Since our return to democracy in 1999, this has been one of the hottest debates that still persist today. There has been calls by lots of people, from politicians to columnists and opinion leaders that the Federal Government should convene a ‘sovereign national conference’, a sort of a first-principles meeting in which the structure of Nigeria, the terms under which all interest groups shall be part of the country and other issues would be agreed upon. The proponents of this SNC consider this necessary since our British colonialists did not seek the permission and opinions of the various ethnic groups constituting Nigeria today before they lumped us together as a corporate entity. This is heightened by the fact that there are beliefs that the British favoured one part of the country above the others, and this has led to lop-sidedness in political power till recently.
I will admit that these are quite valid reasons to convene such a conference, even though for years, I was obstinate to understand the rationale behind this call. The arguments have gone back and forth for a decade plus, with its strongest proponents being the South-West, with the other parts of the country maintaining a stoic silence towards this topic. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, after much opposition to the idea, later caved in by convening a National Conference, which was not sovereign since it could not make decisions, but rather recommendations to the government. He also issued a caveat: that the issue of break-up was to be taken completely off the table. At the end of about 3 months of convening delegates in the capital city, all we achieved was another white-elephant project that only recommended that ended up being used as a campaign for the infamous Third Term Project, which was defeated by the willpower of the people and an unusually responsive National Assembly.
The truth of the matter is after all these years, it is about time that those calling for an SNC should come to the realization that it would not take place. This is not because they are no valid reasons for it, but rather, how they intend to hold one.
To start with, how would the delegates and interest groups be selected? The proponents such as the late Anthony Enahoro called for ethnic groups be represented, but this is not going to be an easy task. This is because defining Nigerians along the lines of ethnicity is tricky. Ethnicity is more pronounced and a stronger binding force in the South and up to the Middle Belt. In the North, we are more defined by religion, with a mix of ethnicity. We can see this clearly in the recurring Jos crises, where even people of the same tribe turned against each other if they were separated by religious faiths. In this case then, how do you define the ‘interest groups’?
Another issue we have to deal with is how to select the specific delegates. Do we do that by election or by appointment? If by election, wouldn’t that be like everyday politics, in which the candidate with the most funds and name recognition gets the slot? Going by the initial problem, this means that the entire North might have fewer delegates than the South and the Middle Belt, since there are fewer interest groups in the North. If we were to appoint the delegates, how assured can we be of the fairness of these appointments? No matter who it is that is appointed, he is bound to face acceptance issues from his ‘constituency’.
This clearly shows one problem we have in the Nigerian polity: we do not have men and women who can speak on behalf of their people and be generally seen to be the voice of those people, without holding any office. We do not have men and women who like Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke for all American blacks, or who like our First Republic politicians were truly in touch with their people and were their voice. All we have are ethnic champions and religious bigots for their own benefits, who use these methods to remain relevant and get their own share of the ‘national cake’.
In my own opinion, we do not need an SNC to be able to smoothen the issues in our country’s socio-political affairs. That is what we have the National Assembly for, on whom we spend a crazy amount of money. Some of the issues are smoothening out with time, and will do so over the time.
Rather than expend our energy chasing shadows in the form of an SNC, let us learn to apply more pressure on the National Assembly to live up to their responsibilities and duties. Let us learn to form advocacy groups to press home the issues that are bedevilling us. Our constitution has already granted us those rights we need to in order to co-exist as a country. All it remains is for us to adhere to them, which is what we should resolve to do, individually and collectively.