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National Conference and the itch we cannot scratch

09 April 2014, 13:27 Emmanuel G. Onofua

For umpteen times, Nigerians have individually and collectively expressed their unflinching interest in, and support for the convening of a National Conference of any kind. The hunger and agitation for an unrestricted opportunity to discuss the federal union was born out of the belief that the country’s constitutions, apart from the 1963 Republican Constitution, never derived legitimacy from the people. It is said that the amalgamation of the different regions of the country by the British Colonialists in 1914 was done without the consent of the ethnic nationalities.

Hence, when President Jonathan announced the convocation of a national conference, it was widely accepted by a vast majority of the Nigerian populace. The hopes of Nigerians were ignited that Nigeria would be discussed and decided by Nigerians.

However, our ignited hopes were extinguished when almost immediately, a clause was announced, a “no go area” it was called, an itch we cannot scratch. Similar to God’s warning to Adam in the Biblical Garden of Eden – “Of all the fruits in the garden you can eat, save the one in the middle”; the Federal Government vehemently, without equivocation added that every other thing may be negotiated in the conference, save any aspect of the cohesive coexistence of the ethnic nationalities that fate has conjoined into a multi-national country called Nigeria.

It seems more logical to first agree to remain one and united before we discuss the conditions of our unity; but that choice and decision has been take away from us, the first and most important burning issue to be addressed is the one contained in the "no-go-areas".

Why should we have an itch we cannot scratch? Why should over 400 intellectual highflyers representing over 160 million Nigerians be constrained from expressing their views on matters which many of them understand better than many of those in government? The seemingly innocuous prohibition imposed by the Federal Government makes the conference more of a palliative, rather than a necessary surgery of the Nigerian problem.

The Nigerian union was put together by a foreign power (the Great Britain during the colonial days) without any reference to the opinions of, and due consultation with the indigenous ethnic peoples as to whether they would like to associate with one another as citizens of the same country. By this action, the independence and sovereignty of the various ethnic peoples were forcefully taken away from them.

It is believed that the majority of the problems in Nigeria today was born out of anger and unresolved grievances; thus a national renegotiation would have gone a long way in the recovery and healing process of the mentally injured citizens. It is the people who should decide what they should be called and who they should associate with as citizens of the same country. By allowing the people this unrestricted freedom at such a crucial moment as this, the government would have been exhibiting a sense of wisdom and boldness. Every government anywhere should be humble enough to recognize the fact that the people are smart enough to know what they want.

Millions of Nigerians are not really interested in the division of Nigeria; what they want is a clear definition of terms of peaceful coexistence, fairness, equal rights and opportunities, tolerance, respect and above all, security of lives and properties of all citizens, resident in any part of the country.

Many have argued that the government is preventing a situation where a mere discussion might result in fragmentation of a century old union. No responsible government will call a conference and say the conference we are calling is to divide the country. But it is not practical to say that unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. Government policies and decisions made in a democratic setting idealy, should reflect the will of the people.

The United Kingdom as we know is made up of three union members - England, Scotland and Wales. These ethnic peoples have been together as members of the same country for about 307 years. From all indications, the union has been more advantageous than otherwise. Also, the union was entered into by the trio, consenting and accepting to voluntarily surrender their sovereignty and independence for the mutual benefit of every member of the union. And from all appearances the union has really served its original purpose. Yet after over 300 years, in September this year, the Scots will organize a referendum to choose either to remain in the British union or opt out as an independent sovereign state.

Nigeria’s union is 207 years younger than that of the United Kingdom, thus foreclosing an important discussion as the unity of the country at the threshold leading to the way forward will cast a shadow of doubt on the fidelity of the conference and the decisions that the people will arrive at when the conference is concluded. This may result in the conference ending up with a plethora of normative statements which may not scratch the protracted itch of Nigerians.

It is most visible that the entity called Nigeria is loosely fragmented and cannot be cemented by pretending all is well. Nigeria’s renegotiation became imminent when citizens were deported from Lagos to Onitsha in the middle of the night; when Abia State government relieved all none indigenes of their employment and left them jobless because they were not from the state; when I can only get a job if I speak Hausa to my prospective employer in Kano or when it is a taboo to be Nigeria’s President because I am from Bayelsa State and a minority. It is when you find water rising to your ankle that you bale it; not when it is around your neck.

Sometimes the forbidden is the most desired for it is the neglect of timely repairs that make rebuilding inevitable. Let the whispering voices of the furtive proponent of Arewa Republic, Republic of Biafra, United Niger Delta, Oduduwa Republic and Niger Middle Belt come together and decide that their unity as Nigerians will eclipse every seemingly insurmountable odds.

Let us not leave the mountain and break the anthill. Let things be done rightly so they stay done. The National Conference should answer the Nigerian question(s) and scratch the itch we cannot scratch.

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