President Jonathan and an Idea Whose Time has Come (A Response to Adewale Maja-Pearce)

Having read Mr. Adewale Maja-Pearce’s piece (first publishedin the New York Times and then in Thisday), I am convinced that some journalists and social commentators make haste to assess the news before they understand the news. Only in June this year, a journalist had written and published a scathing piece about a topical subject that I was familiar with and then called me after its publication to ask me what the subject of his criticism was all about! Of course I responded to him that he ought to have called me or some other person familiar with the issue before he wrote and published his piecenot after he did. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

And that is exactly what Maja-Pearce has done. In his piece,‘Nigeria’s Talking Shop’, he says Nigeria does not need a National Conference. In dismissing the National Conference idea, Maja-Pearce says “Nigeria is convening a conference on national unity when we should be clamoring to end the corruption that lies so close to the heart of our ethnic, sectarianand civil discord”. Nothing could betray his lack of grasp on the issues better than when he said that.

Quite simply put, an ailment may have many symptoms, but it usually has only one cause. Corruption is a symptom and not the reason why Nigeria has experienced “ethnic, sectarian and civil discord’. As I have said elsewhere, the reason why Nigeria has had issues with corruption, in my opinion, is because since the 1966 coup and counter coup, merit has ceased to be the yard stick for school enrolment and civil service recruitment. Instead of merit, ethnicity and religion have been used under policies that came with the military and have remained with us ever since, including in public schools whereby Nigeria’s children do not have a level playing field, rather the standard is set higher for some and lower for others.

What such a policy does is that it breeds discontentment and emotionally scripts a child during his foundation years to accept that where he comes from is more important to the system than what he can bring. And as the Bible says in Psalm 11:3 “If the foundation be destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

Why wouldn’t a post 1966 civil servant face temptation to be corrupt when merit is not the order of the day and he/she isforced to serve under individuals who may not have gotten their placement by merit – who enjoy perks and privileges far in excess of them? How can such a system promote morale and how can you have efficiency where morale is low?

Nigeria recently won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa and is the current African Football Champion because we selected our best and brightest for the tournament. How would Nigeria have fared if coach Keshi had selected his players on the basis of ethnicity and religion? Let us ponder on this for more than a minute.

What Nigeria needs and what Nigerians from every geo-political zone are asking for is nothing less than a level playing field. Equal opportunities for everybody and freedom to pursue their legitimate life goals whether as individuals, ethnic nationalities or religious groupings as long as those aspirations do not infringe on the right of others to exist.

It is discontentment with the status quo that causes corruption in the system and leads to unhealthy competition and as the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo said, “it is safer and wiser to cure unhealthy rivalry than to suppress it”.

Without a doubt, rivalries exist in Nigeria and in many cases they are not healthy. We have seen youths and elders form themselves into Northern and Southern Elders or Youth Fora to push for regional agenda and over the years Nigeria has been suppressing these unhealthy rivalries and what has been the result? It is now time to cure them once and for all so that we can begin to see ourselves as Nigerians first and foremost and that will only happen if there is a level playing ground which assures that anybody can be anything in Nigeria without being fettered by his ethnicity or religion.

Maja-Pearce may want to go back into history and understand the mindset of the founding fathers of Nigeria. None of them was adverse to the idea of a National Conference.

John N. Paden’s 1986 biography of Ahmadu Bello, records a conversation between Sir, Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwewhere the latter said “Let us forget our differences….” to whichSir, Ahmadu Bello responded “No, let us understand our differences. I am a Muslim and a Northerner. You are aChristian, an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country”.

The above conversation evinces a mindset that would have been in tune with a National Conference convened for the sole purpose of “understanding our differences” so “we can build unity in our country”.

And notice that Sir Ahmadu Bello said “our country”. It is only Nigerians that can build unity in Nigeria. A piece written to please the American audience of the New York Times may be an interesting diversion for the American audience from the dramatic events of the government shut down in DC but it serves no useful purpose in Nigeria other than to promote cynicism when what we need now is constructive criticism to make a good idea better.

So when Maja-Pearce says Nigeria does not need a conference, he not only betrays his lack of a firm grasp of the issues, he also exposes himself as an onlooker rather than a stake holder in theNigerian project. Maja-Pearce, being of mixed British and Nigerian parentage and having spent much of his life in The United Kingdom where he schooled may have been spared theeffects of some of the rivalries and inconsistencies that have exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Nigeria since 1966 and he can be forgiven. But even as he writes in such a sincere manner, he needs to be aware that he can also be sincerely wrong!

The smallest unit in a nation is the family, so let us start from there. If in a polygamous family, the head of the home shows favoritism to one wife over the other or to one child over the other, that home would have tensions fed by discontent. We see this in The Holy Bible. Jacob, the Patriarch of Israel, loved Rachel more than his other wives and loved Joseph more than his other children. Even in this household that was favoured by the Almighty, we see that the absence of a level playing field led to wife rising up against wife and brother rising up against brother. This rivalry was not resolved until Joseph gathered his brothers in Egypt and they all talked at his house and cried and embraced each other.

This is what we must also do in Nigeria. As Azikiwe was wont to say “you talk I listen. I talk you listen”.

And let the Maja-Pearces of this world not be deceived into thinking that this conference is a Jonathanian idea. No! The President merely succumbed to the wishes of the people and any leader that resists rather than succumbs to the peoples will may face the peoples wrath.

We watched on television just a few days ago how the people of a state who had previously overwhelmingly voted for a governor almost lynched the same man when he spoke against the convocation of a National Conference. To be sure, their action was condemnable and I totally condemn it. I feel that the collective audience at that gathering ought to tender an apology to that particular governor because irrespective of their feelings, the office must be respected. But there is a lesson to be learned there-a leader that does not have his people following him is only taking a walk.

And many opposition leaders are merely taking a walk in their opposition to the National Conference idea. For one, it is hard to take a leader serious after he had advocated for dialogue with the terrorist Boko Haram sect only to turn round to advocate against Nigerian dialoguing together. Such a leader is not a progressive. The proper term for such a leader is pro-aggressive!

And those who are afraid that a National Conference will lead to the dismemberment of Nigeria have proven that they are, like Maja-Pearce, bad students of history. It is precisely those multi-ethnic nations with tensions and who refused to hold national conferences that ended up dividing. That was the case with the original India, which broke up into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. That was the case with Sudan which broke up into North and South Sudan. And that was the case with the Soviet Union, which first broke up into the Commonwealth of Independent States which eventually became nine separate nations.

However, history records that instead of breaking up, those states which held National Conferences added territory to their nations. For instance, 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 (as President Jonathan has now done) and convoked a National Conference, the reverse became the case. Rather than lose territory, India gained territory with Goa becoming a part of India in 1961.

The idea of a National Conference is a serious matter and should not be trifled with lightly. National cohesion is the objective here and quite truthfully, the idea need not be protected from the likes of Maja-Pearce and those he represents because as history has proven time and again, nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.

B. Reno Omokri is Special Assistant on New Media to President Jonathan.