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Again, dialogue to save the nation

Published by Guardian on Thu, 16 Feb 2012

THE renewed clamour by many prominent Nigerians, from all parts of the country, for a national discourse in which the country's multifarious problems can be tabled does not deserve to be treated with disdain. For one, the call is a reminder that all is not well with the country. And for another, there is very little to show for the years, efforts and resources expended to move the nation along the path of the progress desired by all Nigerians. Rather, the leaders continue to pretend that what the country needs is no more than palliatives. This pretext, from all indications, cannot take the country anywhere. When in the life of a nation the ship of state starts to wobble uncontrollably, it stands to reason that all those on board that vessel must sit down and consider in what ways an imminent shipwreck can be averted.The British colonial government once presided over two distinct protectorates. In 1914, without consultation, both protectorates were merged into one and called Nigeria. At the dawn of independence in 1960, it was clear that the compulsory amalgamation of diverse, religious, cultural and ethnic entities was unworkable without the devolution of substantial powers to the federating units. The result was the creation of regional governments that were autonomous and which made contributions to the central government for the sustenance of those services, including defence and foreign affairs that were best handled by a central authority. They operated a revenue formula that was based on derivation. The entry of the military into government in 1966 saw the dismantling of the successful regional structures and the creation of essentially, a unitary form of government that was still called federal. The result is an all-powerful federal government that serves as paymaster to mostly weak 36 states, lacking in the ability to invoke the 'federal principle,' and have become subservient and lazy.Since the 1980s, there has been a call for the restructuring of Nigeria through dialogue. With the return to civilian rule in 1999, this call was temporarily mooted, but the lopsidedness of everything Nigerian and the endemic corruption soon led to more calls for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) to discuss all those issues that led to stagnation and frustration among Nigerians. Looked at objectively, nearly all aspects of the Nigerian life are in distress as the resources of the nation are frittered away by a tiny minority whilst the rest of the people manage on less than $2 a day.Every previous government of Nigeria has more or less shied away from discussing the national question. But of recent, the Nigerian situation has deteriorated even further making some form of national discourse almost inevitable. The activities of terrorist groups that have caused the death of hundreds of innocent persons including foreigners, and dislocated the lives of thousands of Nigerians are too unsettling to be ignored. As was the case in the days immediately preceding the onset of the Nigerian civil war, parts of the country have become unsafe to other Nigerians.There is again mass movement of persons from the North to the South and vice-versa. Does this not amount to the beginning of a de facto partitioning of the country'Some have expressed the fear that a SNC will lead to the break-up of the nation. Others with equal persuasion have argued that doing nothing is not an option as there are myriads of problems crying for solution. Indeed the latter group argues that refusing to discuss the Nigerian question ' the numerous social, religious, political and economic anomalies, including systemic corruption, insecurity of life and property, and rotting federal and state structures of governance ' could lead to a break-up. President Goodluck Jonathan is in a good position to initiate a dialogue among the peoples of Nigeria. The modalities for such a conference will have to be carefully worked out. Fortunately there are blueprints that can be dusted up and improved upon.Nigerians all want the same things, so that with justice and fair play as guiding principles, the discussions need not be acrimonious. They want to send their children to school and for youths to find gainful employment. They desire to be able to afford food for their families, live wherever they please, be protected by the laws of the country and to practise their religion without hindrance. Nigerians want a government that is answerable to the people, a government that sees its role as a change agent for fighting poverty, ignorance and disease.The various nationalities ought to be given an opportunity to discuss the kind of country they want. Every aspect of the people's co-habitation should be on the table. Representation should be based on grassroots in addition to other professional and civil society groups. All the delegates to the conference should be elected by the constituencies they seek to represent. No delegates should be appointed by government. For the avoidance of doubt, the representation envisaged is not coterminous with the National Assembly as indeed the character and performance of legislators and their intimidating emoluments is part of the Nigerian problem. The Nigerian people ought to decide what kind of federalism they want; whether to be bicameral or unicameral, or have part-time or full-time legislators; whether to continue with the American-type presidential system or to revert to a less expensive Westminster model.From the nature of things to be discussed, it is expected that at its fastest pace, this exercise cannot be accomplished in less than a year. The government ought not to waste time on whether the conference is sovereign or not. What matters is that at the end, the findings of the constituent assembly, however called, will be subjected to a referendum.The result of the referendum will form the basis of the first people's constitution of Nigeria.From these perspectives, nothing much will be achieved unless government approaches the conference as a facilitator. But, of course, it is tempting to hide under the pretext that the matter is too complex and the result uncertain. The job at hand requires patriotism and courage as the beneficiaries of an unjust and corrupt system are in effect being called upon to deny themselves. In reality though, Nigerian leaders have only one option under the prevailing circumstances: to promote dialogue and enable Nigerians decide how to live in a peaceful way. The alternative is too dire to contemplate.
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