When President Goodluck Jonathan dropped the hint that a National Conference was in the offing in October, last year, the whole country erupted into a frenzy of debates. Many thought it was a tall ambition. They, therefore, spared the President no chance at all. To them, it was impossible. Others viewed it differently. To this other category of people, it was worth a trial. Both groups then went the whole hog to canvass their positions, but the President did not blink, he stuck to his guns.
First, he set up a consultative forum of eminent and not-so-eminent Nigerians. Their mandate was to gauge the pulse of the people, collate their opinions and see the desirability of holding the conference in the second quarter of the year. Though there were some stumbling blocks on its way, the committee toured the six geo-political zones of the country in a record time. Everywhere it went, the scenarios were different. When the committee was done with its consultations, it presented a report to the President in which it assured him that the consensus of people was that they were willing to dialogue.
Pronto, the President, through Anyim Pius Anyim, former Senate President and now the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, quickly puts modalities in place. The result was the inauguration of the 492-man conference inside the hollow hall of the National Judicial Council Secretariat in Abuja on Monday, March 17, 2014.
The conference started with great optimism but there was also skepticism among discerning Nigerians who were not so sure that the exercise could produce the desired result which would allay the fears of the citizenry about the political acronym called Nigeria. This stems from the fact that there appears to be a conflict within and among the ethnic nationalities that were corralled together 100 years ago in the political definition called Nigeria. Since then, this ethnic conglomeration has flourished under the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and sometimes disdain for one another.
In the last two weeks, series of events bordering on muscle-flexing and playing to the gallery have punctuated the conference as various speakers, one after the other, scheme to foster hidden agendas. Come to think of it, the trend of events is not entirely new in an exercise such as this. History is replete with several examples where diplomatic discussions have dragged on for several years, over several round-table conferences, before the desired breakthroughs were achieved.
The country recently celebrated its 100th year of nationhood. What used to be Southern and Northern Protectorates were woven together in a holy wedlock (or is it unholy?) by the British-born Lord Frederick Lugard. In 1960, the country became independent, free from the clutches of British imperialism and with a new Constitution. That singular event did not come overnight. It was preceded by three conferences at Lancaster House in London in 1957, 1958 and 1959 before the actual Independence Conference, where Sir Ahmadu Bello, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, all now late, finally put pen to paper to seal the union that produced Nigeria.
In 1963, the Constitution was amended but it later followed an unpalatable path as it was being gradually and systematically destroyed by the vaulting ambition of some of the dramatis personae of the country’s evolution. When late Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola broke pact with Chief Awolowo of the Action Group in the early 60s, since he needed the then Federal Government to protect him against Awolowo and his group, he literarily signed away so many things to the Northern oligarchy.
Therefore, since July 1966, the Constitution of the country has always been a North-dominated Constitution. Gradually, the North has moved from being one-third of the country at Independence, to six out of the 12 states decreed by General Yakubu Gowon (retd.), who became the Head of State in July 1966. From then on, it has moved gradually until late General Sani Abacha made the North 19 states out of the 36 states of the country in 1996. The old Western Region got eight states, while the old Eastern Region got nine states. What this means is that the north has assumed control over more than 50% of the country, leaving less than 50% to the rest of the country.
For many years, whatever the North said became law. Now, ever since, this is the first time that the country is discussing. Hitherto, the military had dominated the whole period with the North always having the upper hand in everything and every coup in the country. What I believe is subtly playing out at the ongoing National Conference is the fear of the North that the South might treat them the way they had been treating the South all this while.
In several conversations I had with some of the key delegates at the conference, across the country last week, it was clear that the climate of mutual suspicion, distrust and mistrust pervading this conference is so thick that it could be sliced with a knife. This is simply a manifestation of the old and archaic belief that one section of the country is superior to the others. The truth of the matter is that, in the reality of the present-day Nigeria, that assumption is no longer tenable as it is unacceptable. It is no longer “what we have, we keep”. This conference should afford each side of the divide the ample opportunity to state what they want. It is now left to the moderators, who are men of excellent pedigree, men who have distinguished and acquainted themselves creditably in their various professional careers, to pilot the conference successfully and steer it out of rancour and unnecessary acrimony.
‘Above all, all the delegates at the conference should take cognisance of one thing: ‘hungry and angry boys’ are out there waiting restlessly for the outcome of this jaw-jaw’
It is on record that when the issue of voting pattern erupted, the moderators quickly came to the rescue by constituting a balanced committee of 50 wise men to pave way for a compromise. Initially, the South wanted 66 percent votes to constitute a simple majority, while the North stuck to 75 percent as proposed by the President. After much consultation and arguments for and against, the North conceded 5 percent and came down to 70 percent while the South moved up by 3 percent or so. It will be good enough if they can reach a compromise on 70 percent. Like a Yoruba adage says: “Oju lasan ko la fi ngbomo lowo ekuro,” meaning “it is not easy to extract palm kernel from palm fruit.”
So, for the Lamidos of this world and his ilk, we must all bear it in mind that we are living together in the same country. It is the responsibility of all of us to preserve and protect what we have. That was why probably the President said so much at the inauguration of the conference that the only agenda should be a “Nigerian Agenda,” not a Northern or Southern agenda. Whatever may be our desires, and I suppose they are reasonable ones, we should endeavour to canvass our positions without issuing vague threats; we must negotiate, we must be flexible, and we must concede where necessary.
The North would have to realise that it can no longer force anything, just any concoction, down people’s throats. Let us accept the reality that history and sociology conferred on our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural existence, which we must guard jealously in order to preserve the bond of nationhood that binds us together. This is because in our diversity lies our strength as a nation and that is if we are able to rise above primordial and or clannish interests.
Above all, all the delegates at the conference should take cognisance of one thing: “hungry and angry boys” are out there waiting restlessly for the outcome of this jaw-jaw. Therefore, let us stick to the rule of commonsense and avoid plunging the country into a needless vicious circle of conflict and bloodshed. Let us remember that the greatest wars in history ended up on a conference table where binding decisions are taken. At the end of the day, deaths and destructions that usually accompany all devastating wars become regrettable features of our lives. I think we can do without that in this country.