National Conference and the Ethnic Argument


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National Conference and the Ethnic Argument



Kunle Fagbemi



culled from NEWAGE, February 28, 2005



Of all the powerful arguments mustered against the convocation of the National Political Reform Conference, the most galling and shocking are those based on ethnic and sectarian grounds. Both grounds, which have little to do with real issues, have been canvassed in recent days by the Abuja-based Daily Trust newspaper in a hysterical and emotive editorial, and by Mohammed Haruna, a former editor of the New Nigerian and now columnist with Daily Trust, in fairly restrained and detached language. Both Trust and Haruna seemed to think the conference would fail because President Olusegun Obasanjo was prejudiced in his selection of delegates. The president’s nominees were, according to Haruna, mostly Christians and southerners, especially from the Southwest.

The nominations to the “ill-defined and hastily convened conference”, argues the Trust, are lopsided. “This is the first step towards perdition”, the paper sums up in frightening tones. In terms that are full of rage and dismissive characterisations, the paper carpets proponents of the sovereign national conference as “remnants of the dedicated northern- haters from the Southwest, personified by Wole Soyinka and others (who) want to break up the country to free the Southwest from the purported drag of Nigeria (represented) more particularly by the North. The editorial considers that Obasanjo wants to use the conference to change the system “so as to remain in power to enable him to deploy federal funds to the Southwest as he has been doing for the last six years to the detriment of the North and the East.” Perhaps the most robust accusation against Obasanjo centres on what the paper considers his “dubious agenda to consolidate the economic foundation of Oduduwa Republic simultaneous with the deliberate pauperisation of the North and East and even the oil-rich South-South…” This is all very sweeping and breathtaking.

If the Daily Trust and its columnists must take on Obasanjo, is it inescapable that they must also drag along the Southwest and even instigate other parts of the country against it? Was it not the same Southwest that resoundingly rejected Obasanjo in 1999 arguing that his records in 1976-79 showed how pedantic, shallow and selfish he was? Was it not the same Southwest that warned the rest of the country, especially the North, that they were backing an apocalyptic horseman who would bring stagnation, death and destruction to the country? In both the column and the editorial, the impression was created that the Southwest was in active collusion with Obasanjo “to avenge a perceived, or more accurately, misperceived wrong by a whole section (i.e. the North) of the country.” It is clear they do not understand the man they describe so affectionately in spiteful words.

When the paper and its columnist launched into the proposition that cast Obasanjo as an avatar of sectarian politics, I began to snicker with great and uncontrollable mirth. Obasanjo a defender and promoter of Christianity? Why, if Haruna and the Trust really think Obasanjo is capable of such gallantry, then it should be possible to frock late Gen. Sani Abacha and canonise Lawrence Anini and Tafa Balogun. Not many people can stand the person of Obasanjo, especially his disdain for contrary opinion, his self-centred schemes, his interminable intrigues and his hardness of heart. I myself find it difficult to understand how one man can harbour in his heart so many turbulent, divisive and contradictory characteristics. When the rest of the country opted for him, I shook my head in amazement wondering what magic Obasanjo had worked to send the electorate into a swoon.

I do not think the Trust represents the North either in part or in whole, for if it were so, the region would have denounced the conference in ways that are unmistakable. I, however, believe that any paper or citizen has the right to dislike both Obasanjo and his method in relation to the efforts to restructure the federation and write a new constitution. For many reasons, which I have spelt out in my column, I remain steadfastly opposed to the conference as it is organised. I have argued that more transparency was required in the selection of delegates, and that the report of the conference should be presented not to the president or National Assembly but to the public in a referendum. Perhaps this may still happen. But at the moment no one in government gives that impression.

If the Trust and its columnists do not like the person of Obasanjo and his policies, they are at liberty to excoriate him as I have done repeatedly with relish. But to tie the hatred for Obasanjo to his ethnic stock and dispose of both in unpleasant and poisonous language does grave damage to fair comment. I have little patience for Obasanjo’s policies and behaviour, and I have indicated very strongly my reservations about him in my articles. I had very little patience for Abacha’s or Ibrahim Babangida’s economic and foreign policies, but I cannot remember lumping them together with their ethnic stock. More significantly, however, the Trust and its columnists must grow up. Only the blind and the anachronistic will not appreciate that Nigeria has moved on and driven past the era of ethnic and religious jingoisms. Though there are still religious upheavals in some parts of the country, and though too there exist some ethnic organisations such as the Odua Peoples Congress (OPC) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), ethnic and sectarian politics have suffered reduction in prominence in national politics. And one man that has made this possible is Obasanjo himself. By his insensitivity, policy misadventures and worship of self, he has so united his opponents perfectly against himself that it has become obvious what Nigeria’s problem is. I doubt whether there is any serious analyst, except those trapped in the politics of the 1950s and 1960s, who still think Nigeria’s problem is ethnic differences and competition, or sectarianism. These are merely tools of conflict whipped up by the irresponsible elite whenever members confront a disadvantage in leadership struggles.

By its apocalyptic headline and arguments, the Trust seems to give wide berth to ethnic factor as main causal agent for conflict and instability in Nigeria. The paper also unfortunately lent its esteemed professionalism to the defence of a highly suspect, and to use its own word, dubious cause, that is, the defence of the North against other section(s). Do we still have national papers that so rabidly promote one ethnic or sectarian group against another? This is indeed a great surprise. As a young journalist I oscillated very wildly between ethnic and class analyses in the search for an understanding of Nigeria’s developmental problems. The ethnic explanation, I confess, was the simplest and the best to grab attention and curry favour. Class analysis was more tedious and had a surfeit of deprecating but fanciful terms and concepts, some downright abusive. But as a senior reporter today, I have come to a more rational understanding of the problems our nation faces, and that some of these problems cannot be pigeonholed in one-explanation-fits-all theory. More importantly, recent history teaches us so clearly that the leadership problem we face today has very little to do with ethnicity. Did Babangida implement his own or the North’s agenda? When he stole his billions, did Abacha do it on behalf of the North or his shameless family? When Babangida annulled the June 12, 1993 election, was it only northerners who helped him take the decision or were there no other selfish Southwestern and Southeastern politicians in league with him?

It is shocking that in 2005, there are apparently still some people and writers who take a long look at the Obasanjo government and conclude that he is implementing an ethnic and a sectarian agenda. Are these people blind? Can’t they see that all of us, young and old, weak and strong, rich and poor, Christian or Muslim are suffering equally and greatly from the ineffectual management of the economy and society by the Obasanjo government? The problem of Nigeria is not the North, East or West, nor will the solution be found by putting in power ethnic champions, which the idiotic principles of zoning and rotation presuppose.

In 1975, Murtala Ramat Mohammed captured the hearts and minds of Nigerians so effectively by his daring and bold leadership and chutzpah that no one thought it significant where he came from. In 1993, Nigerians elected a Moslem-Moslem ticket to the presidency. That election was annulled by a Moslem, but defended most vigorously by essentially Christian southerners. In the same year, a Yoruba man was put in power as interim leader, but was stoutly resisted by the mainly Yoruba Southwest. Do these things not mean anything to our brave analysts and us?

Let us assume that newspapers no longer have adequate respect for logic, but what of their hallowed principles of helping to build up and consolidate the body politic? If they cannot go beyond the surface, they can at least restrain themselves from instigating one group against another. I think the Trust owes its readers a follow-up editorial in which the right issues concerning the on-going National Conference are canvassed. It is time to disavow the superficial explanations of the problems that confront us and promote rational and feasible solutions. It is time to leave the 1960s. It is time to grow up and appreciate that there is no settling the precedence between Obasanjo, Abacha, Shonekan, Babangida and even Abdulsalami Abubakar, who Mohammed Haruna seems to think so highly of. If we look very closely, we would see that what unites them has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion. When they congregate at table to feast and casually throw ethnic and religious bones at us knowing full well that we can’t chew them, the last thing on their minds is their different places of origin. As for religion, they don’t even have any in the first instance in spite of their pretences.


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