During Nigeria’s independence day celebrations last month, President Goodluck Jonathan caught many by surprise when he announced the setting up of a new National Dialogue Conference.
"Fellow Nigerians,” he said, “our Administration has taken cognisance of suggestions over the years by well-meaning Nigerians on the need for a National Dialogue on the future of our beloved country. I am an advocate of dialogue. When there are issues that stoke tension and bring about friction, it makes perfect sense for the interested parties to come together to discuss.”
In doing this, Jonathan was answering calls that have been heard for years if not decades. Many are dissatisfied with the current national arrangement and different regions and ethnicities in Nigeria frequently complain of marginalisation and injustice, while fractious divides and rivalries often undermine the country’s polity.
However, even for those who have most vehemently called for national dialogue in the past, Jonathan’s announcement did not necessarily inspire hope and confidence. In fact, many opposition figures and observers responded to the announcement by questioning where Jonathan’s enthusiasm for a national conference came from all of a sudden. The news has split Nigerians, with some seeing the move as a cynical ploy as the 2015 elections approach, while others hold out hope. And if Jonathan does not manage to establish a genuinely inclusive and effective dialogue, rather than being an antidote for Nigeria’s ills and fragmentation, Jonathan’s national conference could end up simply being an emblem of them.
Nigeria’s current federalised system came about via a series of historical incidents and accidents. At independence in 1960, Nigeria was made up of three regions – Northern, Western and Eastern - which became four in 1963. But after civil war erupted in 1967, these 3 regions became 12 states. Under this system, calls for ethnic-based resource control grew. In 1976, 7 new states were created, and by 1996 the number of Nigeria’s states had swollen to 36.
After Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, some Nigerians criticised the previous military regimes for tampering with the regional structure of the country to its overall detriment and of foisting a constitution on Nigerians that has worked against, rather than for, the development of the country.
Nevertheless, the regional arrangement has stuck and rivalries between states as well as communal clashes between ethnic groups fighting over land and resources have risen. Meanwhile economically, states have become heavily reliant on the federal government; this August and September alone, allocations from the centre to local governments exceeded N435 billion ($2.8 billion).
“The system is inefficient and has fanned the flames of disunity and violence in the country,” Adigun Agbaje, a professor in social sciences at the University of Ibadan, told Think Africa Press. “We need to reconsider our whole political structure.”
One way to do this would be the kind of national dialogue many have long called for. But Jonathan is not the first president to try this path.
In the 1990s, Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s military head-of-state, promised Nigerians a national conference after his annulment of the 1993 elections triggered popular protests and led the Yoruba ethnic group – to which MKO Abiola, the victor of the elections, belonged – to threaten to secede. Abacha, however, saw the conference primarily as a short-term crisis-resolution mechanism and eventually reneged on any promises, instead pursuing his ambition of holding onto power.
The second attempt at a national conference was made by Olusegun Obasanjo when he initiated the constitutional conference of 2005/2006. Obasanjo’s conference similarly failed as northern politicians became suspicious of his true intentions. It was a open secret that Obasanjo harboured hopes of amending the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office, and many believed the conference was a ruse to push through this agenda. If this was the case, Obasanjo’s ploy failed when the national assembly voted to maintain the two-term presidential limit.
Like with previous attempts at a national conference, Jonathan’s announcement has also been met with suspicion, particularly around the timing of the plan. Politicking with the 2015 election in sight has already begun in earnest, while the president is currently undergoing the most turbulent challenge to his authority yet.
In September, seven governors from his ruling People’s Democratic Party broke away to form a rival faction of the party; earlier this year, a number of high-profile figures from various parts of the country banded together to form a new opposition party called the All Progressive Congress (APC); and members of his cabinet have found themselves embroiled in scandals. Jonathan’s opponents have not pulled their punches when saying what they think of his most recent plan.
“Why is the conference coming at just about 15 months to the next general election?” asked Bola Tinubu, National Leader of the APC. “Nigeria has never been this divisive in its 53 years of existence, yet President Jonathan now considers a national conference because of the apparent division in his party.”
Meanwhile, Rotimi Fashakin, former National Publicity Secretary of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), one of the constituent paries of the APC, commented: “The conference is a colossal deception and the president desires to extricate himself from the issues confronting this nation that he has been elected to solve.”
Additionally, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has described the proposed dialogue as a “deceit, a distraction and a waste of public funds”, while Japheth Omojuwa, a blogger and political commentator told Think Africa Press, “The conference will not change a thing. We’ve been here before, we don’t need a conference to sack corrupt ministers or deliver the goods of governance to the Nigerian people.”
However, not everyone has been so scathing of the proposal, and a number of ethnic groups have cautiously signalled their willingness to engage and cooperate.
For instance, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), a Hausa-Fulani pressure group told reporters, “The ACF has made it clear long ago that it is not opposed to any national dialogue that can calm nerves and bring about the strengthening of the Nigeria project.” Whilst the Pan-Yoruba Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG) declared, "We will cooperate with and support the Advisory Council set up by the President where necessary."
Some others are similarly remaining diplomatic in their responses. "The National Dialogue conference can prove helpful. I feel Nigeria as an entity needs its people to sit down and dialogue for the benefit of all its components,” Nnaji Obed Asiegbu, a Special Advisor to the Governor of Abia State, told Think Africa Press.
There is no doubt that the national conference is no panacea for Nigeria’s many challenges. Nigeria is too fragmented, its problems too deep, and its institutions too weak for it to simply talk its way out of its many divisions and ills. But inclusive deliberation is a crucial first step in the right direction.
The cruel irony for Nigeria, however, is that even a measure supposed to heal divisions, enhance dialogue and relieve mistrust has so far done the very opposite.
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