Nigeria’s current federal system came about through a series of historical incidents. In 1914, a united Nigeria was created out of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates. The amalgamation was as a result of a desire by the colonial administration to create a better coordinated fiscal administration of its territory and to build a stronger economic area that would serve the colonial interests better. In doing this, a stronger entity was built but it neglected important social and cultural demands by the many ethnic and religious groups that made up the new entity. At independence in 1960, Nigeria was made up of three regions – Northern, Western and Eastern. It became four in 1963 when the Mid-West region was created. After civil war erupted in 1967, these 3 regions became 12 states. Under this system, calls for ethnic-based resource control grew. In 1976, 7 new states were created, and by 1996 the number of Nigeria’s states had swollen to 36. After Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, some Nigerians criticised the previous military regimes for tampering with the regional structure of the country to its overall detriment and of foisting a constitution on Nigerians that has worked against, rather than for, the development of the country.
Nevertheless, the regional arrangement has continued to stir rivalries between states as well as between different groups fighting over land and resources. Economically, states have become heavily reliant on the federal government; In August and September of 2013 alone, allocations from the centre to local governments exceeded N435 billion ($2.8 billion). The system has been described by many as inefficient and has stoked the anger of many Nigerians just as it has raised questions over the sustainability of a system that seems to discourage productivity within the states. Under these circumstances, Nigerians have consistently called for a reconsideration of the whole political structure.
Another angle that the relevance of this National Dialogue has been assessed from is the belief that, after so many years as a unified entity, the time has come for Nigerians to sit down as a people and consider important and effective options to address the myriad challenges that they face and to draw up a plan for the future of this country. To borrow from the words of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, “The primary duty of the Sovereign National Conference is to address and find solutions to the key problems afflicting Nigeria since 1914 to date. The concern is to remove all obstacles which have prevented the country from establishing political justice, economic justice, social justice, cultural justice, religious justice and to construct a new constitutional frame-work in terms of the system of government- structurally, politically economically, socially, culturally and religiously.”
In the words of one community leader, “In life, there is a moment as an individual you would sit down and review how things are going and plan for the future. Nigeria, as a country, has come a long way; interestingly, we know our past, where we are today, but we do not know where we are going. Therefore, it is very important to sit down as one people to decide where we are going.” This is a valid point. It is important that a national conference be held to look into the many challenges just as it is important to develop a culture of dialogue through a conference of this nature as a means of building stronger relationships amongst the nation’s many ethnic, cultural, religious and economic groups.
It is also important to note that, while several conferences that have largely focused on reshaping the country’s constitution have been organised, the general opinion is that most of these efforts have either not been truly representative of the effort of the masses or, since previous military regimes have played a key role as the conveners, the decisions reached have mostly represented the desires of a few individuals within a particular socio-political grouping rather than the desires of the generality of Nigerians who should really be the deciders of their own fate.
President Goodluck Jonathan explains lucidly some of the reasons for the National Conference: at the inauguration of the National Advisory Committee, he said “as we continue to strive to build a strong and virile Nation, especially in the midst of agitations and tensions, we cannot deny the fact that sitting down to talk is one right step in calming down tensions and channelling our grievances, misgivings and suggestions into more positive use for the good of our Country…”
“…The concept of participatory democracy is such that even after the people have given their representatives the mandate to make laws and act on their behalf, there is also a space for the governed to make further input into the political processes, without undermining the authority of the statutory bodies. Sovereignty continues to be with the people even as the people evolve strategies and tactics to strengthen its foundation for the benefit of successor generations.
It is this sort of collaboration between the people and established institutions of government, that will allow for a robust outcome that leads to greater understanding and a more cohesive and inclusive Union. For me, there is no alternative to inclusivity, equity and justice in a modern democratic state.
I will therefore like to allay the fears of those who think the Conference will call the integrity of Nigeria into question. This National Discourse will strengthen our union and address issues that are often on the front burner, and are too frequently ignored…”
“…what we desire is what can work for the good of our people and country. The goal is to bequeath a better and a greater Nigeria to the present and the generation that is to come.
Ladies and Gentlemen, We have wasted too much time and resources, bickering over sectional versions of what define reality. This is an open-ended luxury we can no longer afford. Let us move forward, with honest conviction and patriotic courage, to strengthen this Republic, and get it to work better and brighter, for all of us, to the glory of God.”
President Jonathan makes the succinct point that the conference is intended to build stronger relationships between Nigeria’s diverse groups as much as it would spur the process to finding lasting solutions to Nigeria’s myriad challenges.