by Eric Osagie
If we must talk, President Jonathan and his administration must assure us that they will be bound by the recommendations and resolutions of the confab; that there will be no monkey games with the report; that it is not a strategy to divert our attention from pressing economic and social issues that daily assail us.
Let us pray. Sorry, I ought to have said, ‘let us talk.’ Anyway, what’s the difference to Nigerians? Our countrymen and women love to do both, in almost equal measure. We pray and we talk. Here, prayer is a way of life. Prayer is serious business. Little wonder, we were once rated as ‘the most religious country on earth.’ All you need to do to believe that assertion is to go round most parts of our country on Fridays and especially, Sundays. What do you find? A nation virtually shut down by ‘pious’ citizens either on their way or returning from places of worship, where they have gone to supplicate to God.
We pray about virtually everything under the sun. We pray for money. We pray for long life. We pray for good health. Some pray for powerful political positions. We pray to ward off all sorts of evils. We pray against road and air crashes. We pray for our friends, and against our enemies, those who don’t mean well for us. Some actually pray in the worship centres for their ‘enemies to die,’ as if killing them actually stops other enemies from sprouting.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with prayers, engaging in powerful prayers for a turn- around in dire circumstances or sustaining God’s blessings . Except that Nigerians pray more than they actually work towards solving the problems confronting them. And didn’t the good Book say, ‘work is prayer in action?’ And also,’ faith without works is dead?’ So, while we pray, we must work equally hard at resolving our challenges.
As it is for individuals, so it has been for our nation and its leadership. We have leaders who prefer praying to rolling up their sleeves. At Independence day, new year, armed forces remembrance, Christmas, Sallah and other important ceremonies, they are decked in flowing attires, praying and praying so hard. Praying against poverty in the land. Praying against Boko Haram and other security challenges. Praying against other developmental challenges. Yet, the answer lies simply in proactive and pragmatic management of human and material resources. The reason, if you ask me, the prayers are often not answered is that God does not hearken to hypocrisy and double-speak of men, for God is not mocked.
Of course, we also talk. We talk, talk, talk, but to act is often where the problem is. We have been talking even before 1960, when we gained independence from the British. From 1960 to 2013, we have had all kinds of talks, conferences, seminars and workshops on nationhood, and how to resolve the developmental challenges facing us. The Independence constitution of 1960 gave way to the Republican constitution in 1963. There was also the 1979 constitution midwifed by the ‘50 Wise Men’ led by the late Chief FRA Williams. The American constitution was drafted by 59 men, just nine members more than ours, yet we have experimented many times with ours than the United States’ of over 200 years. We also had the Gen. Abdusalami constitution of 1999, which made slight modifications to the 1979 constitution. In between the constitution amendments and tinkering, we had the Gen. Sani Abacha constitutional conference of 1995 and the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo political conference of 2005. There was also the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida 1986 political conference.
When you add the over 100 panels and task forces we have had on all manner of issues: police, customs, NEPA, civil service reforms, ASUU, NUT, the military, NNPC, Petroleum ministry, and so on, there is no doubt that, we are truly a talking nation! Where do the talks lead to? They end up gathering cobwebs and dusts in the government lockers, buried with their, sometimes, brilliant recommendations.
Therefore, you can understand the cynicism of some Nigerians who turned their nostrils up when President Goodluck Jonathan, during his October 1 broadcast, told Nigerians to brace up for a National Conference, and subsequently set up an Advisory Committee to undertake the task of coordinating same.
Another talk? Another jamboree? A diversion? Time-buying strategy? Not a few Nigerians have expressed divergent opinions on the proposed National Conference. Coming from a president who had once pooh-poohed the idea of a conference, because we already had a National Assembly of elected representatives, the U-turn was bound to be met with suspicion. What is President Jonathan up to? Get Nigerians talking, while he went about his re-election peacefully? Disorganise the opposition with a diversionary talk, while unprepared to implement its recommendations?
Of course, there have equally been supporters of the proposed NC. To these Nigerians, to’ jaw jaw’ is certainly better than ‘war war.’ We should have a forum to discuss critical issues of nationhood: fiscal federalism, marginalisation, ethnicity, north/south divide, federalism or true federalism as many now call it, derivation, power rotation, zoning and all the other issues that have been heating up our polity in recent times and also, for a while now. So, any forum for talk, no matter its motive(s) and by who, should be welcomed with both hands, they argue.
For me, I welcome the idea of a National Conference. I support a talk forum any day. But is this the conference that would resolve our national challenges? I have my doubts. First, I am not sure those who set it up actually want it to achieve anything more than a talk shop. Can a government that has failed to implement the several reports of panels it set up be trusted to implement recommendations of the NC? Not likely. Secondly, what legal framework has the government put in place to ensure that the resolutions have the force of law, to make it binding on all. What if the recommendations become unpalatable to government, as in the case of Abacha, what would it do with the report? Where would the funding for the NC come from? A nation tottering on the brink of economic insolvency is now saddled with the burden of organising what may eventually turn out a jamboree for the elite, who in any case, have been part of Nigeria’s intractable crisis of nationhood!
If we must talk and talk honestly, the first thing to do is to enact enabling laws in the National Assembly, spelling out the conference parameters and making the outcome binding. A truly Sovereign National Conference. As it were, that would be near impossible, because the National Assembly would feel threatened by powers of a SNC.
If we must talk, let the elected delegates include the artisans, the students, the farmers, the unemployed, the physically challenged and the rural folk. These are the people who have been at the receiving end of obnoxious and repressive government policies. I am talking about the downtrodden, the truly deprived. He who wears the shoes knows where it pinches. But that’s not what we would have at Jonathan’s confab. Designer Kaftans and suits-wearing powerful politicians, sequestered in five-star hotels, gliding in glittering automobiles will fill the confab chambers. And the language of cash will be spoken!
If we must talk seriously, we must be free to talk all the talk. No area must be designated ‘no go.’ Let the talk centre on the totality of our being, our nationhood. Let us be free to discuss if we wish to live as one or separately. There should be no hypocrisy or pretences. Of course, I want to be part of one, big, united family. But in a union of perpetual acrimony and mutual distrust, we must be free to discuss our nationhood and terms of our union. You may be shocked to find that many of the delegates will vote to remain one united and indivisible country, despite the scare-mongering and sabre-rattling. But, let us be free to freely discuss. I hope Jonathan’s confab would allow this?
If we must talk, President Jonathan and his administration must assure us that they will be bound by the recommendations and resolutions of the confab; that there will be no monkey games with the report; that it is not a strategy to divert our attention from pressing economic and social issues that daily assail us. If he can hold his Bible and swear before Nigerians (or if he prefers to swear by Egbesu, no problem), we may then begin to take his proposed talk shop more serious. If not, many will continue to sneer and dismiss what is being offered as tokenism, a caricature of the real deal.
In the final analysis, the problem of this country is certainly not our constitution, but ourselves. Prof Tam David-West, former petroleum minister and social critic, says even if God came down Himself to give us a constitution, we would still have problem with it, if we do not learn to allow conscience and the fear of God guide our actions; if we do not shun corruption and hypocrisy, if we are not driven by the rule of law rather than the dictates of bad rulers who are ruled by the god of greed. I agree!