By Donu Kogbara
BEFORE I take a break from the serious social, political and economic concerns that usually preoccupy journalists – and concentrate on enjoying the festive season with my friends and family – let me draw your attention to comments made by the Bayelsa State Governor, Henry Seriake Dickson, at the Southern Senators’ Forum Retreat in Calabar, which took place on November 24.
I am highlighting Dickson’s contribution to the ongoing restructuring debate because he is a mature and moderate man who has intelligently hit several nails on the head; and I am sure that Nigeria, will quickly become a much better place if his views, as summarised below, are acted upon at the earliest opportunity:
We need to understand and break down the barriers of misunderstanding and misrepresentation that have bedevilled this issue of restructuring.
The rights of all Nigerians can be best protected within the context of a restructured, truly federal, truly egalitarian and democratic Nigeria.
Restructuring simply means a call for constitutional reforms, an amendment of existing laws to guarantee a more stable and inclusive country, and a return to federalism and the original founding principles of our nation.
Restructuring means different things to different people, but it does not necessarily mean secession or disintegration. And proponents of restructuring are not necessarily less Nigerian or less patriotic than its opponents.
As the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President rightly said, we should not shy away from consensus-building or be afraid of negotiating.
For me, the more divided opinions are, the better…because we are a diverse nation building a virile democratic culture; and we should not stifle differing views. We should not play the McCarthyism game in which people question the patriotism and commitment of their fellow men. This approach does not work.
The only lesson we need to learn is how to agree and disagree while upholding the national interest.
The Senate President has talked about what is happening in the United States, where there is a lively, healthy, robust and legitimate debate going on about what it means to be an American in this era of Trump.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the recent Brexit vote and Scottish Independence Referendum have stimulated important discussions about Britons’ relationships with Europe, the world and each other.
In other words, the people who colonised us have not treated their own unity as something that is non-negotiable. So please do not tell me that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable! That is not the right way to put it.
I am a Nationalist and Pan-Africanist; and Nigeria is not even large enough for me. Most of us want this country to be even bigger than it is…and just want to know how to make Nigeria’s greatness more apparent, reliable and sustainable.
I believe that if we conduct a referendum, the majority of Nigerians will vote for unity because unity is, I dare say, in the best interest of all.
We are better off in a large country and with a large population. So, do not listen to extreme elements who are for disintegration. We have enough people of goodwill all over this country who believe that our best interests, collectively and individually, can be best secured in a united Federal Republic of Nigeria.
But we must do the hard work of creating that Nigeria, a Nigeria of equal citizenship, a Nigeria that is fair, a Nigeria where the rights of all are protected, a Nigeria of inclusive growth/stability. Not a Nigeria of endless problems and contradictions…that is a threat to itself and the world.
My state has over 30 per cent of the oil and gas reserves in this country. Yet I do not want to be a citizen of one tiny oil-rich country that one neighbouring country can overrun in five hours as in the case of Kuwait.
I am proud to be a member of this great Nigerian family. But we all have a duty to create the ideal Nigeria. And leaders must rise up to this challenge.
However, unity cannot be sustained by strong security forces that are centrally controlled…or by constitutional provisions that we know are ineffective.
Talking about the Federal Character Commission, my state is grossly under-represented in all federal establishments in Abuja. The constitutional provisions are there. But we need debate and reforms to make them more efficient.
Despite the military might of the former USSR, the authorities could not prevent a collapse of that big empire. So anyone who says that Nigeria’s unity is dependent on a strong military is not telling the truth.
Of course, the military have a role to play and it is our duty to encourage them when they are protecting our territorial integrity. But the military must not be involved in intimidation or oppression of any Nigerian.
In the end, Nigeria’s unity and our greatness depends on us Nigerians. Every nation is a product of historical accident. And Nigeria was not a mistake. Africa, the black race and the world needs Nigeria to advance the African and black agenda. Our duty is to make that ‘mistake’ more perfect.
My dear friends, in the next 30 to 50 years, Nigeria will be the third most populous nation on the face of the earth. So, can we afford this nation at that time – with about 500 million human beings residing within it – to still be dealing with agitations from within? That is not sustainable. That is not the Nigeria we should hand over to our children and our grandchildren.
We have a duty and a responsibility to create mechanisms for closer interactions and consensus-building. Let us break down the barriers and let me propose that Mr. President be treated with respect and should rise to the occasion on this issue of restructuring.
He should convene a meeting of leaders – political, traditional, socio-cultural, civil society, religious, professional and so on. This committee should not be a mere talk shop. And we can start gradually. We do not need to amend everything at the same time. Let’s start with the most basic constitutional reforms that will generate stability and loyalty and confidence.
Finally, the best guarantees for protection of minority rights is constitutional and legal amendments. This was exactly what the Henry Willinks Commission, set up by the colonial administration to examine the fears of the minorities prior to Nigeria’s independence, recommended.
But as we have since learnt from 1960 till date, the constitutional safeguards for the protection of minorities as envisaged by the Willinks Commission, which was adopted in the 1960 Constitution, have been eroded by various military decrees.