political organization and state formation, which in turn forecloses on the possibility of revisiting, revising and, when necessary, undoing the territorial-political bequests of colonizers.
On the first point, one of the most enlightening papers I heard at the recent Toyin FalolaInternational Conference in Ibadan, is the presentation of Professor Fonkem Achankeng, who presented an incisive paper on the uncompleted but ongoing struggle of the Southern Cameroons to be allowed to determine their political future outside the colonial creation called Cameroon. Professor Achankeng has several articles in journals that articulate the self-determination aspirations of the Southern Cameroon peoples.
In Western Sahara, the people’s struggle for a separate state or at least for substantial autonomy from Moroccan rule is all but forgotten. In several other theaters, the work of colonial state-building is unraveling, with regions and peoples thrown into strange national cauldrons increasingly voting with their feet against such colonial contraptions.
Perhaps we need a continental discussion and debate on this unfinished business of nationhood and self-determination that is increasingly bubbling to the surface to trouble colonial states previously considered fairly settled.
As I told Dr. Achankeng, the nation-state as a form of disciplined territorial political space is a relatively recent idea, having its origins in the so-called treaty of Westphalia in the mid 18th century. In Africa it’s even more recent, dating only to the late 19th century and early twentieth century.
Yet Africans have become so wedded to that state form despite the fact that, being a jealous and domineering entity that brooks little or no challenge to its sovereignty, the nation-state frowns upon alternative expressions of African nationhood and group political solidarity.
Given the recency of the nation-state, and the non-linear trajectory of human political evolution (forget Fukuyama and his nonsensical end-of-history neoconservative fantasy) the notion that the African postcolonial nation state is beyond negotiation or reconstitution and is a sacred baseline of political organization, debate, and governance is untenable.
My feeling is that in addition to having this debate on the whether the national houses that colonizers built can still accommodate the varying, divergent aspirations of their occupants, a parallel debate on how best to reeducate Africans on the artificiality, newness, and awkwardness of their nation-states needs to continue apace.
Perhaps the best way to win support for simmering–and legitimate– nationalist, separatist, centrifugal, and self-determination struggles across the continent is to first deconstruct the nation-state and wean Africans from its mysterious hold on them. Once this task of deconstruction and historicizing is complete, Africans may be more receptive to legitimate political and territorial challenges to the existing nation-states of Africa.
The only conceptual snag in this business of deconstruction right now is that putative African nations and groups who aspire to international recognition have to use the idiom of the nation state to shape their struggle because that is unfortunately the only entity that commands international recognition–the only territorial vocabulary with the force of legality in international affairs.
This sad reality limits the appeal of deconstruction, because folks involved in struggles of self-determination simply want what others have–a nation-state to call their own–even if in principle they are not sold on the paradigmatic political stature of the nation-state form or its superiority to alternative local or supra-national territorial entities.
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