I elected to preface this article with this quotation from the address of the then presidential candidate of the APC at Chatham House. His avowed commitment to democratic governance including his take on peaceful political change, convinced a number of sceptics and paved his way at his fourth attempt to Aso Rock, the seat of power in Nigeria.
A few weeks ago, 21 – 28 September, 2017, Chatham House London, once again, served as the center stage for serious political discussion on Nigeria. The Chatham House conversation, as I have called the event, took place against the backdrop of strident calls for political restructuring of the country and the military show of force in the South East Zone dubbed Operation Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II). The wanton killings of young Nigerians by soldiers of the Nigerian army, the gory sights of unbridled brutalization of innocent civilians and the seeming militarization of the Nigerian democratic process, made the conversation very urgent.
The significance of the Chatham House lectures in the current democratic dispensation in Nigeria cannot be ignored. The platform has been used for major political pronouncements and to bring up issues that needed to be discussed away from the boisterous and volatile political environment in Nigeria.
I commend the organizers of the Chatham House conversation on Nigeria, for taking up the challenge of providing a serene platform away from the ethnic and religious rancour that obfuscate our national political conversation. The choice of the two guest speakers, Governor Nasir El Rufai of Kaduna State and Chief Nnia Nwodo, President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo can be deduced from the fact that they represent sections of the federation that their narratives are misunderstood in the current conversation on the political future of Nigeria.
The Chatham House Conversation on Restructuring.
Governor El Rufai and Chief Nnia Nwodo, at their separate appearances, used the platform to lay out the perspectives of their various constituencies on the future of Nigeria. For the President General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, it was an opportunity to counter the combative secessionist narrative championed by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), which had earned Ndigbo a rebellious toga. That toga had been used to discredit Ndigbo and to threaten them with a Quit Notice from the Northern parts of Nigeria. It was equally for Governor El Rufai, an opportunity to dispel the conservative and anti-reformist perception of the North, which it had garnered through its resistance for restructuring in the country.
Both speakers in their presentations agreed that Nigeria as presently constituted was under performing and needed to be restructured for better performance. They agreed on the need for the devolution of more power to the state governments and a central government with fewer responsibilities. They, however, differed fundamentally on their approaches to the process and format the restructuring would take.
Governor Rufai argued that the devolution of power and responsibility to the state government does not have to be a constitutional or legislative process. He cited the handover of federal roads to some state governments including the Kaduna State government as indicative of an ongoing non constitutional process. He also, in his capacity as Chair of the APC Committee on true federalism, endorsed the government’s position that the National and State Assemblies should be the organs for the constitutional reforms.
The Ohaneze’s position, centered on a return to the federalist tenets, based primarily on the devolution of powers and fiscal federalism as enshrined in the 1960/9163 Republican Constitution. Chief Nwodo also canvassed for the cognate relationship between the central and the state governments and a readjustment of the regional centers preferably along the six geopolitical zone structure. Intrinsically linked to this position is the abrogation of the 1999 constitution. The new constitution envisioned from this approach will be a product of a national conference/dialogue in which the various ethnic nationalities in Nigeria will be convened to negotiate their corporate existence.
Other Regional/Zonal Interventions
Before the Chatham House conversation, the South West zone had earlier on issued the Ibadan Declaration. The document stated that Nigeria as presently constituted was under performing and urgently needed to be restructured. The South West also called for a return to the devolution of powers and fiscal federalism enshrined in the 1960/1963 Republican constitution. The South West also recommended the realignment of states along the six geopolitical zones structure and called for a new constitution that would be negotiated through a national dialogue. In essence, they also endorsed and called for the discontinued use of the 1999 constitution for the governance of the country.
It was my expectation that the Chatham House conversation will pave the way for others who also have significant stakes in the Nigerian polity, to lend the weight of their voices on this important national discourse. That expectation was met.
Asiwaju Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, led the way in this regard. In his keynote address to the Old Boys Association of Kings College, Lagos, Senator Bola Tinubu espoused his views on the political future of Nigeria. His unequivocal support for a restructured Nigeria to make it work better for its citizens, is significant for the reason that he is a very important political figure at both the national and regional levels. His membership of the ruling party and his position therein make his views very weighty. So also is his support for the return to the devolution of powers as enshrined in the Republican Constitution of 1960/63 as a practical way forward. Pastor Tunde Bakare, erstwhile running mate of President Buhari under the CPC also supported the restructuring process and outlined a 10 year transition process to make room for the building of trust and confidences and amongst the various ethnic nationalities, as well as, stable systems to support the process.
Other Groups in the North Central and South South zones have also voiced their support for the need to make Nigeria work and function better. The South South zone remains strident in the call for resource control and the Middle Belt are focused on regionalism to separate them from the core Northern Region. Interestingly, the Northern Elders Forum have at their meeting of 11th October, 2017, also joined in calling for the restructuring of the country. They voiced their support for devolution of more powers to the states but endorsed the retention of the current constitution. They also used the occasion to state unequivocally that the north was not averse to the restructuring of the country and to dispel the toga of conservatism and anti- reform hung on the North.
The outcome of the Chatham House conversations and the statements of key political figures across the country have had positive impact on the national conversation. The pronouncements of other stakeholders including the volte face of the Northern Elders Forum point to a consensus of views across the Nigerian political spectrum. The contending and divisive issue revolve largely around how the process of a restructured Nigeria can be achieved. There is surely no doubt that given the various viewpoints that the way forward can only emerge from a national dialogue and negotiations.
The President as Moderator, Mediator, Conciliator and Consoler–in–Chief
The calls for constitutional change, even in their most strident and vociferous forms, should be contextualized within the broad and complex process of consolidating our fledgling democratic institutions and processes.
These calls beckon on the President as Mediator, Moderator Conciliator, Consoler and Commander – in – Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to convene a national dialogue to discuss the future of the country. The President should not be persuaded by the linear recommendations being proffered that a clamp down on these yearnings for change and inclusiveness is the only way of upholding the Nigerian state. Pitting one group against the other, or rewarding/commending one group while admonishing the other, is equally not advisable given the present tense political situation. There are enough agents provocateurs across the national landscape and there is need to shield the President from unwittingly assuming that role.
What the nation needs at this point is political renewal, inclusiveness, economic growth, as well as healing and conciliation. This is the time for the President to live up to his self-professed avowal to the lofty ideals of leadership, democracy and peaceful change. History beckons on the President as Commander, Mediator, Mediator, Conciliator, Consoler –in Chief of the Federation to convene, given the national mood for renewal, a national dialogue to chart the future of our beloved country.