- Who will represent these ethnic nationalities – the Jugun, the Agae, the Agatu, the Bassa, the Bajju?
By Dele Sobowale
“The ninety ninth yard is still half-way there in a hundred yards race” –
“It is better sometimes not to follow great reformers of abuses beyond the threshold of their homes” – George Elliot, 1818-1880.
Many people were enthusiastic about the proposed National Conference when it was first announced by the President of Nigeria, mainly because they strongly believed Nigeria needed to move from the rot in which it is stuck. They were also aware of all the options facing the nation in convoking such a conference, as well as the risks the nation runs as it might degenerate into unintended consequences
But the consolation was that there can be no progress unless we take some risks and find ways to re-order the country. Certainly, nobody was stupid enough to assume that a solution would emerge which would satisfy everyone.
However, everybody would admit that one of the most widely canvassed ideas was a conference of ethnic nationalities. It was for this reason that Sunday Vanguard went to great lengths in a six-part series, not only to list as many ethnic groups and others, but also to point out some of the pitfalls that might result from that idea. The modalities proposed by the Okunronmu Panel to the Federal Government have obviously discarded ethnicity as the basis for selection of participants and a storm of protest has erupted.
That has given some of the critics of the conference the first real opportunity to engage in self-congratulation. The critics have good reasons to feel vindicated. The criteria for the selection of participants have virtually guaranteed that the three largest ethnic groups – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – will again dominate the conference.
A professional group, name withheld, according to Sunday Vanguard sources, selected its own two representatives. The two are the current President (Delta/Igbo) and the Vice-President (Hausa/Fulani). If the selection were to be made two years ago, the President and Vice-President would have been Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani.
If the Nigerian Bar Association, which serves as proxy for other professional groups, is used as an example, then we can again see the problem. Virtually all the professional bodies in Nigeria are dominated by Yoruba and Igbo in that order, even if the current Presidents are not Yoruba or Igbo.
Despite the acknowledged high educational standards attained by all of them, the fact remains that their objectivity on matters pertaining to other ethnic groups can never be taken for granted.
The ethnic group absent is always held responsible for the problems of Nigeria and examples of their atrocities are dredged up, often without proof, to justify the crucifixion.
So unless care is taken, the National Conference, which will be dominated by the three large ethnic groups plus the Ijaw, the Urhobo and the Ibibio (hopefully), will end up creating a Nigeria not different from the present one and, consequently, will amount to a waste of time and the N7 billion allocated to it.
Next to ethnic representation is the matter of devolution of power from the central to the federating units.
At the moment, the strong centre favours the three large ethnic groups to the detriment of the other ethnic groups. Federal character has always meant that any Federal Government organization – Ministry, Board, Agency, Commission, etc – with more than three people is deemed to have fulfilled the principle once Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo are on it.
Nobody cares about the absence of the Ogbaru, the Jugun, the Agae, the Agatu, the Bassa, the Bajju, the Farrough, the Gbagyi, the Mushere, the Obolo, the Tangale etc, etc on such bodies.
The small ethnic groups are thus disadvantaged at the centre and at the state. Who then will speak for them at the conference to ensure that devolution of powers to zones/states will not mean continuation of their second class status everywhere in Nigeria? Although the small ethnic groups put together form the majority in Nigeria, they suffer from being divided.
Some small ethnic groups are fortunate. For example, the Anang, the Itsekiri and the Berom, whose sons are governors in their states, will ensure they are represented, but the Bachama, Gusu, Dendi and Utempa, etc, etc, whose sons are not in Government Houses, are out of luck with respect to placing their views on record at the conference to decide the fate of Nigeria. Increasingly, the conference is resembling the 18th century partition of Africa by European nations – except that, this time, those sitting round the table to decide the fate of Nigeria’s over 200 ethnic groups will be only about 25 nationalities; who will, in turn, send it to the National Assembly, also dominated by the same group and which will send it to President Goodluck Jonathan, representing only Ijaw, to approve or veto.
God forbid a Constitution starting with the declaration “WE THE PEOPLE” would emerge from that exercise. It would be a worse fraud than the Constitution the military bequeathed to us. Many Nigerians contend that the British amalgamation of Nigeria was not based on professional groups; it was based on two zones – North and South – each with its own ethnic groups.