Over the next three months, (or longer, as I understand some delegates are already campaigning for an extension of the life of the Conference), I plan to write a number of columns following the issues and debates at the National Conference. I have always been a keen supporter of the National Conference for the simple reason that it’s an important opportunity to engage in dialogue about an improved political future for Nigeria in a context that is not bound by the constraints of existing institutions. It is important to recall that the Nigerian debate about the convening of a national conference has been inspired by the struggle against military rule. Indeed, in 1990, Nigerians tried to organize a workshop at the National Theatre in Lagos to plan our own National Conference but the security agents of the Babangida Dictatorship dispersed the event. The reality on the ground however is that since 1990, the demands for a national conference in Nigeria has not abated so yes, lets do it. My minimum expectation is that the Conference will highlight our traditional Nigerian problems and maybe engage us on a line of reflections that could lead is to live with our problems if we cannot really solve them.
Today, we start with the numbers game, an activity we Nigerians love to speculate on with passion and with ignorance. We have two queries on numbers – Christians/Muslims and Northerners/Southerners – who are more. On the 26th of March, the Sultan of Sokoto led a delegation of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to complain to the President about the marginalisation of Muslims from the Conference. Two days previously, the Jama’atul Nasril Islam held a press conference in Kaduna alleging “the process of selecting delegates to the Conference were contrary to democratic principle as a majority of delegates to the conference are Christians.” They also pointed out that it was not only Northern Muslims that were underrepresented but also Southern Muslims.
In normal countries, debates over numbers are settled with reference to census figures but our census figures have always been controversial and contested. The problem however is that there are no alternative figures to work with. The subtext of the complaint of the Muslim community is that Muslims are a majority in Nigeria and therefore a representative conference should have a majority of Muslims. What do the census numbers tell us? It tells us a story about the elimination of traditional African religion in the numbers game. According to the 1931 census figures, 50% of enumerated Nigerians were “pagans” to use the appellation used at that time. The 1952 census numbers told us that the “pagans” had declined to 34% of the population and the percentage provided in the 1963 census was that we then only had 18.2% of “pagans” in the population, with 34% of Christians and 47% Muslims. The 1963 census was the last one that posed the question of religious affiliation. The question since then is who converted the 18.2% worshipers of traditional religion and what percentage of them became Muslim or Christian as almost all Nigerians today claim one or the other. As Muslims needed to convert only plus 3% to get the majority, the assumption in many quarters is that there are more Muslims than Christians in the country. Others however contest this assumption arguing that the 1963 census figures were fraudulent and therefore cannot be the basis for any conclusion in the numbers game.
My view is that our political class might be right in taking the decision that we should not know for sure who converted more of the “pagans”. In this context, assumptions can be made that the Christian/Muslim ratio is around 50/50 or one side may have slightly more than the other. Imagine the political difficulties that we will have if we know for sure which religion has plus 50% of the Nigerian population and the types of demands that could be made. Sometimes, the uncertainty principle is a good political tool.
The issue at the conference however is that of the gap between the wto. Some estimates I have seen indicate that there are 294 Christians and only 198 Muslims in the Conference. This is a huge voting advantage in a country where religious affiliations matter. When therefore Mike Ozekhome moved the motion that the standing rules should be amended from ¾ requiring 367 to get a win to 2/3 requiring only 328 votes to win, it was easy to see why Muslims got very worried. As the division could not be resolved, a 50-person committee was appointed to propose a solution and there are press reports that they are proposing 70% vote as the winning number. With this number, the requirement will now be 344.4 delegates to win. For those who might wonder what .4 delegate would look like, questions should be addressed to Richard Akinjide who handled a similar matter with mathematical brilliance during the Second Republic.
The other divide we love so much in Nigeria is the North/South one. The 1952 census figures indicated 55.9%/44.1% in favour of the North. The subsequent census maintained this Northern advantage – 1963 54.2%/45.8%, 1991 – 53.4%/46.6% and 2006 – 53.7%/46.3%. These numbers would matter in the Conference because many a northerner would see the composition as a crude attempt to fake the numbers to give President Jonathan winning majorities as issues that would have bearing to the 2015 elections are discussed. Other would see it as a correction of relative numbers between the North and the South.
One question is whether it’s possible for Nigerians to have a dispassionate discussion on relative population numbers. My good friend, emeritus professor Ebere Onwudiwe posed this question when discussing Igbo complaints that they had been under-counted in the 2006 census. He said they should ask themselves some questions. First, MASSOB had called for an Igbo boycott of the census and turned round to say they had been under-counted. Secondly, “for every 10 Igbo in the heartland there are perhaps three to five in other parts of Nigeria” (The Guardian, 31/12007). The Igbo count would have been much higher nationally had ethnicity been one of the variables enumerated in the census.
The numbers game would continue to play a large part in the politics of the National Conference and outside it. It would be a game of uncertainties. We are lucky that one of the booby traps in the Nigerian debate, which has been the call for a conference of ethnic nationalities lost out. It would have been impossible to establish who there groups are and what their numbers are. The key issue for me is that at the end of the day, the National Conference takes decisions, which represent very broad consensus in the country. Manipulating numbers might win an argument in the National Conference but would certainly not be translatable into implementable action. I would call on the delegates to surprise us all by taking decisions that work for Nigeria rather than a part of it.