By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
“A week is a long time in politics” (Harold Wilson, 1964).
THIS time last week, the nation held its breath in anticipation of the final episode in the four months old saga that was the National Conference. The key actors themselves did not have the final pages of the script. Or, to put it another way, there were many versions of the final scenes of a melodrama that threatened to either tear the nation apart, or facilitate massive distortions in political power and resource mobilisation and allocation.
Few thought the Conference was going to leave the nation pretty much as it was before the President became an overnight convert to the idea that it was the key to the nation’s survival. The audience had primed the key actors to the hilt on how the Conference was to end. You could say that for all its lack of popular mandate and multitudes of shortfalls in inclusiveness, this Conference was the most representative in terms of the plurality of burdens and demands placed on its leadership and delegates.
This time last week, regional and ethnic gladiators had assembled for the final battle. Most of the positions of the opposing forces were known to each other. All that was needed was a verdict over the winner in this long, expensive and bruising battle, although a few final skirmishes were being sorted to provide the indicators of victory or defeat.
The melodrama came to an end with a lot of cheering and backslapping by delegates. They told each other they had done well, or parted as mortal enemies to fight other battles. The nation is left without billions and a pile of documents to further decorate us as a nation of good ideas and little action.
Did the good guys win at the end of this melodrama? Is the nation better or worse off now that 500 or so handpicked Nigerians looked at our nation in the rarefied air of Abuja once again and said what they see as wrong with it, and how to fix it? Let’s look at a few issues.
The 2014 Constitution misadventure.
The most audacious attempt to hijack the Conference was the emergence of a draft constitution which by implication, would wipe the slate clean for current political office holders, and provide them with fresh leases to seek new mandates. This is a rather crude paraphrase of a poorly – crafted antic that learnt very badly from history. The defeat of this audacity and its demotion from a Draft 2014 Constitution, to pieces of advise on constitutional amendments would be claimed by northern delegates; but the victory belonged to all Nigerians. If President Goodluck Jonathan wants another term, let him convince Nigerians over the legality of that ambition, and convince them that he deserves another four year term.
Regional and ethnic champions
A conference intended to provide solutions to seemingly intractable political problems created by a Nigerian state that has failed to dilute narrower loyalties and widen the horizon for the emergence of a Nigerian citizen was promptly hijacked by the very forces it was to fight against. Perhaps, this is the most predictable element of the Conference: a conclave designed around regional, ethnic, religious,partisan and personal political considerations could not conceivably rise above them. So the powers of local champions ebbed and flowed, showing them one moment as whips and enforcers of narrow interests, and the next as the enemy of the rank and file. They gave the Conference a character it found difficult to dislodge. Virtually every delegate became a northerner or southerner, sometime only a Muslim or Christian, and every issue had a major ethno-religious stamp on it.
The Conference redesigned Nigeria into a nation of two regions and religions, something even the British could never do. Many delegates must have developed symptoms of split personalities: some northern Christians fraternised with South South in the night, strategised with ‘core’ North in the morning, and asked what exactly was in it for them in the evening. Yoruba Muslims found common ground with Igbo more-states champions against the north on devolution; elders and leaders agreed on state police and abused each other over resource allocation. Bright and younger Nigerians found voices in committees, but were drowned by orchestrated, behind-the-scene positions designed either out of fear, or desperate gambles that oppositions can be whittled down or deceived. Eminent names and records were trampled upon on the slightest suspicion that they pandered to the opposition.
There were booby traps everywhere, a situation that perfectly mirrowed the conception and birth of the Conference: when you are unsure of the plans of the man sitting next to you, the best option is to prevent both of you from moving anywhere. In the end everyone retreated to the safe comfort of the clan, and a few millions in Naira richer, all have returned home with their own tales to tell.
Elite cohesion: Instead of improving concensus on national priorities, the conference has left a gaping hole in the beleaguered cohesion of Nigeria’s elite. Igbo leaders are fuming that northerners and their legion of other enemies have frustrated their single-item agenda of additional state(s). They will wait for the right time to revenge. South South activists saw their hopes for improved take-home-pay scuttled by delegates whose roles as parasites are becoming intolerable. They will wait to see if, in addition to this insult, the nation also sends President Jonathan out of the Villa next year. Delegates from the South West packed up all the polished grammar on devolution of power, true federalism and a new constitution in the face of the stubborn refusal of mostly delegates from the North to understand what it all meant. They will ask where new grounds for a north/south-west alliance will be found in future, and some of the damage done may find a new life in a party that has substantial north/south-west constituency.
Delegates from the lower fringes of the North, and other minorities were enticed by the prospect of a few states here and there, until they realised that they were all substantially pawns. Their abject poverty in influencing how the big boys play the game reminded many of them that their status as appendages will take a while to remove. They will wait for other opportunities to see if they can improve in the art of exploiting the greed and gullibility of the larger groups.
Delegates from the north, particularly the far north ran from pillar to post saying no to everything that even remotely seemed like a play for advantage by the others. Their flanks were exposed very badly on many occasions in a war in which they started as crippled underdogs. They found the perfect strategy in opposing everything which has not been said ten or twenty times before, or which will substantially alter the status quo. They discussed good ideas in committees and agreed to them, then fought hard to leave the conference with just that: ideas and suggestions on improving policy, processes and governance. They went to the conference to defend the north against what they saw as a conspiracy. They left believing that there is indeed a conspiracy against the north; and while they think they have successfully fought it this time, they are more convinced that the danger is still lurking. All in all, many delegates who should be building bridges as we move towards the stormy waters of 2015 will now be building barricades and fortifications, and they will have the scars from skirmishes at the conference to justify their positions.
The nation: While the delegates met the world went round. The nation’s security situation got a lot worse. The insurgency grew in leaps and bounds, took away school girls, burnt whole villages and now takes and holds entire towns. Nigerians do not know what the delegates said about national security, but we can assume that the conference recommendations have not fed the fight against the insurgency. Northerners were being profiled by security agencies in southern states and detained; state governments in the south were telling them to get registered; northern youths were threatening to relaliate. The governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria who said tens of billions of dollars were missing was called a liar and suspended, and then appointed Emir of Kano. This matter is likely to await another administration for a verdict over who is right. An opposition governor was impeached over offences he committed while he was with the PDP; another opposition governor narrowly escaped being impeached; the opposition lost a state to the PDP and clung to another. A minister was sacked for apparent gross abuse of office, but she is walking free as air today. While our delegates discussed foreign policy, our President was summoned to Paris and Washington to discuss our security situation. Government doctors went on strike and prepared to treat Ebola in their private clinics.The president sacked all of them. Wives of soldiers blocked gates of the barracks to stop their men from going to war; and our politicians rolled over from one party to the next without the slightest shame or qualms.
This time last week delegates to the national conference were mostly congratulating themselves for concluding a conference many people predicted will break up,or break the country up. The operative words here are concluding a conference. It will take the best part of many years to decide whether any good will come out of what is said to be the best national conference. By this time last week, few people really cared whether the conference broke up or was concluded successfully. A week after, we can all look ahead to even more frightening prospects: the insurgency digging in, and an election which terrifies us in its implications.