Politics of a Sovereign National

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Politics of a Sovereign National Conference
 

By

 

Levi Obijiofor

 

culled from Guardian, October 22, 2004

EVER since the return to democracy in May 1999, calls for a sovereign national conference (SNC) to discuss Nigeria's problems and to find solutions to those problems have gained more public support and even greater opposition from President Olusegun Obasanjo and his government. The topic has polarised an entire nation. Pro-democracy activists, including eminent Nigerians, have expressed strong support for the sovereign national conference, describing it as the only genuine way to explore and solve the multifarious problems that confront the country. Supporters of the idea argue that, without a sovereign national conference, Nigeria's unity would remain fragile.
It is easy to sketch the groups that support or oppose each side of the debate and how their support or opposition is influenced by what they lack or derive from the current arrangement. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country such as ours, groups that benefit from the current system are bound to be opposed vehemently to the idea of a sovereign national conference. Those other groups, in particular minority ethnic groups that feel they are disadvantaged in so many ways in a country that preaches unity, equality and equity but fails to apply these principles in the distribution of national wealth and political office, are adamant that anything other than a sovereign national conference would restore justice on their people.
Anyhow you examine the idea, there is reason to believe that a sovereign national conference would strengthen rather than weaken the political, cultural, economic and social foundations of the country. A country that does not encourage genuine freedom of expression, a country that sees freedom of expression as gunpowder for social disorder, a country that perceives no value in allowing people to "blow hot and cold" as time demands, a country that prefers to bury its problems rather than raise them to the plane of public discussion, a country that does not monitor on a regular basis the thermometer of the mood of the people, a country that subscribes to the philosophy that says "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", will sooner or later undergo a major rupture. Nigeria is already sitting on the precipice of disintegration and all it requires is for some human action to ignite the matchstick. The call for a sovereign national conference should be perceived as a call to revisit the basis of the unity that now stands threatened and to evaluate what has gone wrong in the country in the past 44 years. Evaluation is long overdue in view of the widespread feelings of disenchantment among various ethnic and religious groups.
In his characteristic opposition to ideas that are popular within organised society, President Obasanjo has made it clear that the supporters of the idea of a sovereign national conference will not be given space to actualise their pet dreams. Obasanjo has never hidden his contempt for the idea of a sovereign national conference in the current political situation. Obasanjo's position can be summed up this way:Yes, there might be many groups that are dissatisfied with their position or status in the entity called Nigeria, there might be a lot of people who are displeased with the formula for distributing the national wealth, there might be many people who feel it is time the country was dismembered into various independent nations, there might be people who believe his government has failed perform for the benefit of society, nevertheless these do not justify the need for a sovereign national conference.
In Obasanjo's view, there is nothing that a sovereign national conference can achieve that the National Assembly can't do even better. In his most recent discussion on the subject, Obasanjo had queried: why call for a sovereign national conference when members of the National Assembly are doing an excellent job of looking after their constituencies? Obasanjo believes that any person or group that harbours any grouse against the country can take their concerns to their political representative and the political representative could present the case in the legislature. This line of thought fails to recognise one point: if a political representative fails to muster enough support in the House of Representatives or in the Senate, the idea would be discarded and forgotten. That is the flipside of democracy.
Democracy encourages and promotes majority rule and hardly gives prominence to minority opinion. In many democratic societies, only the ideas that enjoy majority support are elevated to the realm of legal recognition. In this context, minority views that may in fact be more useful to a nation could be relegated to the trash bin. Excellent ideas that lack majority support never make it beyond the piece of paper on which the ideas are written. That's why Obasanjo's preference for the National Assembly as the conduit for people representation or participation in government is flawed. Obasanjo's opposition to the sovereign national conference is also flawed on another front. A sovereign national conference is not the same thing as a National Assembly. The roles are different. Their tenure is not the same. The nature of selecting and or electing people to attend the national conference also differs from the electoral process for electing members of the National Assembly. By its composition, a sovereign national conference would appear to be more representative of the various groups in the country than the membership of the National Assembly. For one thing, members of the sovereign national conference would comprise an amalgam of the various interest groups in the country: the rich and the poor, the educated and the ill educated, politicians and non-politicians, religious people and non-religious people, believers and atheists, traditional leaders and trade union leaders, student leaders and all kinds of interest groups.

Obasanjo's opposition to the sovereign national conference is driven chiefly by his fear of the unknown. What if the sovereign national conference leads to social disorder? What if the sovereign national conference resolves to carve up Nigeria into many independent nation states? How would history view Obasanjo if the present fragile unity collapses? His epitaph would probably read something like this: here lies the man who supervised the disintegration of a great African country. These are fears founded on irrational views and baseless assumptions.
Suddenly the Obasanjo administration appears to be shifting its long-held position on the need for a sovereign national conference. Only recently, a presidential adviser addressed the issue but unfortunately the shift in policy was drowned by the drumbeats of the recent industrial strike. A little over two weeks ago, the Special Adviser to the President on Political Affairs, Professor Jerry Gana, said the federal government would soon convene a "dialogue" of ethnic groups in Nigeria to chart the future direction of the country. Amid angry exchanges that preceded the general strike that paralysed economic and social activities, this particular issue that ought to have received attention in the national media was pushed to the back seat of public discourse essentially because the media did not give it the prominence that it deserved.

Some people have argued that Gana used the word "dialogue" rather than the mouthful and much-hated phrase "sovereign national conference". It does not matter. No one wants to engage in a semantic exercise that lacks substance. Whatever tag the government gives to the idea, the principal goals do not seem to deviate much from the objectives of the sovereign national conference. Dialogue or not, the proposed meeting of ethnic groups to discuss the problems of Nigeria is a welcome move by the government. But it remains to be seen how soon the government would make this to happen. Everyone is watching and waiting.

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