By Victor Anazonwu
It is no longer news the real reason why, suddenly, the idea of a National Conference is looking like a distinct possibility. After decades of clamour by proponents and cycles of suspicion and cold treatment by the Nigerian political establishment, President Goodluck Jonathan on October 1, 2013 broke the sacred calabash by setting up an advisory committee to look into modalities for the convocation of a national confab.
If you manage to ignore the president’s penchant for setting up committees on matters he has no real interest in, then you are left with nothing but praise for the Commander-in-Chief for daring where many before him feared to thread.
As everyone knows, this had probably little to do with an altruistic desire to solve the perennial problem of Nigeria’s wobbly nationhood. Nor does the president appear to genuinely believe in the capacity of a motley crowd of ethnic jingoists, “outside the elected legislature”, to decode and fix the flawed gene in Nigeria’s DNA. No. this was almost entirely an act of political expediency designed to save a troubled presidency and his party, the PDP, in the face of mounting odds as the 2015 elections approach.
Faced by resolute internal insurrection in the mould of the G7 Governors who have now morphed into the “New PDP”, the rise of a credible opposition by the name of APC, and the dawning realization that there are few tangible achievements in the current tenure to gloat about on the campaign soapbox, Mr. President’s strategists must have finally persuaded him to try a trick straight out of IBB’s Bag of Maradonic Magic.
Anyone old enough in the late 80s and early 90s would recall how the nation was regularly called out to meaningless debates on topics like the number of political parties Nigeria should have; and while Nigerians lost their voices in the ensuing chatter, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida was busy extending his tenure as military president…
Still, I refuse to join cynics who would not celebrate the milestone represented by Mr. President’s confab committee. A popular Nigerian proverb says, “Leave wetin dem write for moto, enter moto.” It is an admonition to ignore motives, insinuations or distractions and focus on the end result.
Thus, I believe that though politicians may be pressing the SNC button for selfish goals, it is entirely possible for them to score an own-goal in the process. So long as it results in a goal and victory for Nigeria and Nigerians, the game would have been well worth it.
On the substantive merit of a national conversation, I believe that it is only relevant because successive Nigerian leaders, including the current ones, have failed to grasp or refused to perform one of their primary roles.
That role is not to build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and even power plants. That role is to build the spirit of nationhood, oneness and common purpose among constituent groups. It is this spirit that creates a sense of pride and belonging among citizens and fires their passion for great achievements and sacrifice, even laying down their lives, for the fatherland. In the absence of that spirit, no nation can thrive.
Everywhere they went, the British colonialists consciously sabotaged that spirit because it was antithetical to the achievement of their imperialist goals. Indeed, the key principle on which colonialism rested was “Divide and Rule.” Thus, the London Constitutional Conference of 1957 bequeathed to us the three-region structure and mindset, granting self-government first to the East and West in 1957 and later to the North in 1959.
Sadly, our founding fathers and post Independence leaders totally failed to grasp this intrigue and make necessary shifts upon taking over a new “nation.” Instead, in their political naivety and pursuit of individual political fiefdoms, they acquiesced in maintaining the regional mentality and diminishing the greater prospect of one nation.
This fact was well dramatised in a famous exchange between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Ahmadu Bello. Zik was said to have suggested that we should “forget our differences” to forge a new union. The Sarduana had retorted that he would rather “we recognise our differences” whilst going forward together. The latter won that contest of wits with great applause from a politically infantile audience.
Zik was seen as “the biggest fool Nigeria ever had” and subsequently abandoned his “idealism.” This country has since lost its soul to a legion of fiercely combative ethnic groups, regions and other interest groups each of which sees its fortune as consisting in the misfortune of others. We are first Hausa/Fulani, Igbo or Yoruba. Or we are from the East, West, North or South. Only secondarily are we Nigerians. And only when we are abroad or playing a football match do we suddenly become “brothers and sisters.” What a shame! What a waste!
If Goodluck Jonathan genuinely wants to fix this problem and become a true Nigerian hero, he doesn’t need a national conference – sovereign or not. All he needs is the will to use his enormous presidential powers to push through a re-definition of Nigerian citizenship by actions – not mere words. That re-definition will make the individual (not ethnic groups, regions or states) and residence (not ancestral origin) the primary bases of citizenship and all attendant privileges. That would include the right to vote and be voted for and the right to hold any public office, anywhere in Nigeria.
Denial of such rights should be litigable and at great pain to convicted offenders. Some of these rights are already in the constitution but no one stands up for them. If Jonathan was a genuine reformer, he would make the presidency, through the office of the Attorney General, the champion of these rights wherever they are infringed – like when Lagos State “deported” some Nigerians from other states.
With this, a Musa Abdullahi, who was born and bred in Asata, Enugu, would no longer be compelled to “go back home” to his ancestral roots in Kano, whenever it is time for elections or headcounts. Likewise, an Ademola Lasisi, born and raised in Kaduna, with primordial links to Ogbomosho, will no longer be considered a “settler” in the only city he knows and calls home. And it will be a constitutional offence for an Emeka Okafor to be told he cannot contest election in Surulere where he has lived and paid taxes for the past two decades. These are the first principles of nationhood. Without them, everything else is hogwash.
Having thus laid the proper foundation for true equity and justice by slaying the monster of settler versus indigene, Jonathan must then proceed to imbue greater value into the concept of Nigerian citizenship by demonstrating (not just proclaiming) the sacredness of every Nigerian life and the dignity of every holder of the green passport. The way we treat ourselves in Nigeria is sometimes worse than the way animals are treated in some other climes and the way other nations sometimes treat us abroad.
When recently over 50 students were gunned down in their hostels by Boko Haram insurgents in the Gujba, Yobe State, the president appeared on TV to say “only twenty” deaths had been recorded. In other words, 20 dead Nigerians was not so bad! Similarly, when policemen and other armed agents of the state wantonly kill innocent citizens, the silence of government speaks volumes on the true value of Nigerian lives, if not the tacit approval of persons at the top. Little wonder Nigerians don’t take Nigeria too seriously.
It is to our eternal shame that yearly, thousands of middle class Nigerian mums-to-be scramble abroad to have their babies. Ask them why and they would tell you that they want their new-born to obtain the citizenship of those countries – because according to their laws, anyone born within their borders is entitled to citizenship and attendant privileges. Yet in Nigeria, everyone remains a “stranger” and a “settler” everywhere except in the little corners where their ancestors’ roots can be traced to.
Nigeria’s greatest challenge is not structural. It is not even constitutional. It is attitudinal. Nigerians see Nigeria as one big cake to be shared. So, everyone is busy trying to grab the largest chunk to himself or to his corner of the table. Too few are concerned with baking the cake or ensuring that the supply keeps coming. Everyone “knows” the problem but no one is willing to first do what is right.
For as long as such mindsets persist, the national confab will achieve nothing. Delegates will arrive with narrow ethnic, regional and personal agendas, each hoping to outsmart the other rather than to build together. Instead of listening more and talking less, each group would only want to be heard. With such latent shortage of the collaborative spirit, I fear for the worst.
Instead of competing with other nations of the world in trade, technology, the arts and sundry contributions to human civilization, Nigerians are busy competing with one another and between primordial groups for the limited resources of the Nigerian state. Nigeria is thus like a “big man” with many sons, each talented in his own way. One is a gifted farmer; the other a passionate herdsman; the other a notable intellectual and yet another gifted in entrepreneurship.
But because all they wanted was to inherit their father’s house, they stayed home, each practising within the limited confines of the village. Meanwhile, their peers journeyed to far-flung corners of the globe in search of fame and fortune. In the end, the enormously talented sons of the rich man became no more than local champions and bitter men, held down by their own limited visions and fratricidal inclinations, while their mates made waves as citizens of the world.
Nigeria needs only a man (or woman) who will boldly step forward to right these wrongs and put the country, for the first time, on the path of strong, positive national values and a global vision. Will a national conversation save us from ourselves or will this be another wild goose chase? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
• Anazonwu, a marketing communications practitioner, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.
Source: The Guardian