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The proposed National Conference: Notes of caution

First, let me commend President Goodluck Jonathan for the boldness in agreeing to have this much wanted conference. For a long time there have been disagreements because some people wanted a sovereign national conference.

I have believed that where there is a sitting government legitimately elected, a sovereign national conference will in fact be asking that government to abdicate. Now that we have settled for a national conference, one has to accept it with a note of caution.

This country has had various experiences in varied conferences all in search for the basis for national unity. Before independence and after, I have counted up to 11 conferences, both in Nigeria and abroad, all in search of a basis for national unity.

After independence the military intervened in Nigerian politics without a programme. In search of programmes various conferences were organised. Babangida’s Constitutional Conference, Abacha’s Constitutional Conference, Obasanjo’s Constitutional Conference, and now Goodluck Ebele’s National Conference.

They all go to show that something is fundamentally wrong with this marriage of convenience which we call Nigeria. This country has sought different approaches to unite Nigeria. The last conference during Obasanjo’s administration showed unmistakeably that the spirit of one Nigeria which should have kept Nigeria together, died many years ago.

President Goodluck Jonathan
President Goodluck Jonathan

What we have in its place is multiplicity of ethnic and tribal collections, each seeking to champion micro-interests. In the Obasanjo’s conference, the participants did not make any mistake in showing that they had come there to champion their local interests. Northern delegates stood for everything that would protect Northern interests.

The South-South stood for the South-Southern interests. The Yorubas supported with keen interest what would promote the Oduduwa interest. All said and done, it was clear that there was no more one Nigeria. All the sloganisations for one Nigeria in the presence of so many Nigerias show that this Jonathan’s conference was overdue.

This conference is an attempt for Nigerians to come together, to examine the 1914 arrangement which brought us together as one nation. We believe that after 100 years of coming together we should now ask ourselves a very serious question: “Has this marriage worked well? Should we continue with it?

If we should continue with it, what and what must be done?”  The Ibo man, after he has been massacred in Jos in 1945, massacred in Kano in 1953, massacred in the North again severally in 1956, the pogrom and the Civil War in which more than two million Ibos were killed in the interest of one Nigeria; the Ibo man will now ask whether this marriage has worked well in the interest of the Ibo nation.

The struggle of the Middle Belt cannot be easily forgotten. In the interest of one Nigeria we have sacrificed so many souls, and yet the spirit of one Nigeria has not been revived.

The Civil War was fought because our people went to Aburi and came to the agreement that Nigeria should be reorganised. Unfortunately when the negotiators came back from Aburi, the Federal Government reneged on the agreement reached in Aburi, and Ojukwu and the Ibos insisted that “on Aburi we stand”.

The disagreement went from intellectual arguments to shooting conflicts that ended up in the Civil War. At the end of the Civil War Gowon proclaimed that to keep Nigeria one is a duty that must be fulfilled. We agree, but the question is, can we say that Nigeria has fared well as a nation? Can we say, that all things being equal, Nigeria can still be one nation as presently organised? The South-South has seen a lot of deprivation, a lot of its resources have been used to keep Nigeria one.

I have always believed, and I have said so in my book, Nigerian Nationalism and the Problems of Socio-Political Integration, that unless we return to the Independence Constitutional arrangement, we will be deceiving ourselves by believing that new arrangements can keep this country together. I have written that unless we return to the independence agreement, and accept those conditions which our forefathers agreed as a sine qua non for keeping Nigeria one, no new arrangement can keep Nigeria one.

Therefore as we begin to prepare for this Goodluck Jonathan’s conference, let us make it clear that many things have gone wrong in our experiment since independence. We have sacrificed many souls in different parts of the country in an attempt to keep Nigeria one. We have failed to agree that military intrusion into Nigerian politics first destroyed the Independence Constitution, but has not succeeded in bringing any solution to the crises of nation building.

I would like to advise Mr. President to take note that many multiple collectivities have become so sharp that you cannot form a nation with each collectivity fighting for its possession. Indeed the collapse of Obasanjo conference in which the South-South walked out, showed clearly that Nigerians must now sit down to think whether this marriage is actually working.

In my humble opinion, the Nigerian enterprise has failed to work. We must therefore seriously think on how to make this nation work. My advice is that we must realise that the suspension of the Independence Constitution, its replacement with so many others produced by the military governments, cannot keep this nation united.

I have written in several papers that unless we return to the agreement which our forefathers reached, on the basis of which Nigeria agreed to be a nation, unless we return to the agreement which our forefathers accepted at independence, no tinkering of the Constitution can save this nation. Therefore President Jonathan must think very seriously.

It is not enough to gather people to start fighting at a Constitutional Conference, because they will fight, because micro-nationalism has become so entrenched, and Nigerian nationalism has been sacrificed.

What can we do to think as Nigerians? That is a big question, because we do not think as Nigerians anymore. We think as Ibos, as Hausas, as Fulanis, as Ijaws, and as other micro-ethnic identities. If therefore we want a united Nigeria, President Jonathan must seriously think of conveying a conference in which members will think as Nigerians.

Unless the delegates think as Nigerians, if they go there to think as Ibos, Hausas, Yorubas and so forth, then we might have failed before the conference started. My advice to Mr. President is to think seriously of inviting people who must think as Nigerians, not who will think as Yorubas or Ibos or members of the different ethnic enclaves. Let it be a national conference in which people will come as Nigerians to think of how to make Nigeria one.

The President must make room for people who understand the problems of Nigeria. He must assemble people who can sit down and look at all the crises Nigeria has gone through, and people who will think of how to solve the problems in order to keep Nigeria one. But if people are coming to the conference to champion their ethnic interests, then this conference will be seen as having failed before it started.

My advice to Mr. President is that regardless of what people say, he has a responsibility to call a conference of Nigerians, a conference of people who still believe in one Nigeria, a conference of people who will sit down and articulate the problems of Nigeria and how to solve them. I do not want to see delegates who come in to articulate Yoruba interests or Hausa interests or Fulani interests or Ibo interests. If delegates are invited to the conference on ethnic basis, then we must have failed before we started.

My Advice

I am aware that people will want to be elected on the basis of various interests. But I think that what will hold Nigeria together is not a group of delegates selected on ethnic basis, but a group of delegates who first and foremost agree that Nigeria must remain united, a group of delegates who agree to return to the agreement our forefathers had that made us one Nigeria.

If we go back to the constitutional conferences, especially the events of 1953 – 1954, the President will agree with me that the qualification for coming to this Jonathan’s conference will be, first and foremost, acceptance that Nigeria must remain one and united. And therefore people coming to the conference must be people who will agree to keep Nigeria one.

We also know that throughout existence in Nigeria, every little misunderstanding has been greeted with attempts at breaking up of the Federation.

Let me also point out for those who probably did not follow the Constitution of the country, that the constitution of 1951 had envisaged a closely knit Federation. But as a result of the disturbances in the North, especially the Kano Riots in which many southerners were killed, it was then concluded that the envisaged 1951 Constitution was not workable. The colonial government decided to agree on a flexible federation that will grant regional autonomy.

The northerners had threatened that they would not return to Lagos again for any discussions, and announced an 8-point programme which if implemented would imply that they would secede from Nigeria. The northern threat to secede was a very serious threat to the existence of Nigeria.

The colonial office then modified its envisaged 1951 Constitution, and therefore worked for greater regional autonomy for the country. Consequently, during the meeting of the parties in London between the Nigerian government and the colonial office from July – August 1953, a flexible constitution was agreed upon, what you may call the Regional Constitution of 1954.

The Western Region on its part had also threatened a secession if Lagos was not allowed to remain in the Western Region. So it would appear that the threat of secession has been with us ab initio. Therefore Jonathan must ensure that in this conference, delegates are not allowed to put the threat of secession as an issue.

Delegates must come to discuss one Nigeria. I believe that if this conference fails, it is capable of saying goodbye to Nigeria, and that will be a very serious and dangerous situation. Ahmadu Bello on his own part spoke on a motion to adjourn the legislative house with a brutal observation. He made only one statement, and I quote: “The mistake of 1914 has come to light, and I should like to go no further”.

We have lived with the mistake of 1914 for 100 years and the mistake of 1914 has refused to die. Therefore, the conference that the President is convening must be a conference that will see how we can correct the mistake of 1914, and all the subsequent mistakes of the military so that we can have a workable Nigeria. History is watching us. Let us seriously examine what we did or how we mismanaged Nigeria.


Professor B.I.C Ijomah is of the Centre for Policy Studies and Research, Asaba.


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