Nigerians are familiar with conflict and compromise. These have come to make up the two sides of the Nigerian social contract. Regular conflicts and eventual compromise have become recurring features of our national story. Most of these meetings carry the same themes – planning and strategising how to co-exist in today’s Nigeria. And when the political elite gathers on a national scale, with the goal of fostering national development, we call these National Conferences.
Ever since Lord Lugard amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates with the Lagos Colony, disintegration has been on the agenda. Although Lugard justified his move with tales of a unified railway policy, we now know that there were definite political, economic and ideological rationales.
In his take on Nigeria's history, Richard Bourne argues that the British rationale for amalgamation was ‘balancing the books’, or put more simply, ‘colonial convenience’.
By 1996, disintegration had become a more 'Nigerian' agenda, geared at settling secessionist tendencies and weakening regional powers. Whatever the case, it is clear that the ideological rationale for ‘One Nigeria’ has always been up for debate, but we have failed to address it through the appropriate medium. National Conferences.
The birth of the National Conference
Biafra was a reminder of the fragility of our “perfect” union. Since the civil war, many other groups have sought their own ‘independence’, or a similar release from Nigerian control. This has only made a stronger case for a National Conference. Bring the nation together, talk about its problems, recommend working solutions, and live in harmony.
The late Alao Aka-Bashorun, one-time President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), had this in mind when he led civil societies to campaign for the establishment of a National Conference in 1989. Unfortunately, the conference was disrupted by the Babangida junta. But 6th September 1990, the day the conference was expected to kick off, will go down as the first attempt to strive for better, coherent national debate through national conferences.
Somewhere along the way, Nigeria lost its head. Today, implementing the recommendations of the conference has become an almost impossible task.
Built to fail
Many of the recommendations recorded in our National conferences have been in circulation for ages. We fail to act time and time again. Admittedly, some have failed due to the inherent difficulty of making constitutional amendments. Other times, the government has preferred to pass through the Senate and the House of Representatives rather than employ executive power.
That being said, the biggest issue is that some recommendations are simply infeasible. In a nation where poverty prevails, civil society possesses no moral compass, and youth languish without jobs, the recommendations of the National Conference may have seemed so absurd to the average Nigerian that it failed to inspire the people.
On the back of the 2014 National Conference, which lasted over 150 days and included 500 delegates, a 10,335-page report was drafted. The report recommended the creation of eighteen new states, a Vice President selected from the legislature, and the scrapping of 774 local governments. You would be forgiven for thinking the delegates agreed to make recommendations so drastic that they would never even be considered.
Between the Conference and a Hard Place
Nevertheless, there is no denying the perceived political agenda of these conferences. For instance, there is widespread belief that the National Political Reform Conference of 2005 was geared at the removal of the two-term limit on the Presidency. At the time, President Olusegun Obasanjo sought to secure a third-term bid.
Likewise, the 2014 National Conference held was also viewed as an attempt by President Jonathan to build a pre-election political base amongst the South-West politicians. Therefore, despite some of the constructive recommendations brought on board during these two conferences, they may sadly be remembered as rites of passage for Presidents desperate to extend their stay in power.
The Future of National Conferences
It is a huge shame that these conferences, once envisioned as a unifying tool by Alao Aka-Bashorun and his contemporaries, now resemble political charades which distance the government from the people. This sentiment is reinforced by the fact that most Nigerians do not even believe in the idea of a National Conference.
Nigerians are now disillusioned, and perhaps rightly so, by the futility of national conferences. A mere three decades after we so craved them. As it stands, these national conferences do not seem worthwhile. They seem like a waste of time and money, only feeding the egos of the elite who know fully well that their recommendations will not see the light of day.
Perhaps some things were never meant to work. Or even if they were, then they were never intended to work in Nigeria. Whether our politicians accept this, we may never know. But don’t be surprised if another National Conference rears its head soon as this administration looks for electoral options. Remember, you heard it here first.