It Is Time To Close Ranks On The National Conference
Attorney Aloy Ejimakor
Washington, DC USA.
Time is nigh for Nigerians to close ranks for once and take a bipartisan stand against any further temptations to continue playing hardball politics with the President on the ongoing National Political Reform Conference. The inalienable right of Nigerians to freely assemble and express contrary opinions during periods of great national debates is not served when carried too far to the point of filibustering a critical moment in the country's search for solutions. In pluralist and free polities like ours with a reputation for vibrant national debates, opinions can sometimes range from the very absurd and bizarre to the very politically sensible. It is more like a political prize fight without the violence and blood letting, but with plenty of the laxity of rules. A largely harmless national pastime which comes with such spirited exhibition of political machismo that at the end, leaves Nigerians spent and feeling better about letting it all out. Prize fight or not does not however excuse our very eminent persons whose opinions count for much to bare their knuckles and engage a sitting President in a take-no-prisoners verbal contest over peripheral matters of procedure and settled issues of Nigerian political customs and traditions.
A plain reading of the hard line stance taken by PRONACO and its ilk suggests a surprising lack of awareness of the settled rules of engagement when a national conference is convened during a democracy by a competent President. It is a universal rule of the thumb that you cannot force your own brand of a conference or a particular set of nominees on a de jure President. You can only recommend and lobby but the President is free to embrace or ignore your recommendations. The suggestion that Obasanjo must accede to the conference agenda canvassed by groups like PRONACO is tantamount to asking the President to cede control of the NPRC and Nigeria’s political future to a hardly organized political opposition, the ranks of which are probably infiltrated by those the President believes to be harboring separatist and predatory designs on the federation of Nigeria as we know it. The President’s ramrod maneuvers to stick to his own guns can find support not only in Nigeria but in other societies that have matured in their practice of the system of representative government as we presently have in Nigeria. Outside of the United States Congress, no other assemblage of unelected persons or groups in America, however morally superior, can gather and overawe the President of the United States to convene a “sovereign conference” of racial nationalities – Blacks, Caucasians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Eskimos, Braves, Indians, and perhaps, even their multiracial subgroups. For what purpose, if I may? Is it to decide the future of America or some ambiguous notions of ethnic/racial autonomy or redistribution of resources and political office along those lines? It is just not right, and if you dare suggest such, you may be branded the quintessential wacko and mercilessly caricatured on the circuits of America’s late night television comedy shows. Instead, America uses her constituted legislative and judicial organs and sometimes through sheer executive actions, to make political concessions to minorities on a scale that can hardly pass muster in a politically less conversant court of law. And outside of the constituted political organs, the President of the United States can see fit to appoint a political or economic reform committees (read: conferences) to brainstorm an issue and produce a blueprint that will only become public policy when passed into law by an act of United States Congress. The distinguishing feature of this method, which Nigerians can emulate, is the orderly and phased-in environment it brings to bear on America’s bonafide struggles to tackle its own political and social injustices. One of such is redistricting and gerrymandering through which African Americans have gained more seats in Congress than the natural political equation would have allowed. Nigeria can borrow a leaf by looking to our representative process epitomized by the National Assembly and its state and local counterparts, as well as to the courts and executive branches, howsoever presently underdeveloped and hardly adequate to dispense with similar political, social and economic injustices. Failing this, the President of Nigeria, not PRONACO or even the National Assembly, has the exclusive constitutional right to call a national conference on any issue the President determines to be germane to federal policy making, including the political restructuring of Nigeria.
The number of seats reserved to the Boers in the South African national legislature is greater than the proportion of their population to that of Blacks. But that was done on the good graces of a majority population that knew that such “undemocratic” and unique measures are necessary for the survival of the whole. In our Nigeria, it is a truism as well as politically correct to assert that no ethnic group is greater than the other, but if you were to excise the Niger Delta and parts of South East from the rest of the federation, what is left of Nigeria might begin to queue up alongside Somalia for food rations and charity to keep body and soul together. In other words, our GDP will plummet dangerously to the extent of threatening national security for what remains of Nigeria. Therefore, if Niger Delta or the South East is demanding some special concessions, we need to take a serious view of it and consider whether there is a unique fiscal or political status that can be arranged without endangering our collective security as a federation. Obasanjo's brand of a conference may as yet prove to be the answer, but a "sovereign" conference is hardly necessary in dealing with a matter that Nigerian superior courts have held to be actionable; and failing that, through an orderly process of political horse trading. To be sure, endlessly pillorying Obasanjo in the hope that he will turn chicken and permit some unreasonable demands to hold sway won’t cut it. Even in Britain with its famously wheeling-dealing parliamentary system, you cannot even contemplate a situation where a liberal Tony Blair suddenly turns partisan turncoat by acceding to a conservative manifesto forced on him by estranged Tories wallowing for years in political wilderness. And despite the relative level of political maturity and tolerance in that country, Blair will be crazy to kowtow to the separatist demands of the Irish Republican Army just for the asking, talk less of permitting them and their Gerry Adams the leave and space to dictate national public policy. But he still manages to make concessions to Sein Fenn without compromising national security.
Cooperating with Obasanjo does not necessarily mean that bonafide but unelected citizens cannot raise a contrary voice on matters fundamental to our national governance or reformation. They must be assured the unfettered political space to freely enunciate any new ideas that may redefine the coexistence of our varying nationalities within a pluralist, strong and secure Nigeria. It is good for Nigeria that lively opposition is thriving, but while we at it, we must remember that aside from political conferences, there are myriad orderly and procedurally compliant ways of forcing changes from the outside, and one of such is to get your federal legislator to introduce a bill for a constitutional amendment or other form of vital legislation before the National Assembly; or even look to the judicial branch. A case in point is the judicial and legislative means deployed to resolve the “derivation” set asides and its close relative, the onshore/offshore dichotomy. It did not require a “sovereign” conference that would have been hamstrung by the vast majorities from the North which have gone on record to note their vigorous objections and discomfort with the Southern position on resource control. On the contrary, it took the right mix of covert political maneuverings among the executive branches, an activist Supreme Court, and a surprisingly conversant National Assembly to arrive at a solution that even found grudging support in the restive far North. Conversely, it is a generally accepted strategy that you can jettison decorum, settled procedures, and political customs and take extreme measures to overawe a dictator without a National Assembly, and whose reign is tottering on the slippery slopes of the unconstitutionality of his coming. “Radio Kudirat” was the height of this, all to the admiration and support of Nigerians and the international community. But even at that, it would have been politically dumb and illogical to boycott a conference merely because it was convened by an illegal government such as the Abacha regime of the days gone. Why? Because participation is your best legal opportunity yet of engaging the dictator on his own turf with any fighting chance of presenting ideas that might force some concessions from him. After all, Nigerians gratefully, even if grudgingly cooperate and participate in all the conferences convened by all the “illegal” regimes that have been our lot since amalgamation, beginning with the many by the colonial masters and culminating in the most recent by Abacha’s regime, arguably the “mother” of all illegal administrations. Had we boycotted Britain’s invitations to the conferences that saw to our independence, they might have as well relinquished reigns of government to the Martians in frustration and left us to own devices to deal with the anarchy that was sure to follow. Ditto for apartheid-era South Africa if ANC and Mandela had rebuffed De Klerk’s overtures, or attempted to impose their will, Marxist manifesto or ideologues on a politically insecure De Klerk. Yet, we would as soon scoff at a conference convened at the sufferance of a President with a democratic mandate to govern. It rankles as much as it frays raw nerves that men of renown who should know better have banded together to deny Mr. President his rare moment of history, and our well earned quietude in democratizing a complex country like Nigeria after all the traumas perpetrated by our reluctant dalliance with military regimes. It is good enough to debate issues of material fact but bad to throw up a national ruckus and a frivolous case and controversy on collateral matters with such reckless abandon that can potentially portend some unintended peril for the entire polity. It is asking too much to expect Obasanjo to sideline himself in a process that may well engender a new era of a serious and sustainable political realignment of Nigeria. And that he even appointed some of his avowed political opponents, who are intent on embarrassing the President by refusing to serve, is pressing their luck too far, and smacks of an inept attempt to court a national gridlock simply because of a conference the President is not even constitutionally mandated to convene. Any rookie pundit barely familiar with the history of the beginnings of organized governments of our generation is wont to agree that no sane chief executive, whether de facto or de jure, will stand by and permit a few unelected citizens, some with fine ideas but a load of animus to exclude him, his favorite conferees or his agenda from a conference primarily convened to decide the future of his country.
Some have even cited the less than free and fair election that saw Mr. President to power to press their hackneyed case that Obasanjo lacks the requisite legitimacy or clear mandate to convene the conference. Who then possesses that authority? Is it the hastily formed but largely mainstream PRONACO, or the numerous off the wall fringe groups? It is writ large from their serious mien and self-righteous inflections that they really believe that the President’s purportedly questionable electoral victory can easily justify a position that practically amounts to convening a constituent assembly or a parallel national assembly that can go over the heads of all constituted organs of government including the present National Assembly. Quite frankly, this is troubling. The whole shenanigan as well as the spirited battle over semantics and nuances like “sovereign” and “conference of nationalities” tempts the very sad conclusion that rather than contribute meaningfully to the political process, the postulates coming from some our leaders have this peevish tendency of "dumbing" down the intellectual content of the ongoing national debate. What nationalities; how many nationalities, nobody even really knows for sure. Or is it that a small tribe numbering in handfuls like the one recently discovered in the remote reaches of northern Nigeria is less of a nationality than any of the Big Three, or better still, equal to them in terms of sovereignty? From what I hear, I doubt that anybody who dares to forage into their reclusive kingdom to lobby their participation will come out with his vital members still intact unless the President’s policemen were handy to save the day. The case for the conference to be sovereign pointedly ignores the stark constitutional reality that Obasanjo alone is the President of Nigeria as a matter of law and fact. This fact, without more, is leverage enough to make sham of any opposite confab and render its deliberations nugatory from the get go, if it is not considered by many as a threat to national security. It is therefore a no contest that compared to PRONACO and its genre, Obasanjo has the exclusive constitutional prerogative to call a conference that will have any hope of passing legal or legislative muster within the laws and political conventions of Nigeria. It is pertinent to note that the international community has collectively deadpanned on the call for the conference to be "sovereign", and unlike the Abacha era, rebuffed all indirect pleas for even a tacit approbation or goading of that view. This reticence may have more to do with their anxiety over whether this whole debate may be carried too far to the detriment of Sub-Saharan regional stability than with any sense that the present system in Nigeria is fair and just.
For good measure and I suspect, sheer political theater, others have continued to rail against the process of nomination of the conferees, and will rather the whole thing be disbanded instead of weighing in with their strong personalities to see whether they can make the list and deal with the President from the inside. Some who made the list despite the darts they threw at the President are still sitting on the fence and threatening a boycott, the certain effect of which is that the Conference will proceed without the benefit of their personage and the gamut of the alternative ideas they fancied to carry superior moral force. Why is it so hard to come to grips with the cold fact that since the conference is a political battle for the future of Nigeria, the President as a citizen in good standing has a concurrent right to project his own views as vigorously as he sees fit. Others can do likewise but everyone else needs to permit the President some space and wiggle room to set the ball rolling. You never know, but the whole thing might blossom and slide out of his enormous capacity for micro management but still produce a popular result that roughly agrees with his political philosophy and agenda in its impact, if not in semantic uniformity. Bill Clinton would have been nuts to invite the extreme right wing and neoconservatives to his “conference” on health care reforms, which he called a “committee” because that is the word Americans love to use to categorize their political or public policy dialogues. The man even waxed unashamedly nepotistic by appointing his own spouse, the indefatigable and much despised Hilary as the chairperson for what was then known as the Health Care Reform Committee. The subsequent political storm over the Committee was not over the nominations of the ranks of its membership or nuances but with the substance and reach of its recommendations. In other words, nobody, including the ultra-right wing opposition disputed Clinton’s legal or constitutional right to convene the committee and nominate members to it. And you can bet your Naira on it that he seemingly rubbed in his prerogatives by stacking the ranks with card-carrying members of America’s ultra-left liberal establishment. The absence of too much storm over the political leanings of the nominees was primarily due to the fact that the opposition understood that the committee was Clinton’s temporal means of delivering his campaign promise of assuring some form of universal health care system for the American people. They instead waited to unsheathe their political sword at the right place, and that place is the United States Congress. That the recommendations ultimately failed to pass is one of the fallouts and beauties of the presidential system of government which requires a federal legislation before such recommendations become state policy. Therefore, despite the shortcomings of our own, we must play by the rules of the game by looking to our National Assembly, howsoever docile, as the proper venue and battle ground for testing the acceptability of any new ideas coming from Obasanjo’s conference. We elected the National Assembly to make laws for us, and in the absence of any superior tier, we must learn to accept the reality that it is the sole national legislative body for now.
Alternatively, if you are credible and sufficiently persuasive to get the President to see your point outside of the conference halls, you might as well consider it passed because, as every one agrees, the man enjoys enormous powers and clout with all organs and tiers of government which has enabled him to accomplish some fundamental restructurings that Nigerians never even contemplated possible a few years ago. And Obasanjo is not even the originator of some of the agenda he has so far implemented to date. And the list is legion. Restructuring of the Nigerian armed forces to reduce the capacity of a single region or ethnic block to politically disadvantage others was first muted by Ojukwu in relatively good times before Gowon’s flip flop emboldened a politically courageous Ojukwu to demand more at Aburi. Our present experiment with privatization and direct foreign investment was initially articulated by IBB’s assemblage of the eminent economists and industrialists who labored to write new economic blueprints for Nigeria. Derivation set asides and limited resource control in their present form for the Niger Delta are the main reasons Adaka Boro rose up in arms against the federal government; and more than three decades later, his dreams, though watered down, came to pass. And the idea of due process is a political mantra of informed Nigerians in Diaspora, especially those in the United States, who have seen its many budgetary advantages and the sanity it brought to American public spending. It was Ralph Uwazuruike, the MASSOB maestro and Nigeria’s poster child for separatism who presented the best case yet for restoration of some of the military benefits denied to Nigerian soldiers who fought for Biafra, and then some, including the impressive statistical means he deployed to prove a pattern of redlining Ibos from certain federal high offices. Yet Obasanjo, in a benign plagiarism of high ideals propagated by others, has implemented them all, lock, stock, and barrel without minding that a great deal of these concepts originated from some elements of the extreme wings of the opposition that he detests. Looking at the foregoing trend, one can hazard a guess that this conference might be Obasanjo’s own unique way of sounding out Nigerians of grand ideas for new programs to implement before he becomes a lame duck.
Whether you agree or disagree with his overbearing ways of going about it is a matter for an academic argument over personal styles of deploying presidential powers to get things done. Bill Clinton and JFK used their charm, oratorical skills, and animal appeal to women to overwhelm a conservative America and paved the way for the success of their liberal presidential agenda. Reagan and W. Bush, despite their lack of familiarity with public policy and the name of the Premier of China are generally believed to be effective in the use of simple Texan or Yankee swash and swagger to have their way not only with their fellow Americans, but also with the erstwhile “evil empire” and the present “axis of evil”. Our own Obasanjo may not be hip and "cool" but he has this patriarchal bent of an old warrior who goes about the business of government with a combative style that leaves his critics panting and ducking for cover. Even outside our shores, he has used this with resounding success when he so intimidated some military officers of a small coastal West Africa nation to the point that they ran from their new found power with their tails in between their legs. Well, a presidential system of government is like a box of chocolates. And as the Americans say: “You never know what you are gonna get”. We chose it. So we must live it. I believe that the generality of Nigerians were conscious of this when they chose this system over all others because they wanted their chief executive to have the enormous powers that ruling a complex and diverse society like our requires.
Analyzed further, this conference is, in some less obvious ways an attempt by Mr. President to leave a legacy of sorts or to put it more bluntly, to restructure Nigeria "after his own image”. And what is wrong with that? After all, this has been the case from the beginning of constitutional democracy as we know it – right from the original concepts espoused by the founding fathers of United States to the present day attempt by George W. Bush to not only restructure America, but the whole world order to boot. The ranks of the first Continental Congress of the United States were a mixture of state delegates nominated by the governors of the constituent states and a federal delegation with "federalist" credentials handpicked on the political whims and instincts of America’s federal leaders of the time. They were serious men with a keen sense of history who made no bones about their common intention to create a strong and indivisible United States amid their sharp and differing notions on state rights. And all other ensuing national dialogues by whatever name called that were convened at various epochs in that checkered era, up until the Emancipation and beyond were controlled by the very bold federalists who dominated the national governments of the day, and not by those ardent critics of the federal experiment whose true intentions became clearer when they called to arms and levied war against the United States. Back in motherland Nigeria, the ideological structuring of the West by the visionary and bullheaded Awolowo left a fine political template that continues to power the policies of succeeding governments in that region to this day. The Asian Tigers, such as Korea and Taiwan prospered under similar national restructuring plans emanating from conferences guided by the firm hand of leaders like Obasanjo with seemingly unyielding views on nation building and impatience for the niceties and fine points of political manners. And such leaders seem to have other traits in common: They were policy wonks through and through, and overly vigilant on matters of national security and cohesion. As an incumbent, Obasanjo is the sole gatekeeper to the hallowed halls of the Conference, and if you want to get in there to bring your views to bear, you have got to get him to let you by. It is so sad and sometimes depressing to some, but that is just the way it is.
Alternatively, you can contribute to the deliberations from without by following quasi-parliamentary protocols to avail the Conference with your views in hard copy. I doubt that the conferees will ignore a written submission laid before them by a Soyinka or an Enahoro, and even the eloquent Ojukwu, whose own submission will surely outshine all others in both presentation and substance. Even a viscerally stubborn Obasanjo will take presidential notice thereof, and he has already shown early promise and uncommon democratic mien by nominating two of these distinguished Nigerians to the ranks of the Conference delegates. Ignoring all these and resorting to issuing acerbic press releases and grandstanding before an adversarial press won’t cut it but will only mar credibility and motives, and strengthen the President’s lone ranger status and moral authority on hot button issues like the indivisibility of Nigeria and resource control. And whenever the President looks this good or gets politically burnished by default, well intentioned contrary opinions from men and women of goodwill begin to sound like shrill catcalls and filibuster. And that is when Nigerians begin to polarize and obfuscate to the greater likelihood of yet another deadlock on issues that a more civil debate and responsible political behavior from our statesmen would have dispensed with without breaking much sweat. The alternative, which is to permit PRONACO to proceed with a “sovereign” conference of “nationalities” is pretty scary, to say the least. Look at what happened to Soviet Union after a politically weak and overly idealistic Gorbachov allowed his fine political restructuring agenda to slip from his control into the hands of ethnic nationalists like Yeltsin, and pseudo-democrats from the Balkans and the other outlying possessions in Soviet Asia. They banded together like “braves-in-council” and marooned poor Gorbachov to the lonely grandeur of the Kremlin from where he reigned over the escalating ruins around him like a puppet. The pros and cons of Soviet disintegration are besides the point here. What really counts is the anarchic dimension it later assumed under Gorbachov’s watch, the global vacuum that came forth in its wake, and most importantly, the Soviet-wide nostalgia for a return to the old order after the "cookie crumbled". Do we really want Nigeria to break up just like that? Even if some of us want Nigeria to break up, we should not expect Mr. President who swore to defend the constitution to unwittingly cheer us on. That will be an impeachable offense, if you will; or barring that, a bizarre act of political self immolation. That he even wants a conference is very telling that he truly cares about the future of Nigeria.
We have had certain moments in Nigerian history when national conferences of similar coloration and “no go” areas unexpectedly produced some results Nigerians later applauded. Despite all his faults, Abacha gave us a conference or a constituent assembly that produced the concept of the six geopolitical zones, thanks to his number one threat at the time, Chief Ekwueme, who agreed to participate despite his well founded reservations. That Abacha projected his own views and nominees much more vigorously and dangerously than Obasanjo is stating the obvious. I do not believe that the jury is still out on the verdict that the six-zonal structure is the best yet of all prior attempts Nigerians had made to have a semblance of a widely accepted political formula that brought some order in the distribution of federal political largesse from top to down. That tens of disparate tribes and tongues in the South-South can now gather under one political umbrella to demand the Presidency with one voice is a better weapon against the cankerworm of ethnicism than the several doses of state creation standing alone. You may disagree with IBB and his complex political models, but his own conference(s) or bureaus gave Nigeria a two-party system that saw the best election this nation had ever conducted since the McPherson Constitution. I doubt if Abiola would have made it if he had had other fringe parties eating away at his core base in both the North and South, and costing him a few critical election-winning votes. After all, it took the absentee ballots of a few American GIs on overseas tour of duty and a handful “butterfly ballots”, or “hanging chards”, and a partisan Ms. Harris for Bush to clinch the election against Gore. Sometimes it can be a close shave like that, but rather that than the contentious and obscenely overwhelming margins of our own. Contrast the two-party Nigeria with the legalized multi-party system of post-IBB Nigeria. Is contemporary Nigeria not quickly becoming a one-party structure in practice, if not at law? Is that not telling enough that Nigerians are by political behavior averse to multiplicity of parties? Yet when IBB claims that he understands what Nigerians truly desire, some people still laugh him off as presumptuous. Any candid pundit, however anti-establishment is likely to agree that there is now a widespread and ethnically neutral nostalgia for the brief political order and predictability enjoyed by the nation during the halcyon days of IBB’s two-party interregnum. It is beyond the scope of this discourse to dwell on the legalities of annulling the subsequent election, the result of which was most probably singularly made possible because only two parties were allowed contest. The pertinent point is that Obasanjo’s own conference might produce a similar surprise, even if of a different impact, but one with ramifications that may well comport with the true wishes of Nigerians from differing political and ethnic divides. That Obasanjo wishes to redline some people and their issues and force some cohesion and orderly conduct reveals a genuine concern he has long harbored for the future of Nigeria. And it is his duty to do so. That he stretched an olive branch to his tormentors strengthens the proposition that the man has the requisite character and fitness to govern even handedly. Even when he clambers at it, you still "gotta" give it to him for mostly scoring a perfect ten in managing to slitter through the many mines and inanities that litter our political landscape.
It makes a lot of political sense and bespeaks of uncommon spunk to have a leader like Obasanjo who does not blink from taking strong responsibility for the future of his nation. And what better way to do this than to convene a national political conference that will give him the forum and quasi-legal cover to bring the rest of his programs to some fruition. Recall that Obasanjo is not handing down a decree of sorts, or careening some half-baked bill through an arguably discredited and neutered National Assembly. Rather, he is bringing people with complex personalities together to discuss the future of Nigeria, and as should be expected, not the dismemberment of Nigeria. Or would you rather he presents the Conference with terms of reference that included some outlines on dismemberment of Nigeria? See how that sounds? Not good, right? That he desires to influence the course and content of deliberations or contribute indirectly to it by appointing some men of similar political leaning or “verified federalists” like him is merely presidential and should be acknowledged as such, pure and simple. To do the opposite will be politically irresponsible because unelected men without any privities to security reports will have a field day attempting to constitute themselves into a de facto constituent assembly (read: "sovereign conference") to decide the future of Nigeria within the narrow purview common with anti-establishment organizations. Such extremes can only be expected to occur in anarchic polities, such as we saw in the former Eastern Bloc nations after the fall of Soviet Union; or in blood-letting revolutions like the Bolshevik garden variety in Russia. The Romanov Czar of the era was not a bad man but he allowed Lenin much leeway, and paid with his life and that of his children. Another way of looking at this whole issue is to fancy pressuring a William Jefferson Clinton to invite renegade bands of Klansmen and Black Panthers to jaw-jaw on the issue of race relations in America across the street from the White House. If you are domiciled in the continental United States, you might as well gather your loved ones and take a quick transatlantic hike back to motherland Nigeria in advance of the conflagration that must occur when men of such diametrically opposed and non-mainstream views are convened to talk it out. Nigeria has not come to that point of degeneration yet, and I do not believe that Nigerians will intentionally attempt to restructure their country through such potentially regressive and mischievous mode of conferencing, or even tolerate a leader who permits that to happen. But should a popular uprising for revolutionary change arise some day, even an Obasanjo with all his famous political skills and all the apparatus of coercion under his command and control cannot prevent it. If he tries, some very bad banana pills will sure be waiting for him. Consider that despite his sub-continental dreams, Nehru could not prevent the partition of India largely because the time was right.
Therefore, we should not by instinct be too wary of Nigerian federalists of the Canadian genre, or “amalgamationists” - my “Nigerianese” coinage and parlance, if you will, for describing people like Obasanjo and many others who continue to espouse a ramrod commitment to the concept of "One Nigeria" with a strong center, so much that will make Lord Lugard and the Great Zik smile from their mausoleums with admiration and pride. You can also call them “centralists”, but certainly not “unitarist” like the overly idealistic and sadly misunderstood great general, Aguiyi-Ironsi. In a uniquely heterogeneous society like Nigeria, men like these can also be the best guarantors of state or regional autonomy, real or watered down. They tend to be politically smart enough to reckon that some form of state or regional autonomy is both necessary and expedient to the survival of any federation as complex and populous as ours. Whether that autonomy is more of a fiscal or political nature is merely a matter of ideology and political concessions. And compared to those with the opposite view, federalists are the ones with the credibility to deal effectively with the divisive issue of devolution of real power between the center and its constituent units. In the United States, it was the federalists, not their opposites - the confederates or separatists who saw fit and also had the requisite clout to pass the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This Amendment and a few others like it relinquished autonomy to the states on certain fundamental matters that Nigerian regionalists or even separatists cannot even presently contemplate. One of such is the autonomy of the states to exclusively control law enforcement within their own territory, except for offenses committed within the clear jurisdictional reach of federal authorities, or in other words, on federal property; or other offenses that border on commercial intercourse between the federating states, such as wire fraud. Thus, between "suspected" regionalists like Odumegwu-Ojukwu or Musa Ahmed Yerima on the one hand, and "trusted" federalists like Obasanjo or Orji Uzor Kalu on the other, who will make a more credible or less threatening case for the establishment of state police? If the operative word is “credible”, then Nigerians, especially the establishment class might as well dismiss such case as malicious and mischievous if presented by the former, but benign and patriotic if made by the later. You will as soon hear many say “Ojukwu wants state police as a ruse to bring back Biafra” and “Yerima wants a state police that will defend his Sharia dreams”. And then conversely, that “Obasanjo or Orji Uzor wants state police for a stronger and indivisible federal Nigeria because they hold the concept of One Nigeria to be self evident and inviolable”. See what I mean? It is a no brainer after all. And there is more.
The Sarduana declined a legal right and a very tempting political opportunity to become the federal Premier in 1960 because he was politically smart and considerate enough to reckon that the South was too uncomfortable with his notions on regional autonomy. He instead sent Tafawa Balewa, less of an icon but unquestionably, a federalist to the core, with whom the South found a comfort level. Igbo army officers led by Odumegwu-Ojukwu (surprised?) who held the fate of Nigeria in their hands after the fall of Balewa gathered to not only lead the second "coup" that prevented Nzeogwu from ruling Nigeria but rallied behind Aguiyi-Ironsi because they figured that the other regions, as restive as they were, deemed Nzeogwu to be an ethnic champion as contrasted to Aguiyi-Ironsi’s federalist or centralist record, though he later turned unitarist with tragic consequences. These fine officers were Igbos with ethnic sentiments running strong in their veins but they quickly overcame that to pursue a goal that put the entire nation first. If not for the suspicious "secessionist" flag the impresario Murtala was flying at full mast on the grounds of the military cantonment from whence he launched his successful "third" coup”, Gowon, the Northern Christian minority and federalist by comparison would not have had a chance at the top job. He was the best and probably the only senior officer of Northern extraction of the era his region could offer the rest of Nigeria to prove that they were not on a course for ethnic cleansing and serious about national reconciliation. Umaru Dikko, the avowed regionalist as well as the NPN frontrunner for the Nigerian Presidency made the South so queasy and electability so uncertain that a junior scion and neophyte in the person of Shagari got lucky and had his meteoric rise to federal power, largely on account of his perceived centralist or federalist appeal. One of the best kept secrets on the motivation for overthrowing Buhari was because he appointed a fellow Northerner and a Muslim to boot as his deputy, which without more, placed him under perennial suspicion as a "log cabin" regional champion. This is partly why Nigerians of great political intellect like Awolowo, Bola Ige, and Odumegwu-Ojukwu have had a hard time trying to be “anointed” to rule Nigeria. Nigerians may carry on with lively debates and animated calls for ethnic autonomy or even secession but when the opportunity truly presents itself they abandon ship and hanker down to the better collective security offered by national unity and strong federal government. Without appearing to exclude other reasons, this is why the Hausas who were the forerunners of secession quickly backpedaled to battle against it, and the Yorubas and other minor parts demurred in tow, leaving Igbos out in the cold feeling guilty and finessed to this day. Colonial history will bear them out that of all the contending tribes in Nigeria of the time, the Igbos were the ones most committed to the concept of “One Nigeria”, and were the last ones to ever advocate the dismemberment of the country. But a puzzling twist in historical revisionism has continued to unfairly stigmatize and profile them as pathological secessionists to be exclusively redlined from “real” federal power. But let us leave Igbos for a moment and consider the extent the gains made by the South-South both on the political arena and the courts of the land on derivation, resource control, and onshore/offshore dichotomy would have been possible without the tacit nod of a pragmatic Obasanjo, who deployed his stellar federalist credentials to assuage the concerns of our Northern brethren. Again, contrast that with the paltry appropriations he gruffly set aside for the oil producing states during his first coming as a military Head of State, and then see whether you will not reconsider your present assessment that the man is unresponsive to changing political tides. He is responsive indeed but he goes about it with such endearing lack of elegance to the point of driving some men of even temperament crazy enough to jettison their good political manners and congregate to obstruct and dare him needlessly.
Some may dismiss Obasanjo as lacking vision, forgetting too soon that "vision", like "inspiration" can come at any time – just like a wellspring sprouting forth without any forewarnings. George H. Bush was dismissed as lacking the "vision thing" and political will to boot (a wimp, if you wanted to be rude) until Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait compelled a rethink of global proportions. Other leaders like Gorbachov and Shah of Iran who blinked and “wimped out" or took their reforms too far succeeded only in undermining central power and leaving their nations and the world order in tatters. Kennedy’s belated vision of a truly desegregated America brought skeptical white men around to supporting the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thus federalizing an issue which was until then a proper and exclusive matter for state and county policy making. And long after Kennedy’s death; the ripple effects of the integrationist (or federalist, if you will) policy he pursued with much vigor and gusto compelled ardent racial champions and other closet supremacists in the Dixie belt to reform themselves and change retrograde Jim Crow views they held steadfast for over five hundred years. It was the ultimate rapture of sorts inspired by one man who stirred benign passions in the hardened hearts of men all because he went about it with an uncommon commitment, grit, and a sense of messianic call to duty. The difference between him and Obasanjo is in style and visage, and women loved Kennedy more. History is replete with identical instances when the vision of one leader, and the actions (speak “conference”) he engineered or inspired took root and trickled down to produce fundamental shifts in a nation’s future for the better. Looking at his overall record, is it really true that Obasanjo lacks the "vision thing"? Consider his record on the restructuring of the armed forces, his record on due process, and his record on direct foreign investment, and contrast that with what was the case before his first inauguration.
A lot of people seemed to have too easily forgotten that it was the same Obasanjo who risked Iraqi-type sanctions by expropriating foreign multinational holdings in Nigeria much to the collective consternation of the West, which as soon pardoned him and Nigeria when he seized a moment in history to hand over to a democratically elected government. And he went on to garner more political capital in retirement to the extent that he looked set to become the first African Secretary General of United Nations. That says a lot about the man. It may be sad, yet intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that to much of the rest of the world and among a vast number of Nigerians, Obasanjo is evolving into one of the most effective leaders the federation of Nigeria has produced since its inception, at least in terms of political engineering. You can disagree but you can at least grudgingly concede that the man has political skills so stark and consummate that it is increasingly becoming too difficult to ignore. That his political skills may as yet sire the rudiments of policy shifts upon which the solution to some of our intractable problems will be predicated is one reason he needs understanding, if not cooperation of Nigerians at these trying times. He needs especially the understanding and proactive help of those Nigerians like the ones in PRONACO who are equally endowed; otherwise his fall or frustration may not augur well for the orderly development of our democratic process. It is true that, sometimes, the man Obasanjo is like a moving train with a cargo mix of explosives and bounty. If you live within his trail or neighborhood, you better duck for cover, or spike his trail with myriad gauntlets to your peril. But on the present issue, he has shown some gentility and predictability that should serve to reassure skeptics. Most importantly, Nigerians need to remember that it is the same Obasanjo who had, before now, stridently opposed any National Conference in any shape or form that is suddenly so inspired that he is clamoring and fighting so hard to have one. That he wants a conference now shows that he is indeed a "visionary", even if somewhat of a late bloomer at that. The man needs a break. He needs understanding, and he deserves his day with history. He does not deserve these growing pains, baits, and trials by fire. Those who are now opposing his methods and questioning his motives should go back and read his speeches and see for themselves what views he long held on the instant issue before now. It is only then they will begin to understand that this man may mean well after all. Let us permit him his conference, warts and all, and then see where the wind will blow. If you are a political realist and pragmatic to boot, you will agree that Nigerians really don’t have any other choice. As in “Shaft”, the epic remake starring Samuel Jackson, I ask “Can you dig it”?
Attorney Aloy Ejimakor
1717 K Street, NW Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036