By Adewale Maja-Pearce
|President Goodluck Jonathan
LAGOS — Mine is a country of 175 million people, who speak more than 500 languages and are renowned for their inability to get along. Blame usually falls on colonial map makers, and it is well-deserved. But the reasons for our national discord are complex — certainly much too complicated for most of the international media to fathom — so news accounts of the multiple antipathies among our 250 ethnic groups are usually telescoped into what is known in the trade as boilerplate: the Muslim North battles the mostly Christian South for control of Nigeria’s oil wealth.
As a journalist, I know the difficulties of summarizing the world’s mad doings. Take the bewildering violence of Boko Haram. I’m as confused as anyone by the Islamic terrorist movement’s motivations, tactics and goals — perhaps because they themselves seem just as confused. In the beginning they were against southern Christians living in the north, and blew up churches to prove it. Now they’ve gone beyond attacking establishment figures to slaughtering their own people — even children — on the grounds that they are against Western education.
Though he won’t exactly admit it, our president, Goodluck Jonathan, shares this confusion, but — given the dignity of his office and the reality that elections are little over a year away — he apparently feels he must make a show of shoring up national unity. Thus, earlier this month, Mr. Jonathan inaugurated the Advisory Committee on National Conference/Dialogue. The name is unwieldy, the goals uncertain, and the chances of success dubious.
The fact is that our divisions are more nebulous than we Nigerians are sometimes inclined to admit. There are, for example, as many Muslims as Christians among the Yoruba people in the south. Still, it would be unfair to suggest that Nigerians, like people everywhere, don’t have stereotypes about our fellow countrymen.
I happen to be a member of the “fun-loving” Yoruba (as the British characterized us back in the early days of colonialism). We have a reputation for being hotly argumentative, charmingly treacherous and highly pragmatic, as loose in our morals as we are in our religion — at least according to the Igbo, the other dominant ethnic group in the south. On the other hand, it is said by some Yoruba that the Igbo would be willing to sacrifice their own parents in the pursuit of money, which they get largely by trading, sometimes in drugs.
As for all the “minorities” in between, there’s no telling what they get up to in their myriad languages, which few understand, even if we all speak English.
So what, then, was the reasoning behind the president’s call for dialogue — a call that took everybody by surprise? For one thing, the timing was odd: Why, after 53 years of independence, after civil wars, military coups, rivalries over oil, Boko Haram’s murderous insanities and the brutal military response that may well tear the country apart, do we suddenly need such a conference?
Actually the answer is simple. We don’t, but the president does. Elections are expected in early 2015, and Mr. Jonathan intends to run for a second, four-year term. But civil chaos and spreading corruption scandals do present certain difficulties. Still, Mr. Jonathan is a schooled politician, and it is clear that he has learned his lessons on how to navigate through seemingly unsolvable problems: When you need to divert popular attention and buy time, you can always call … a conference!
The president has been careful not to spell out any specifics. He has merely constituted an advisory committee to deliberate on “the nomenclature, structure and modalities” of the eventual Commission for a Dialogue or Conference. Nigerians are taking this bureaucratic gobbledygook in stride: The conference is widely dismissed as just another “talking shop.”
If national unity is so important, many people are asking, what stopped Mr. Jonathan from calling for one at the beginning of his tenure? Few of us are really fooled; we understand the realities of power in a country where the scramble for office is a do-or-die affair. Political power, after all, is the only game in town that ensures unfettered access to the nation’s oil riches.
Yet it would be unfair to suggest that Mr. Jonathan has overseen the most corrupt government in Nigeria — not least because it would be difficult to be more corrupt than its predecessors. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, between independence in 1960 and the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria’s leaders and their accomplices stole close to $400 billion.
Nevertheless, recent scandals offer plenty of room for comparison. One concerns newspaper accounts alleging that Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, routinely awards crude oil contracts to hastily registered companies fronted by people not previously known to be involved in the industry.
Another involves accusations that the aviation minister, Stella Oduah, squandered $1.6 million on two bulletproof cars worth about a quarter of that amount. This comes just weeks after yet another fatal plane crash, the seventh under her watch. Repeated calls for the dismissal of these ministers have been ignored.
Nigeria is convening a conference on national unity when we should be clamoring to end the corruption that lies so close to the heart of our ethnic, sectarian and civil discord. The decision to empanel a “talking shop” made of handpicked delegates who are uncertain about the exact nature of their assignment — beyond the fact that it will continue to provide them with their own slice of the national cake — fools no one.
Given the ever-present danger of Nigeria’s implosion — brought about by militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta, Islamic fundamentalists in the northeast, ethnic cleansing in the north central region and kidnappers everywhere you turn — we fractious Nigerians are unified by one salient truth: We all know that we cannot continue like this.
Adewale Maja-Pearce is a writer and critic, and the author of “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays.”
Source: New York Times
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