Let nobody ever say that President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is not a listening leader. Never say that. From the early days when he assumed the presidency to the present, President Jonathan has been the epitome of democracy, feeling the pulse of the people and dancing the waltz to their tempo. He did this when he changed his mind about withdrawing Nigeria from international soccer tournaments after the 2010 fiasco in South Africa after Nigerians besieged his facebook page to plead with him to temper justice with mercy. Again he did this when he acceded to the cries of those most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency when he agreed to consider dialoguing with Boko Haram and set up the Tanimu Turaki led Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Resolution of Security Challenges in the North. And again, he is demonstrating that he has a listening ear by listening to the grievance of those Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, governors who disagree with the elected leaders of the party even though they are in the minority. It is incontestable that President Jonathan is a listening leader.
This may perhaps explain why he changed his mind on the issue of a National Conference for which he had hitherto been set against. A leader is meant to embody the aspirations of the people he leads and given that the cries for such a conference have grown to be very deafening, President Jonathan has deferred to the people.
This would ordinary be something praise worthy, but of course to some, nothing the president does is ever good enough.
Take for instance, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos. On the 18th of February 2012 Asiwaju had said “We want Sovereign National Conference. Nigerians who voted for the President have the right to demand for the convocation of the conference”. Well, President Jonathan also heard the voice of Nigerians which was that they wanted a conference to meet and determine how best they would live together as a people. So, on the 1st of October 2013 he agreed that Nigerians should have a conference and that it would be up to them to decide the nomenclature of the conference and the issues to be discussed. In other words, government is giving the people a free hand!
What could be more democratic than this? You would think that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu would be thrilled that the President has listened to the people (and Bola Tinubu himself) once again. But hear Asiwaju Bola Tinubu today-“The national conference is by whom, for whom, and at what stage? How many levels of deception? I see a contradiction. I see diversion. I see deception, lack of honesty and integrity”.
This kind of volte face brings to the fore complaint of awoists like Chief Ebenezer Babatope and others like him who personally worked with the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They have at various times complained that many who say they are awoists are only using the philosophy of Awolowo as a cover to hoodwink the masses who still believe in the ideals of Chief Awolowo.
It was Chief Awolowo who in 1981 said “It is safer and wiser to cure unhealthy rivalry than to suppress it”. Awolowo lived and died believing that a National Conference was imperative if Nigeria was to emerge as a truly united nation whose people live in harmony. It therefore follows that anybody who lays claim to the philosophy of Awolowo must support something as cardinal to his beliefs as the convocation of a National Conference.
So the question that begs an answer is why the volte face?
I posit that the reason is that some who call themselves progressives after the Awolowo fold are in fact pro-aggressives, subject to change and moral flexibilities. Not able to stand on anything and therefore willing to fall for anything. To them, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
This is why where Awolowo would have held transparent party primaries to elect party flag bearers, they prefer to impose relatives, cronies and in-laws.
Governments can never be safe in the hands of persons who are subject to change on the altar of political expediency. If people cannot count on you to be steadfast to your ideals then they cannot count on you period!
Now, the enemies of our collective progress are singing the song that we do not need a National Conference or that it is a dubious idea meant to distract Nigerians. Why such self denial? Because no one fights the status quo like those who feed fat on it. And Nigerians will recall the obviously divine hand that guided President Jonathan to power. Perhaps God made President Jonathan President for such a time as this!
Today, those who are screaming against the proposed National Conference are the same persons who screamed against the declaration of a State of Emergency in those states where Boko Haram has caused untold human misery.
A pattern seems to be unfolding here. If Nigerians will recall, these fellows were the ones who accused President Jonathan of not doing enough to rein in the Boko Haram insurgency. They then changed their tunes when the President took steps to contain the crisis.
If they are willing to play politics with the Boko Haram insurgency, an insurgency in which Nigerian lives were being lost, is it a big thing for them to play politics with the issue of a National Conference?
And I cringe when I read comments from some in the opposition to the effect that a National Conference will undo what our founding fathers did for us. With all due respects, this is a faulty premise as the Nigeria of the founding fathers was undone in 1966.
In truth, none of Nigeria’s founding fathers were against the ideas of a National Conference. Certainly, the great Ahmadu Bello was not against it.
In page 3 of John N. Paden’s 1986 biography of Ahmadu Bello, he reported a conversation between Sir, Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwe thus;
Nnamdi Azikiwe: “Let us forget our differences….”Sir, Ahmadu Bello: "No, let us understand our differences. I am a Muslim and a Northerner. You are a Christian, an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country.”
What better way to understand our differences than through a National Conference to be decided upon directly by the people of Nigeria without government’s interference?
And President Jonathan is not the first leader to have had a change of heart on the issue of a National Conference. Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, opposed a National Conference in his nation when it was first mooted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. However, when he saw how unresolved differences led his nation on the path of disintegration, with first Pakistan then Bangladesh breaking away, he knew that nothing could stop an idea whose time had come. As such, in 1956, Nehru set the machinery for India’s National Conference in motion and India emerged stronger for it. India is not only the most stable nation in the sub-region, she is today, the largest democracy in the world.
It is instructive to note that before India had her own National Conference she was being torn apart with Pakistan and Bangladesh breaking away, but after India’s leaders had a change of heart in 1956, the reverse became the case. Rather than lose territory, India gained territory with Goa becoming a part of India in 1961.
So what lessons can we draw from history?
Those who are afraid that a National Conference will lead to the breakup of Nigeria should study history. It is precisely those nations that refused to hold one, such as Sudan, that broke up, while those nations that held one, such as post 1956 India and post 1987 China, that stayed together and even added territories to their nation (India added Goa, China reclaimed Hong Kong and Macau) because while nobody likes to be a part of turmoil, everybody likes to be a part of tranquility.
Yes, we have had conferences in the past, but those have been conferences with limited freedom where the government of the day, whether colonial or indigenous, had set certain parameters for the discussion. This one is different. The government is not telling Nigerians what to do this time, rather it is Nigerians telling the government what to do. And this is the purest form of democracy.
Many have said they are a bit disappointed that those who championed that government should dialogue with Boko Haram are today resisting the idea of Nigerians conferencing together. But I don’t share in their disappointment. I quite understand why they took that stance. Boko Haram was at the time of their demands, and perhaps still is, a desperate problem for them.
You see, when the problem becomes desperate people who feared dialogue have no choice but to talk, however, people who talk never have to face desperation.
They have got it backwards. We should not just dialogue with Boko Haram because they are violent. We should conference with each other in order that we can prevent future occurrences of the Boko Haram insurgency because if we refuse to allow Nigerians dialogue with each other, we are invariably telling them that it is only those people who take to violence that deserve violence.
When asked to state his political motto, the late Zik of Africa said ‘you talk I listen, you listen I talk’. Politics should be an exchange of ideas. ‘You talk I listen, you listen I talk’ is much better than 'you insult I listen, you listen I insult' or 'you fight I am beaten. I fight you are beaten'.
Only a person in deep denial will deny that there are deep seated tensions amongst nationalities that make up the Nigerian nation state. Repressing them has led to a civil war, ethnic and religious strife and militancy. It is time we face the reality and talk honestly about these issues and reach a resolution that would be better than the status quo so that all Nigerians can be mobilized behind the goal of a greater Nigeria without any ethnic nationality feeling shortchanged and disgruntled.
The Holy Bible in Amos 3:3 asks "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" This agreement necessary for walking together is what President Goodluck Jonathan is trying to foster for Nigeria by assembling a team of patriotic egg heads to come up with ideas and plans for a National Conference. Government is not telling them what to do rather they are advising government on what to do. I therefore make a solemn appeal to all Nigerians-Let us join hands with the leader that God has raised for such a time as this to build the New Nigeria of our collective dreams.
And it is certain that after conferencing together we will have a Nigeria that serves all Nigerians, not a Nigeria where an Igbo man who was born, bred and buttered in Lagos cannot aspire to elective position in Lagos. Not a Nigeria where a Yoruba man who was born and brought up in Kano cannot collect student bursary from the Kano state government because ‘he is not from Kano’. And certainly not a Nigeria where a Hausa man who is a third generation resident of Enugu is still referred to as a settler.
B. Reno Omokri is Special Assistant (New Media) to President Jonathan.