Nigeria’s sundry ‘tribes’ of agitators, fromcivilsociety activists through to gerontocratic “have-beens” and ethnic entrepreneurs, finally scored a notable victory on Independence Day, when President Goodluck Jonathan appointed an AFENIFERE chieftain, Dr. Femi Okurounmu, to chair an Advisory Committee to work out modalities for a national conference.
The committee, according to Jonathan, “will also design a framework and come up with recommendations as to form, structure and mechanism of the process (for a national dialogue or conference)”.
It has been so long in coming; the calls for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) have roots in the days of military dictatorship. The SNC platform had been used in the smaller Francophone countries like Mali, Benin and Togo to end decades of military dictatorship.
There was an uprising in Mali against the Moussa Traore regime which shot and killed dozens of people on the streets of Bamako. General Amadou Toumani Toure organised a coup and reached a historical compromise with the Malian people for a SNC. Structural Adjustment Policies, SAP, had also wrought so much havoc on society and there was the loss of a whole decade of African development, the consequences we continue to suffer today, with neo-liberal policies.
In its Nigerian incarnation, the agitation for SNC originally emerged from leftwing organisations with genuinely progressive platforms not only to defeat military dictatorship, but to also halt the imperialist-inspired SAP, which destroyed the fabric of Nigerian society, but had wrought far more fundamental effect on the socio-economic condition of the working classes and the petty-bourgeois, middle class of Nigerian society.
But before long, SNC, like a gene, escaped the confines of leftwing circles, and became the agitation handmaiden of reactionary, ethnic-based circles like AFENIFERE and Professor Ben Nwabueze’s The Patriots.
They want SNC to ‘restructure’ Nigeria, after the “tribes” (in the Twenty-First Century people still talk of tribes!), must have held this much-vaunted conference. It became so persistently monotonous, that serious issues of national development, located in the political economy, social injustice, class struggle and the widening gap between a tiny business elite of bandits in an incestuous alliance with the political elite and the mass of the Nigerian people, with the attendant social contradictions, are reduced to issues which need a conference of “tribes”.
The late Chief Anthony Enahoro and Professor Nwabueze, even identified the “tribes” that must sit to re-negotiate Nigeria. But those venerable old men miss vital historical issues which make their platforms illogical, reactionary and unacceptable. Pre-colonial state formations in what became Nigeria, were not “tribal” but territorial. These were particularly so in the empire building traditions of Borno, the Sokoto Caliphate, Oyo Empire and Benin, for example.
The problem was that Chief Enahoro and Prof. Nwabueze had backgrounds in villages and clans. Chief Enahoro once wrote that the Ishan worldview recognises only the village and the clan. He and Prof Nwabueze have therefore always understood history from these backgrounds and have attempted to impose that clannish worldview on the complex historical forces which forged the Nigerian peoples.
Especially in the North, people ignored the SNC agitation because they found unacceptable the “tribal’ frames of Enahoro and Nwabueze. There were other reservations too, especially the not-too-subtle secessionist agenda embedded in the agitation, after the June 12, 1993 elections.
The crises of governance in the past few years and the emergence of the Boko Haram insurgency rekindled the SNC agitation. Again, it was by gerontocrats like Prof Nwabueze; old men who took everything from Nigeria in their younger more vibrant years, but have been bypassed by the realities of time, but have remained fixated with “tribes” in the Twenty-First Century!
They re-mounted their old hobbyhorse of SNC agitation at a time that the Jonathan administration needed newer weapons in the arsenal of division of Nigeria; it found the agitation for a conference a most convenient one indeed. So on Independence Day, GEJ announced a committee to work out modalities for a national conference/dialogue. It came as no surprise that an AFENIFERE chieftain, Dr. Okurounmu, was called to chair the committee; the man very much fits the part!
It will be most interesting what the criteria will end up to be. Are we going get Enahoro’s and Nwabueze’s “tribes” sitting around the table? Will they confirm that Nigeria is just the sum total of “tribes”? What will they make of the social forces created by the political economy of colonial and post-colonial capitalism? Are we going to witness shouting matches between unelected, unrepresentative ethnic entrepreneurs? What about the demographic reality of contemporary Nigeria, with the majority of Nigerians under the age of 35?
Plus the fact that we have become increasingly urban, more cosmopolitan and more class-based and more fluid, than the fixed, reactionary platforms of “tribes” that the likes of Professor Nwabueze inundate us with? But maybe we are stepping too far ahead. We will have to wait to see the criteria set; the issues to examine and the social forces expected to thrash out issues which contemporary, post-colonial, neo-liberal capitalist crises have wrought in our country.
My take on this is that their national conference might end up taking the dead-on-arrival ride to the mortuary of politics, because “tribes” sitting in conference will not invent any golden bullets that can shoot the problems of our society. We have an irresponsible, corrupt and thieving ruling class superintending very incompetently, a neo-liberal capitalist process that cannot work for the majority of the Nigerian people.
That majority is young and is under the age of 35. Its problem is not “tribal”, contrary to what Prof. Nwabueze posits; it is that category of young people that is at the heart of anti-state resistance, either in the insurgency of Boko Haram, or the kidnappings, ‘militancy’ and other crimes so rampant in the Southern part of the country. If these manifestationsof resistance have “inter-tribal” connotations, they are only secondary contradictions. It is these secondary contradictions that the Prof. Nwabuezes are turning around as problems that “tribes” must sit down and solve!
Furthermore, there is a grand political element to the decision by Goodluck Jonathan to call a conference and its name is the 2015 election.The Jonathan camp hopes to use the conference to further deepen the division of Nigerians. Issues like “restructuring” and “fiscal federalism”, could pit the South against the North. The North itself is at its weakest, open to the willful exploitation of its fault lines of ethnicity and religion by political adversaries. The emergence of APC signals political understanding across the divide between the West and the North.
It is a stumbling block for the Jonathan re-election project. But the emergent understanding can be soured or damaged when contentious issues heat up the conference, as they did the 2005 National Political Reform Conference which Obasanjo called as part of his Third Term Agenda. But when all is said and done, let them bring on their conference.
Time has come for the persistent agitators to crawl out of their laagers to face off Nigeria. Let us even see the stuff they are made of! For too long, the SNC agitation became the veritable instrument of grand political blackmail, with the North always accused of being against the ‘restructuring’ they posit will magically solve Nigeria’s problems!
So after years of persistent blackmail and abuses on the one hand, and the re-assessment of its interests on the other, the Northern political elite seemed to have concluded that there was far more smoke and mirrors to the agitation, and not much it will not appropriately respond to, that might be thrown at it, if such a conference was called. But Jonathan’s desperate bid for 2015 re-election is ultimately the clincher.
It will be most interesting to see how the conference gets organized and what its most important outcomes will be. The agitators will get their conference,‘sovereign’ or otherwise! But can that be enough to give us respite to face the serious business of building our country or might they ambush Nigeria again along the way, especially if things did not go as they want at their conference? We will wait for answers but it is not likely to be a long wait!