Pini Jason: One year after: Let’s have an inclusive dialogue now!

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In August 2010, Ambassador John Campbell published the following views about Nigeria: “Nigeria is in trouble.  National elections scheduled for 2011 have the potential to undermine the country’s current precarious stability by exacerbating its serious internal ethnic, regional and religious divisions. Since 1999, national presidential elections have adhered to an informal power sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, thereby avoiding regional and religious conflict.

“But in 2011, there is the risk that power sharing will be abandoned, with the presidential incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a  southern Christian contesting against a  northern Muslim candidate. The fact that credible elections are unlikely may tilt the balance of power in favour of the incumbent president and open the door to protests – perhaps violent – from the losing candidates and ethnic groups.”

As usual, we live in denial.  We shouted Mr. Campbell down. We called him names.  Fake patriots accused him of trying to divide the country as if we need him or any outsider to do just that.  We capped all that unreasonableness with denying him visa to Nigeria! When I knew John Campbell between 1991 and 1993, he was head of the Political Desk in the US Embassy in Nigeria. He returned in 2004 as Ambassador. Having been in these two positions, he probably understands Nigeria better than some of his abusers.  Trouble is that we resent it when outsiders tell us the truth we  would rather not tell ourselves.

Compare Campbell’s ominous prediction against what some of our own leaders said at about the same time.  “Anything short of a  northern President is tantamount to stealing our Presidency. Jonathan has to go and he will go. Even if he uses the incumbency power to get his nomination on the platform of the PDP,  he would be frustrated out.  (If Jonathan emerges President next year). The North is determined; if  that happens,to make the country ungovernable for President Jonathan or any other  southerner who finds his way to the seat of power on the platform of the PDP against the principle of the party’s zoning policy”  – Alhaji Lawan Kaita, a  former governor of the old Kaduna State on October 5, 2010.

Here is another: “Nigerians do not want a peaceful change.  We wish to state that we support the position of our mentor, Turaki Abubakar, that what Nigeria needs is not a peaceful change. This is no threat. Boko Haram will be a child’s play compared with the action our members can take. We have been patient enough. And enough, they say is enough” – Mallam Abubakar Ibrahim (President) and Dr. Yakubu Ahmed (Secretary-General), Coalition of Atiku Northern Supporters (CANSU), December 15, 2010.

There were other equally vitriolic effusions and ominous prophesies during that period, all warning us about trouble ahead. These warnings may not be connected with what we have witnessed in the North since the presidential elections.  The real motive of the authors of the violence in the North has been shifty and slippery. But because we are often forgetful, we tend to obfuscate all these and conveniently codename it Boko Haram. But I recall that in 1966 when the North lost power, it resorted to pogrom. Violence was not an option in June 1993 because they could annul MKO Abiola’s election and retain power.  Of course, it has been said in many places that had Abiola been sworn in as President in 1993,  there would have been dire consequences. Recall that Abiola at one time escaped from the country for fear of his life. Recall also that he died in detention because he would not renounce his Epetedo declaration of himself as President.

A closer reading of some of the writings of some northern elite in recent times reveals a subtle reference to the zoning brouhaha in PDP as well as a rationalizing parallel being drawn between Boko Haram violence and the Niger Delta militants violence. It seems that someone is telling President Jonathan that if you got the Presidency because the Niger Delta militants pointed a gun on our heads we can also reclaim what we lost by putting a gun on your head! True or not, the useful lesson is that no group in this country has a monopoly to violence.  This should also be a lesson to those behind Boko Haram.

On Wednesday July 20, 2011, it was reported that President Jonathan met with North-east elders and the Arewa Consultative Forum,ACF. The call for dialogue with Boko Haram is increasingly becoming popular. I have no quarrel with that. Indeed I agree completely with Marafan Sokoto, Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi, that “as long as the opportunity for dialogue exists, it should not be discarded” (Daily Sun;  July 21, 2011)). But I have one worry. I worry about piecemeal dialogue with aggrieved sections of Nigeria. We would, once more, be playing games with the nagging National Question.

The issues for which Nigeria fought a civil war still remain unresolved. They surfaced in Ogoni. They surfaced in the South-west as “June 12”. They surfaced in the Niger Delta. They surfaced  in the Middle Belt. They have surfaced in the North. Nobody knows where else they will surface. The problem of Nigeria is simply about democratic space for every group and every culture for self-determination.

A democratic system that works is that which reconciles the diversity of the various groups not one that tries to obliterate it. It is a shame that in a country as diverse as Nigeria we have failed to create workable democratic space in every group.  The centralized “Federal” system we insist on is simply not working for the majority of Nigerians. It is no longer even working for those who took advantage of it in the past. Our Federal system is a mere aberration.

From June 1999 to 2001, the Sweden based inter-governmental organisation, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, I-IDEA, at the request of President Obasanjo, sponsored a democracy assessment in Nigeria. This field work was carried out by 53 international resource persons, including some of the best scholars in this country who went round Nigeria  to interview the people. The report is titled, ‘Democracy in Nigeria: Continuing Dialogue for Nation Building’. It was deliberately titled ‘…Continuing Dialogue(s)..’ because democracy is a continuous process not an event. There are many dialogues the Nigerian state  must have with the diverse peoples of Nigeria to determine their stake, their expectations and obligations in a democratic Nigeria.

Incidentally, three regions of Nigeria likely to threaten our democracy were highlighted and given special focus in that report. These are the Niger Delta, North-central (or Middle Belt) and the North- east. These areas have since witnessed violence foretold! The causes of the violence witnessed  in these regions and the solutions were highlighted in that report! During the dissemination workshop held in the six geopolitical zones in 2001, the choice of the people was “review the Constitution” or “convoke a National Conference” as either the first or second choice. These choices were expected to deepen democracy.

Instead of piecemeal dialogue with groups when they get angry and put a gun on our heads, President Jonathan should summon the courage today and convoke a genuine National Conference, and let us all dialogue with one another. Those who quickly say that a National Conference will dismember the country have no point.  The way Nigeria is going, we do not need a National Conference for it to unravel. We have been talking at one another but not with one another! Piecemeal dialogue will not solve the problems associated with nation-building! And we must stop thinking that once our group’s problem is solved, Nigeria’s problem is solved.

* (This piece was first published in Vanguard of  Tuesday, July 26, 2011).

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