What Are We Talking About? asks Olusegun Adeniyi

Posted by News Express | 6 February 2014 | 3,654 times

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When on October 3 last year, I wrote on this page a piece titled “Another Organised Waste of Time”, on the “National Dialogue” proposed by President Goodluck Jonathan in his last Independence Day broadcast, there were people who felt that I missed the point. They belong to the three schools of thought that have always canvassed for a National Conference: Those who believe we “should renegotiate the basis of our unity” as a nation, those who have always argued that Nigeria cannot develop without “true federalism” and those who insist that our constitution is not derived from “we the people”.

However, with the release last week of the modalities for nominating participants to the proposed National Conference, none of these groups seems satisfied. But what I find rather interesting is that as I went through my old writings at the weekend, there was a particular piece that made me to shake my head, almost in disbelief at how the past sometimes resembles the future.

Exactly nine years ago this month, on February 16, 2005 to be specific, I wrote a column on the “National Political Reforms Conference”, then being organised by President Olusegun Obasanjo, following the release of the list of delegates at the time. It was the first in a three-part series that I titled, “What Are We Talking About?” I commend it to readers.


Following the execution by hanging of minority rights activist, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight other Ogoni kinsmen at a time the Commonwealth leaders were still making appeals for their lives in 1995, then South African President, Mr. Nelson Mandela, described the action of then Nigeria’s military leader, the late General Sani Abacha, as “irresponsible”.

In a characteristic response, Abacha hit back by telling us (State House Correspondents), that Mandela, having spent 27 years behind bars, had become far removed from the reality of life outside the confines of prison, before adding the clincher: “I should not join issues with Mandela, black head of a white country”.

A few minutes after Abacha spoke, we were called back and warned not to use what he said while another carefully worded statement was issued. But I have never forgotten Abacha’s summation of South Africa because anybody who understands the society could not but agree it was apt.

However, notwithstanding the imperfect nature of the society, South Africa has trudged on essentially because Mandela and his successor, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, have been able to demonstrate how courageous leadership can sometimes reduce ethnic/racial tensions and move a divided nation along the path of its destiny even while the process could be slow. And that the essence of government is basically to bring about development while striving to create enabling environment for change.

The lesson here is that no constitution or system is perfect, and that what serious societies do is to make progress gradually through a strict adherence to the rule of law. Even in the advanced democracies of the world, a constitution is never a finished article; it is a document subject to continuous changes and amendments. But to us in Nigeria, having failed to forge a nation out of our diversity, and with a penchant for mismanaging our scarce resources, our leaders have for almost two decades now told us the only solution to the challenges we face is having a conference. Yet after more than three of such talk-shops, our lot remains essentially the same. But they are never tired of prescribing the same solution.

I have in the last couple of weeks received several mails as to why I have been silent on the National Political Reforms Conference by the federal government or the Sovereign National Conference demanded by PRONACO but my response is actually simple: It is not a solution to our problems because whether we adopt Presidential or Parliamentary system, if public office holders continue with the same attitude, nothing will change. What’s more, with the list of conference delegates just released, it is as if the federal government and the various states have decided to exhume many political Lazaruses from their tombs. Peopled mostly by big names who have been around from the First, Second and Third republics, questions should be asked as to whether those who more or less led us to the present abyss can also proffer any meaningful solution as a way out. But that is even not the issue today.

What is worrisome is that while other serious nations are thinking of how to improve the material conditions of their people, Nigeria has become more or less a debating society with workshops, seminars, conferences, committees and panels whose recommendations are never implemented. It is as if we like to entertain ourselves all the time while members of the political elite have for decades been talking about talk to the detriment of the people. It is for this reason that I am not excited by the conference of recycled old people about to begin on Monday.

Before I go further, I find it amusing that there is so much noise about whether some people should hold an independent conference in Lagos when even the one in Abuja has no force of law. The point here is that as many people as want to hold workshops and seminars on the direction the nation should be headed should be allowed to talk because notwithstanding our misgivings, we may actually have some basis for some forms of national interrogation which could also be helpful in a way.

Only those who are not living in Nigeria today would disagree that we have a problem since members and leaders of contending ethnic groups, whether they are presently discriminating against a subordinate group or they are objects of ‘discrimination’, often portray themselves as victims. Not because they really care about the plights of ‘their people’ but rather because a ‘victim mentality’ helps unite group members behind their leaders. That is why it is fashionable to shout about ‘resource control’, ‘true federalism’, ‘marginalisation’ and such other vote-catching fads. Yet when you examine the stewardship of some of these public officials who mouth these ill-digested clichés, you wonder what they truly stand for.

What is interesting is that having created the problems, our political leaders also see themselves as the solution by selling us all a fraud – that our problems can be located in the system or rather the constitution. This is not only false it is an insult on our collective intelligence as a nation. The questions to ask are: Is it the constitution that encourages the looting of treasury, the rigging of elections and the sending of assassins after opponents among other infractions? Is it the constitution that encourages the abuse of power that we have at different levels of government?

However, I am not opposed to this talk, not because it is necessary but rather because whether one likes it or not, it will hold. Curiously, there is a lot of suspicion in some circles that talking about the problems we have as a nation could engender reopening old wounds and consequently there is a desire that the idea of a conference be shelved. While I share the sentiment of the National Assembly members as to the doubtful legality of the conference, I think it is unhelpful to say those who want to talk should not. Because if indeed there are problems, as we all agree there are, if they are not addressed, they cannot be healed. My take, however, is that the wrong problems are being confronted by the wrong people and at the wrong time. The greater danger is that there seems to be more emphasis on what divides rather than what unites us.

I have tried to rationalise why President Obasanjo agreed to this conference and I have my suspicion but I would want to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now, that he is only bowing to the cacophony of voices that we need a conference. But even at that, I am not convinced the motive is altruistic. What I see is that because political power is limited in its ability to solve complex social and economic problems, he has opted for strategies with short-term payoffs but adverse long-term consequences.

While it is easier to start a process already set in motion, nobody, least of all the President himself, can predict the outcome. Essentially because many people are going to the conference with their different agenda and with such crowd of politicians, nobody can put his hand on what would happen when “Ghana-must-go” bags begin to fly in Abuja as they will in the coming weeks. But then, how would that help the cause of the downtrodden people of Nigeria for which this conference is supposedly being convened?

In their paper on “Ethnic Conflict and Economic Development”, John Richardson and Shinjinee Sen dissected societies like ours where political and religious leaders most often play a divisive role, appealing to ethnic sentiments and scape-goating rival groups in order to enhance personal political power. This recourse to ethnic-bashing, according to the writers, bind group members to each other by emphasising the differences that distinguish the group as a whole and its individual members from other groups and their members. That unfortunately is what has been going on in our country, the same reason why no system has worked.

My colleague, Simon Kolawole, in a recent piece, pointed out some of those lies members of my generation were brought up believing. If we must tell ourselves the home truth, what our leaders emphasise today is a struggle between ethnic groups seeking to maintain or gain control of state power not necessarily to promote the public good but rather to promote some primordial interests for self-enhancement.

By their cold calculations, leaders of a dominant ethnic group are expected to gain office and then use state institutions to distribute economic and political benefits preferentially to their ethnic brethren. We of course know such assumption is a lie but that is the basis of some of the agitations concerning 2007 for which I believe President Obasanjo is seeking an easy way out. What is more interesting is that experience has shown that Nigerian public officials belong to a peculiar ethnic group that speaks neither Hausa, Igbo nor Yoruba. They speak only the language of raw power and ill-gotten money!

The danger however is that in societies where leaders promote these negative things as our leaders do in Nigeria, feelings of relative deprivation intensify, not only when benefits (including political as well as economic) decline, but also when expectations increase. Yet through good governance, dialogue, and participation, all the citizens of a diverse society can form a greater understanding of one another’s concerns and collectively move towards a common destiny.

All the things we have discussed thus far contribute to a climate that encourages ethnic differences to polarise a society while the formation of militant groups becomes rather common with intolerance of compromise. That explains the popularity of violent ethnic based groups across the federation today. Charismatic – even mythical – figures with little or no formal education lead some of these organisations and maintain group cohesion through propaganda that reinforces xenophobic ethnic stereotypes. This recourse to violence also catapult some of these leaders from obscurity and penury into instant wealth and national recognition such that they become the envy of many as ethnic nationalism becomes a big industry for the growing population of the jobless.

Yet we have learnt from the example of many failed states that when militant groups become strong, the task of managing – let alone resolving – ethnic differences will become complicated. With the power derived from the barrels of the gun, the redress of grievances will no longer be sufficient to effect a resolution of whatever crisis might be on ground in such societies. Because for these ‘freedom fighters’ that now populate the landscape, it is ‘victory or death’ and there is no ‘political solution’ other than the triumph of their cause. 

That unfortunately is the stage we are in today in Nigeria, a situation that was largely created by our political leaders who now think they can fix our problems simply by sitting in Abuja and talking among themselves. It is an exercise in self-delusion and President Obasanjo must surely know that.

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

Source: News Express

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