National Conference, No-Go-Areas and the Intractables

           Chikwendu Christian Ukaegbu
             Associate Professor of Sociology & International Studies
                University of Wyoming, USA

      The concept of no-go-areas attracted the interest of many observers soon after the inauguration of the ongoing National Political Reform Conference. Those no-go-areas, or indeed taboos, include, presidentialism, federalism, multi-religiosity, federal character, and the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy and separation of powers. Presidential injunction in the inaugural address forbids delegates from discussing these issues. A fundamental question comes to mind after reading this list of 'discussive' taboos. Why was the conference called in the first place? Were the delegates selected to discuss the dilapidated national infrastructure, the re-establishment of the quality of, and confidence in Nigerian education, how to boost economic production and development, to reduce unemployment, improve health care, how to conduct transparent elections, how to eliminate the unprecedented rate and intensity of violent crime, or what?  In fact it appears that these subjects will preoccupy the conference as demonstrated by the various committees already formed by the delegates. These are duties of the legislative and executive branches of government and their ancillary agencies. Delegate preoccupation with these perfunctory administrative issues means that existing institutions of policy and governance have failed in their duties. But at the same time, it is not clear what changes talk and debate of these issues will bring to Nigeria if the resulting suggestions are expected to be implemented in the present geopolitical structure. Predictably therefore, this conference will end up with a plethora of normative statements, i.e. government 'should do this or should not do that".
  Why would four hundred delegates, many of them citizens of great accomplishments, be constrained from expressing their views on matters, which many of them understand better than many of those in government?  Let us be reminded that those who initiated the call for a national conference, a call accelerated by the events of June 12 1993 anchored, and continue to anchor, their call on the inability of the current Nigerian geoethnopolity to enable the country to move forward.
   Explicit in the agitations of activists of a national conference are concepts such as geopolitical restructuring, political decentralization, true federalism, and even confederation, all of which have been commonly used in recent years to describe alternative paths to Nigeria's political future. However, most of the proponents and supporters of geopolitical restructuring base their argument on the premise that the  current political centralism within an amorphous ethno-religious diversity is the direct cause of incessant, inter-group conflict in Nigeria. This perspective presupposes that a political decentralization more far-reaching than what currently exists will bring relative homogeneity to the resulting entities (regions, geopolitical zones, or what have you) and guarantee peace and stability among groups.
  This ethno cultural premise is seriously flawed by empirical situations because conflict is ubiquitous in human interaction. For example, outsiders tend to perceive the people of Umuleri and Aguleri in Anambra State as agnates (a patriclan). But several years ago they engaged in a fratricidal war of destruction that took many lives and items of property from both groups in conflict. Yet they are Igbo who live in close geographic proximity and have shared the same language and culture for ages. In the same
Anambra, a state of homogenous ethnicity, post election conflicts between two principal political actors have led to extreme violence and destabilization of the state government and governance. The intensity of the Ife-Modakeke conflict in Yorubaland remained in the memories of the Nigerian public for several years in the 1990s. Further more, members of the Maitasine group in Northern Nigeria staged severe antagonistic conflicts against fellow Muslims in the early 1980s. Examples of similar fratricidal conflicts can be identified in other parts of Nigeria. Therefore, ethno cultural homogeneity is not a sufficient condition for peace in a community, or the macro-society for that matter.
        On the other hand, a developmental argument of political restructuring is superior to the ethno cultural alternative. Here, the quest for a far-reaching politico-economic decentralization is based on the idea that the more the destinies of the constituent parts are in their own hands, the more they brace up to tackle the resulting challenges arising from their social and economic environments. Hence they will be better positioned to tap the social capital (internal solidarities, reciprocities and cooperation) and human capital (creative energies) of their populations for their own social and economic development. So long as the central Nigerian government remains the focus and orbit of immense political and economic power, the presently weak, satellite constituencies will continue to depend on it. And the center, though itself has not shown capability as an agent of development, will remain a ready scapegoat on which to blame their failure to rise to the challenges of transforming their immediate domains socially and economically.  In a country where individual and sub-group sentimental attachments reside more in the ethno-cultural enclave than at the national realm, the center is incapacitated to make and implement develop-oriented policies.
  Truly, the intractable and intense ethnic and religious division that exists in Nigeria suffocates political vision and constrains politicians from initiating imaginative, courageous, and implementing, pro-development policies. But more importantly, is the fact that the country's economic burden is shouldered by a handful of states because the current 36-state structure, created in the name of an illusive political stability and national unity, has resulted in many economically unviable states with money guzzling, wasteful, non-innovative, unimaginative and anti development bureaucracies. These two scenarios constitute liabilities to the development of the kind of political rationality, courage and clarity of purpose, which leaders need to make the right policies and mobilize the people to the path of economic and social development. A lot of time and effort is focused on balancing ethnic claims and maintaining a superficial political stability. However, a superficial political stability within a continuing decline in quality of life and societal infrastructure is a mark of a failed political project. In other words, rather than enable development, the present geopolitical structure constrains it. In fact Nigeria, as presently constituted, is best described as a geoethnopolity of anti progress.
     Therefore, the proponents of political restructuring who base their agitations on the developmental potentials of more political and economic empowerment of reconfigured peripheries are right. Abraham Adesanya, if I remember correctly, said it best, "unity does not mean uniformity. Devolve more extractive, productive and allocative power to peripheral regions to own and tackle the challenges of their environment, each at its own pace. The current structure encourages satellite passivity because of the mindset that money will always come from the center.
Some critics would argue that Nigeria's problem does not emanate from the proliferation of states, but from the incapacities and corruption among those who steer the ships of those states, i.e. bad leadership. After all certain instances over the years have demonstrated that corruption in government limits the ability of states to apply their financial allocations to the interests of their publics. As correct and as empirically verifiable as this argument is, reducing the number of states will reduce the avenues through which politicians siphon public money into their private pockets. So, one state out of the picture eliminates one avenue of corruption. Previous regimes proliferated states to the status of waste pipes. Therefore to contract the states to, at least, the level of the present geopolitical zones reduces the avenues of waste. But a new configuration will not move the ship of development without a political and economic empowerment more far-reaching than the current condition.
        The discussive prohibition imposed by President Olusegun Obasanjo makes the conference more of a palliative, or even a mere expressive act, than a surgery of the Nigerian problem. For example, Dukubo Asari returned from peace talks with the President after he (Asari) mobilized an armed group to destabilize his immediate constituency in the Niger Delta region.  People who read newspapers are familiar with his reasons for his action. Nigerian law enforcement called Dukubo a gangster. But his constituency gave him a hero's welcome upon his return from the peace talks. Thousands of supporters, it was reported, lined the streets of Port Harcourt airport to welcome him. Is it possible to avoid more cases like Dukubo's without talking about structure?
      Further still, the discussive prohibition is anti democratic. It is not different from the limitations imposed on the various constitutional conferences by the dictatorial regimes of the military era. I challenge anyone to read the various academic and freelance studies of attitudes of Nigerian citizens towards democracy. Nigerians have come to love democracy and want it to endure. To stifle free thought and speech in a matter as important as crafting a viable future for the country and its diverse peoples neutralizes this embrace of democracy by Nigerian citizens.
    Here is another irony. Some interest groups have openly opposed the discussion of certain issues at the conference. Specifically, Northern governors have categorically stated that they would not entertain any attempt to tamper with the current state structure. This matches the President's no-go- areas. But other interest groups, who may want the conference to evaluate the viability and non-viability of the state structure as an instrument of national development, are not allowed to bring their views to the table. Consequently, the conference may end up giving a stamp of approval to, and implementing, the interests and aspirations of a particular block of Nigerians but rejects those of others. Put another way, adherence to the discussive prohibitions or no-go-areas has the capacity to harm the legitimacy of the conference. In which case agitators may go back to the streets or join forces with those who presently oppose the conference and renew the call for a non-restrictive national conference. If that happens, why the conference in the first place?