Nigeria and the National Conference Imperative, By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Maxim Uzoatu
Maxim Uzoatu

The late comedian Mohammed Danjuma once told the joke of how he was once mid-air inside a plane only to see one man in parachute knocking on his window and telling him: “I don go-o! Na me be pilot of this plane-o. If you like-o, continue to stay there-o, but me I don go-o.”

The people who speak big grammar would say that Nigeria is in auto-pilot. In the kind of simple English that I do understand, Nigeria is like a plane without a pilot. It is as though the plane is flying hither and thither looking for where to crash. The Americans have put out the gist that come 2015 Nigeria would break into pieces. It is therefore very imperative now that Nigerians need to talk on how to co-exist.

A country risks extinction when it fails to re-invent itself. Josip Broz Tito loomed large over the old Yugoslavia of unblessed memory, but after his death the country could not re-invent itself and thus fell to pieces. Soviet Union is no more because the diverse nationalities could not talk on a common front. The national question is on the front burner of discourse all over the world.

Minorities are insisting on the right to self-determination. Ethnic groups are highlighting their differences which they maintain ought to be given due recognition. The ferment cuts across races and regions of the world. Every interest group wants to be represented in the affairs of the nation. When the conference table cannot provide an answer, violence supervenes. The world has in fact lost count of the number of souls lost in the many battlefields that ordinary conferences would have prevented. The Nigeria-Biafra war would not have been fought if the Aburi conference had succeeded in every material particular. Many moons after that horrendous war, the issues that elicited the war in the first place remain unsolved. The Boko Haram menace can be situated within this ambit. The Jos crisis is yet another dimension.

The evolution of multi-ethnic nations takes studied negotiation. One angry Nigerian, Sixtus Chibueze Ezennaya, poses this loaded question: “One Nigeria! One Nigeria! One Nigeria! When was it agreed upon?”

The European colonial powers that set up shop in Berlin in 1884-85 to allocate the area now known as Nigeria to colonial Britain acted in spite of the nationality groups then inhabiting the land. Sir Frederick Lugard amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates so that the South will serve as “the lady of means”, in the words of Lord Harcourt, to feed the arid North. The mutual benefit of the constituent parts was not put into consideration. Some 16 years earlier, Lugard’s girlfriend, Flora Shaw, had suggested a name for the emergent country: Nigeria, a word formed from the River Niger, not minding that River Niger itself was named after the accursed racist word “Nigger”.

Thus from the very beginning Nigerian history is replete with obfuscating contradictions. Some smart military majors thought they could change history by staging a coup in January 1966. The coup was read to mean an Igbo coup aimed at the ethnic group dominating the entire country. Northern military, officers fomented a revenge coup in July of the selfsame 1966. After taking over power, Yakubu Gowon had prepared a speech to announce the dissolution of the Nigerian Federation on August 1, 1966 and the secession (araba) of the North until he was prevailed upon to change his mind by the British High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce. The pogrom unleashed on the Igbo people in the North put a heavy question mark on the existence of Nigeria. The Aburi conference in Ghana had to be convened as a last ditch effort to save the country from war. The agreements at Aburi became subverted and the Nigeria-Biafra war ensued.

After the war, military and Northern domination of power came to a head with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Chief Moshood Abiola. General Sani Abacha locked up Abiola, and the country teetered on the precipice until somehow Abiola and Abacha died after one another. It took the re-emergence of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo for the Northern military to anoint a civilian fit enough to be trusted with power. Nigeria’s recent misadventures with Obasanjo’s Third Term Project, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s death-knell presidency and President Jonathan’s battle with the so-called zoning policy do not need further elaborations here. From Boko Haram to Jos to everywhere, trouble is all over the land.

What President Jonathan needs to do is to organize a proper national conference. The country should be delineated into constituencies for the election of the representatives of nationality groups, town unions, trade unions, academics, NGOs, professional bodies, citizens in exile, the security forces etc to come into conference to tackle issues such as the national question, confederation, census, federalism, devolution of powers, policing, martial and external relations, secession etc. The conference is sovereign to the extent that its result will be binding on all the peoples of Nigeria and not subject to doctoring by the powers-that-be. Any further dilly-dallying by President Jonathan can cast him in the mould of Gorbachev who dithered in the old Soviet Union and saw his nation disintegrate.