President Jonathan’s decision to float a national dialogue taps into a number of currents in the Nigerian political subconscious. The first is our eternal quest for elixirs that can magically solve all our problems. Other miracle cures including military dictatorship and democracy have been tested in previous generations. The clamour in some quarters for a sovereign national conference is the latest iteration of this chimerical pursuit. The search for quick fixes to problems that require sustained, rigorous engagement with our institutions continues.
Closely anchored to this is the disillusionment with our fledgling democratic institutions. Nigerians generally approach democracy as intense spurts of quadrennial electoral activism demarcated by lengthy spells of hibernation. We vote for our favoured candidates and then promptly abandon them to their devices once they have doled out patronage as reward for our election season exertions. Civic engagement with our institutions is low. The duty of holding politicians accountable is left to a few civil society groups and activists whom ironically we are wont to condemn as “pesky busy bodies” and “trouble makers.” Politicians mostly relish the dissonance between the political and the public realms because it enables them to pursue priorities that are at variance with popular aspirations. This rift between the political and the public can only be bridged by more engagement with our institutions.
Extra-constitutional devices such as a national conference belong to the scrap heap of obsolete tropes. Expectations of a Marxist revolution, so fashionable in the 1980s, have long since expired with the added spectacle of erstwhile leftist academics taking up tenured positions in capitalist countries. Faith in the military’s potential as an enlightened autocracy was equally dashed. Our democracy, however dysfunctional, is all we have left. Improving it requires a sustained involvement in its processes and systems that transcends election year enthusiasms and extra-constitutional devices.
A sovereign national conference is superfluous. Sovereignty is already vested in the extant democratic institutions. Whatever outcomes pressure groups want must be pursued through conventional democratic channels. This means entering or forming a political party, promoting an agenda, gaining the numbers and the political heft required to translate those agendas into policy.
Those who want a conference of whatever description should use political instruments to achieve their goal instead of trying to create a parallel legislative organ. It is a sign of their own weakness that national conference advocates still wait on a government they malign so much to convene this dialogue rather than organizing it themselves. Too many national conference advocates have failed at the ballot and are aiming for relevance through the backdoor as ethno-nationalist representatives by fabricating political constituencies based on primordial solidarities. In so doing, they try to rhetorically undermine and delegitimize our democratic institutions by alleging that elected politicians do not represent the people.
There is also a conceptual problem with a conference of ethnic nationalities based on the attempt to supplant the social contract defined in the constitution between the state and the citizen with one between the state and so-called ethnic nationalities. This effort to shepherd all of us into ethnic ghettoes to be represented by tribal oligarchs, on the puerile assumption that ethnicity is a predictor of political values, ideology and affinities, is especially reprehensible. It defines us as ethnic drones parroting sectarian shibboleths rather than the free-thinking men and women of good conscience envisaged by the constitution as citizens.
The idea that an expensively convened conclave of big shots can choreograph the destiny of 170 million people is an elitist conceit. The most important dialogues that we should be having right now should be citizen-led at the community and municipal levels. It at these levels that our ability to cooperate, and build social capital have been degraded.
Jonathan’s national dialogue coheres with a tradition of distractive political stagecraft. In ancient Rome, decadent elites plied the citizenry with gladiatorial contests to distract them from the debaucheries of their rulers. Nigerian politicians use committees, panels of inquiry, riveting probes, summits and white papers that are never released, as elaborate soap operas designed to capture public attention and exhaust us emotionally while changing nothing. We prefer the low drama of big budget elite histrionics to the subtle understated rigour of diligently working our institutions. Much spittle and ink will now be squandered on sterile debates at a time when the parlous state of our public finances, unemployment and the paralysis of public healthcare and education, among other serious issues, should command our attention.
In the mid 1980s, General Babangida held a national dialogue over International Monetary Fund conditionalities which were roundly rejected by the public. He made a great show of abiding by public opinion and rejecting the IMF prescriptions only to implement its key tenets under a supposedly “home-grown” structural adjustment programme. Subsequently, he set up a Political Bureau to design a national political blueprint by painstakingly collating memoranda from all over the country. The Bureau’s recommendations were ignored and Newswatch magazine was proscribed for publishing them. This has been the general pattern from Abacha’s constitutional conference and Obasanjo’s Oputa Panel to the Oronsaye Committee report on scaling down government and Obasanjo’s political reform conference – all of whose recommendations are in official limbo. The constitution review process initiated last year has similarly stalled.
A national conference is an expensively contrived waste of time that reflects our penchant for talking ourselves to death when action is required. A more judicious enterprise would be to implement the recommendations of previous conferences and inquiries and even submit them to a plebiscitary process. Taking Nigeria forward requires the political will of those in authority not costly talk shops.
All Images sourced online