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The case for a national conversation – Part 2

By Dan Agbese
28 June 2019   |   3:45 am
A multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation such as ours, must never ignore the importance of a national conversation or a series of them as the needs arise. We need to talk to ourselves each time we pass through the fork on our socio-political road. That way, we would appreciate what ails us as a people and…


A multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation such as ours, must never ignore the importance of a national conversation or a series of them as the needs arise. We need to talk to ourselves each time we pass through the fork on our socio-political road. That way, we would appreciate what ails us as a people and as a nation.

A national conversation makes democracy a true work in progress, all things being equal.

The assumption that everything is right with our nation under each and every one of our rulers is detrimental to our national health. It ignores the realities that we are doing our best to ignore because it makes us feel good.

No nation ignores a national conversation. The problem is not its absence but its nature. National constitutions compel nations to talk to themselves. Some form of a national conversation goes on in the legislative chambers because it is built into every constitution.

Each time the legislators amend parts of the national constitution, they take away what no longer serve the common interests of the nation and its people and replace them with what serve those interests better in line with their contemporary experience and the needs arising therefrom.

We have had some unique experiences as a nation. The problem is that we never appropriated these unique experiences through a national conversation, let alone build on them, to help us remake our nation in our collective image.

Legacy format detected for design:

Yes, the long years of military rule disrupted in no small measure the democratic journey we embarked on at independence in 1960. But those rather difficult years of dictatorship and arbitrary rule were themselves part of our unique experiences in nation-building.

The generals believed, and sincerely at that, that they were there not just to rule but to effect corrective measures to make Nigeria a better country. Each military head of state saw his time as a dawn for the country.

Each expected this country to emerge, post his time on the political totem pole, from the long years of missed opportunities to recover its soul and re-position itself to play a more decisive role in its own economic and social development and earn its pips as perhaps the first African nation to make the great leap from an under-developed nation to a developed nation in the time takes to say general.

Under the generals, we had a series of experiments designed to make our constitutional government unique.

Between 1979 and 1999, a good number of constitutions were drafted for the country. Some never saw the light of day despite the time and expenses invested in them. Each of them reflected some degree of military thoughts on both the form of government chosen for us and how we should be governed, ironically, to prevent the disruption of military incursions into our national politics.

The onus for keeping the military in the barracks did not rest with the generals but with their civilian successors. If the civilians behaved and did not allow our hospitals to become mere consulting clinics, the generals would confine themselves to the barracks and mind their own business.

My last paragraph in the first part of this two-part piece is worth recalling. I wrote: “Under the generals, Nigeria became a laboratory for political and social experiments. Those experiments are now part of the many unfinished businesses that tie down the nation. A national conversation (at the appropriate time) would have addressed those experiments, both those which were discarded and those that were retained, to help us chart a lasting corrective course with the basic issues fully settled.”

After years of these experiments, we seem to have been left holding the short end of the stick. Nothing is really settled in our country.

Our inclination to dispute everything, including our form of government and the constitution, cannot be held up to the world as evidence of our democracy in action. It is anything but… The major failing in those military experiments was that they ignored the real fundamentals of human management in a multi-ethnic state. Their idea of national unity was rooted in decrees that ignored processes and sought to achieve the end. You cannot solve a mathematical question without working out the process that leads you to the right answer.

The Murtala/Obasanjo military regime decreed that every political party must be national. Its national outlook was to be measured by the spread of its national offices in the constituent units of the federation.

Succeeding military rulers latched on to that questionable wisdom and maintained the gratuitous fiction that this alone would eliminate the fault lines of ethnicity and the political divide. But national unity is a process. If you scuttle that process, you stand national unity itself on its head. It should be easy to see, therefore, that national parties cannot of themselves wield the teeming tribes into a coherent whole just because their national leaders are a rainbow collection of the tribes.

There is a sense in which laws can come to the rescue in a disputatious nation like Nigeria but laws are not proper instruments for human management where the national ambition is the enthronement of a government of men, not of laws. Serious experiments with nation-building must begin with a national conversation. Such a conversation would raise and address the critical issues that, once settled, could pave the way for national unity and cohesion.

The NPN slogan in the Second Republic was one nation, one people. But we never really hammered the process of one nation and one people into ploughshares for cultivating the field that would feed us all. The slogan did not cure that defect.

Here are some of the unsettled issues that still boggle our minds and tend to widen the fault lines we have been striving to close up: the structure of our federation and the nature and practice of our federalism; functional relations between the centre and the constituent units of the federation as well as functional relations between the states and their local governments; the full and unfettered operation of the federal character commission as a means of pulling up ethnic groups disadvantaged by number and historical factors; rotation of the presidency between north and south; the six geo-political zones as viable means of planting the locus of political power in a different zone at regular intervals to ensure no zone is denied its constitutional right to produce a national leader; how to accommodate the peculiar interests of the tribes of Nigeria in a manner that while it would be impossible to accommodate the views and ambitions of the 350 ethnic groups, would nevertheless settle the majority-minority question in anything but the current cynical manner in which some man the table and throw crumbs at others; and believe that it is their right to dash power at their pleasure to others; a lingua franca in addition to English to end the embarrassment of Nigerians communicating in a foreign language in foreign countries; the management of our multi-religious nature, given the inevitable conflicts arising therefrom, so that the interests of one religious group find no national favours at the expense of other religious persuasions; the local government system as a viable and functional grass roots government; the rational number of political parties; cynical policy summersaults that have piled up unfinished national businesses and the cheated all of us as citizens.

I would imagine that such a national conversation would decide once and for all if we must retain a single national police force that has proved inadequate in responding to the insecurity that has now overwhelmed the nation or shore it up with state police.

Let us talk to one another. We cannot build one nation without engaging ourselves in a series of national conversations that would help to open up ourselves to ourselves so we can understand ourselves better.

For us to move forward, we must know our ethnic and religious differences and commit to respecting them. For us to move forward, let us finish our unfinished businesses and unshackle our country from the millstone of the socio-political experiments that lifted us and then sank us back in the murk. (Concluded)