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Thoughts on the National Conference – 1

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By Dele Sobowale

“In politics, as on a sick bed, men toss from side to side, in the hope of lying more comfortably”, Johann Goethe, 1749-1832.  (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS p 191).

Like people on sickbeds, Nigerians are once again getting ready to toss from side to side, without asking if the problem is with the beds or themselves. Pity.

Do we need a National Conference, sovereign or not? The answer is neither “yes” nor “no” for the simple reason that we have failed woefully as a nation to raise a set of politicians who would make any form of government work. We had tried three forms of government since independence – parliamentary, military and presidential. None of them had been able to develop this nation to its full potentials – not at the national, regional or state levels. None.

Obviously, the first question is not even whether we should have any sort of conference but whether we seriously believe that the same set of leaders who have so far made a mess of things will somehow become great leaders after the conference. However, since for now the National Conference Committee is the only game in town, let me offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Incidentally, I was reluctant to jump into the fray until Sunday November 3, 2013 when Tunde Fagbenle, on the back page of the SUNDAY PUCH, reproduced Femi Fani-Kayode’s ideas on the subject which Tunde seemed to endorse. Fani Kayode, lately, had become an expert on every subject – including fornication.  But, his views are too often superficial on important matters – including fornication. Summarised, their idea comes to this: we should go ahead with a National Conference even if it means Nigeria will break up. After all, the Soviet Union broke into thirteen, India cracked up into three and Czekoslovakia and Yugoslavia ended up two a piece. It is a possibility which is at the back of the mind of some of the people clamouring for Sovereign National Conference – especially in the South. Unspoken, but thought, is the belief that, their own unit, after the break up, naturally, will be better off. Very neat, very simple and very misleading in its entirety. The comparisons they make don’t resemble the reality in Nigeria – as will be soon demonstrated.

Let me start with Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the largest nation which dissolved into fourteen countries. There, all the countries were independent nation states in Europe which were forcefully welded to Russia, after the World War II. They had, at least sixteen distinct languages, histories and cultures. So what happened under Gorbachev, the last Soviet President, was a mass declaration of independence by Georgia, Ukraine etc, all part of the Russian Empire. In reality, there was no difference between what happened there and the “Wind of Change” which blew over Africa in the 1960s; when former British colonies, including Nigeria, asked for independence. By contrast, no single “nation” in Nigeria forced the rest of us into the union called Nigeria. The country was created by an outsider. So, who will walk away and from whom – if Nigeria breaks up?


The point has also been made that Jonathan has a hidden agenda, based on his political survival. I will be the first to admit that the President has not commanded trust and it is difficult to accept him at face value. However, let me put the first of my cards, face up. It is better to take the first tentative steps Jonathan had suggested than to continue belly-aching about the fate of Nigeria. Despite the inherent risks, Jonathan, for once has my support. Dismissing the gesture off-hand will be a worse mistake than anything that might follow. At any rate, there is no politician inNigeria without an agenda. Why should Jonathan not have one? In fact, he would be foolish not to. Second, he is also a Nigerian. He must have in mind a desired outcome from all the efforts we are starting to make. I have mine; which I will soon disclose. Others too have theirs; let them openly tell us; instead of hiding behind the rejection of these tentative steps to achieve their own hidden agenda.

Already there is a raging controversy regarding representation at the Conference; some canvass for zonal representation, while others call for ethnic groups. Many of those calling for ethnic representation almost invariably don’t have an idea of how complex the task is. So far, we have not even agreed on the number of ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Since my return to Nigeria in 1974, I had worked in all the four corners – Lagos, Calabar, Sokoto and Maiduguri, as well as several places in between. Ten years ago, out of curiousity, I started listing all the ethnic groups that could be identified. Below is the list, so far, arranged in alphabetical order, to avoid being accused of bias. The list is not exhaustive; but it provides a handle for examining the call for ethnic group representation.

Anang, Agae, Afemai, Atyap, Agatu, Attakar, Berom, Bassa Nge, Bassa Nkomo, Bajju, Borgu, Badama, Bini, Efik, Edo, Egbe, Eggon, Fulani, Farrough, Gwari, Gbagyi, Goemal, Hausa, Higgis, Igbo, Ibibio, Ijaw, Itsekiri, Isoko, Ika, Idoma, Igala, Igbira, Ishan, Ilaje, Ikulu, Ikwere, Ibani, Jugun, Kataf, Kalabi, Koma, Kutep, Komaton, Lapai, Mushere, Nupe, Ngas, Oron, Ogoni, Okun, Obolo, Okrika, Tappa, Tarouhk, Tiv, Urhobo, Wuse, Yoruba…..

The reader, most likely, is becoming aware of some of these Fellow Nigerians for the first time. Incidentally, if your ethnic group, or any other known to you, is not on the list, don’t get angry. Just send me the name and state. My mission is to help discover how many ethnic groups there are before we proceed. In my travels throughout our country, averaging twenty four states per annum, one thing is clear: no two ethnic groups have the same numerical strength. That fact raises a question: Should all ethnic groups have equal representation or not? And why?

Second fact of life is: some ethnic groups are spread over six, seven or even twenty states; others occupy a tiny corner of a state. Clearly representation based on states and zones will favour the large ethnic groups spread over several states. Specifically, the Hausa, Fulani, Igbo, Ijaw and Yoruba stand to gain from this. Third fact: some ethnic groups are claimed as part of other ethnic groups even when they regard themselves as distinct entities. Yoruba claim the Ilaje, Bini as part of Oduduwa nation; they also claim Itsekiri in Delta and Okun in Kogi. Igbo claim Anioma people in Delta etc. How will these people be represented?

However, the fundamental disagreement is between those who strongly believe that Nigeria can be reformed, and continue as a nation, and those who have lost hope in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Let me place my second card on the table face up. I strongly believe that breaking up Nigeria will result in greater disasters than whatever we are experiencing now. Let me start with my own people – the Yoruba.

“Who takes advice shall never fare the worse”, Geoffrey Chaucer, 1342-1400.
“One gives nothing so freely as advice”, Rochefoucauld.

This is repetition. But, I have learnt from experience that one changes behaviour by repeating the same message often.  Anyone intending to run for elective office in 2015 should do three things right away. First, write your biography as soon as possible. Tell your history before your opponents start branding you. Two, sign on a media adviser. Three, conduct research and develop a plan for making things better. Good luck.

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