This is a piece I wrote for the Royal African Society’s African Arguments blog.
In a few weeks, Nigerians across ethnic and regional divides will be gathering at a roundtable to discuss critical national issues. The imperative for this National Conference as a necessary discussion over Nigeria’s future was underscored by the President, Goodluck Jonathan, in his Independence Day commemoration address in October 2013. No doubt, there is need for consensus among the country’s distinct ethnic and religious groups on critical governance issues such as the structure of government, federalism, revenue distribution, political representation and power sharing. Whether the National Conference taking place this year is capable of addressing Nigeria’s perennial existential problems is another question.
The clamour for a national dialogue among Nigeria’s over 350 ethno-linguistic groups has been as old as the country itself, since the aftermath of the first military coup in 1966. Frequently called a ‘Sovereign National Conference’ (SNC), this roundtable discussion is regarded as the elixir to pervasive corruption, ethnic chauvinism, conflict and perversion of the rule of law all, of which have stifled economic development, social harmony and the forging of a collective Nigerian identity. The inflamed emotions in the debate for and against an SNC in the Nigerian public sphere inhibit a dispassionate interrogation of its practicality or necessity
For proponents, a national dialogue is a bottom-up democratic opportunity for many Nigerians to participate in nation-building in an otherwise exclusionary political system dominated by a handful of elites. These include the military and key players in the coups of 1966 who are the major power brokers today, their associates, powerful state governors, an increasingly powerful business class and media moguls.
Gani Fawehinmi, a vociferous SNC advocate once lamented that Nigerians “never had the opportunity to make inputs into, accept or reject any constitutional framework through a referendum”. The national conversation is thus a catalytic opportunity for Nigerians to “negotiate the terms” of living together, within a contraption of British colonialism. In this pro-SNC camp are ethnic associations, marginalised politicians, activists, youth associations and other groups excluded from the power circle.
Those opposing the National Conference argue that it is incapable of addressing Nigeria’s problems which are outcomes of governance, leadership and rule of law failures. Spending N7 billion ($42 million) towards yet another summit by a country with the highest number of out-of-school children in the world is regarded as “wasteful” by the Labour Union president and “diversionary”, by the main opposition party, the APC. Others regard it as an instrument for attaining a nefarious agenda by the specific government in power. This “agenda” covers a wide gamut of allegations from tenure elongation and covert constitutional amendment to regional domination and secession.
Unsurprisingly, the expectations of what a National Conference can or cannot achieve range from the pragmatic to the utopian. It is not uncommon to hear the “we must talk” refrain in the wake of a Boko Haram attack, a kidnapping incident or a grand corruption scandal. As usual, the debates are laced with the poisonous sectional prejudices which normally characterise the country’s public discourse. What is paradoxical however, is the very elitist nature of the discourse over a summit aimed at inclusive nation-building. A recent opinion poll revealed that nearly 9 in 10 (88%) Nigerians are not aware of the call to constitute a sovereign national conference… Read the rest of the article on African Arguments.