Northern or National Conference?

Despite pretensions in some quarters, Nigeria is really sick and would require a dose of varying therapies to recover. No matter how we try to paper over the endemic malaise, the foreboding realities are manifest in increasing evidence of disenchantment by the component units with what the federation holds for them.

There are palpable feelings that the government at the centre has proved innately deficient in delivering equitably. This is not entirely new. Such feelings have been the motivating force for agitations for national conference or its sovereign variant. They also account for the resurgence of ethnic-nationalism and religion-induced strife. Ironically, at each stage a conference was about to be convened, you will find sections still opposing it for one reason or the other. That was the experience of the National Conference organized by the last administration.

Since the Buhari regime, we have witnessed discordant tones regarding what his government should make of the recommendations of that outing. While some have called for its implementation, others especially from the north want that document thrown into the dustbin. There are some others who would want Buhari to take a dispassionate look at the document with a view to adopting its recommendations with higher prospects of moving the country forward. Such has been the level of dissonance.

But a new dimension was introduced into the matter last week when a group of northern leaders under the name, Northern Re-awakening Group (NRG) came out boldly to call for another national conference to specifically address problems of the north-east zone that has been the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency and other parts of the north. Not only do they want another national conference, they would have nothing to do with the one convened by Jonathan on the ground that he had a different agenda for setting it up. Ironically also, many of the prime movers of the NRG were participants in that conference.

In a communiqué after their summit and retreat with the theme “Rebuilding a safe, secure and economically inclusive Northern Nigeria”, the NRG sought to justify its demand on the alleged marginalization of the north with statistics of the disparities in development levels of the north and the south.

According to them, while the north has the highest number of people below $2 per day, a 2013 World Bank Report showed that poverty in 16 out of the 19 northern states doubled since 1980. They said that the north has the lowest literacy rate in the country and while Lagos posted 92 per cent, Kano has 49 and Borno trailing with less 15 per cent. In terms of the number of boys and girls that are out of school, they said 65 per cent northern boys and 53 of the girls are not in school as against 20 per cent for the South-east.

Ostensibly, the bandied disparities in development indices are meant to persuade the public to the desirability of convoking another national conference to specifically address the marginalization of the north. The NRG is within its rights to highlight the problems of the north and seek solutions to them. That was the purpose of the retreat. And it accounted for the dignified attendance it attracted including the presence of Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo and no less than five northern governors among others.

Their resolve for a national conference is an admission that all is not well with the country and some fundamental changes are imperative to effectively tap into the innate potentials of its disparate peoples. That point cannot be discounted. But the advocacy for another national conference and the reasons adduced for it are flawed on many grounds.

First, it is not clear whether what the group wants is a northern conference or a national conference. A proper reading of their presentation, suggests they want a conference attended by all sections of the country to solely address challenges from the north. Conceived this way, it is a northern conference that will draw the participation of other Nigerians. That is where the problem lies. The failure to resolve this conceptual lacuna did incurable damage to whatever they intended to achieve by their call. It is patently childish and amateurish to conceive of a national conference that will set out solely to address problems of a section of the country to the exclusion of others. Such a weird advocacy is a recipe for confusion and unmitigated disaster.

Secondly, there is no problem that is found in one part of the country that has no variant in other parts. One is therefore at a loss to fathom how any person in his right senses would ignore a holistic perspective to national problems in preference to a sectional handle that stands dead even before it takes off.

Thirdly, the entire idea is again flawed by the same arguments they raised against the last conference whose recommendations are with the current regime. If they do not trust the former because Jonathan put it together, what in their imagination gave them the comfort that a sectional conference sponsored with taxpayers’ money will not draw this country closer to the precipice? Or is it a veiled attempt to appropriate the current leadership of the country to do the bidding of the north?

Again, the last conference was attended by the north and many of the issues confronting this country were exhaustively addressed. A group that is not propelled by parochial and sectional lure will not be in a hurry to embark on a hazardous and wasteful journey to another conference. One may not even bother about cost if embarking on another conference is all it will take to see this country through. Before then, we needed to tell Nigerians why the recommendations of the previous conference are deficient in tackling identified challenges. That is the real issue to confront rather than resort to theatre tactics.

It is also not enough to bandy statistics on the development disparities of sections of the country without accounting for the factors that brought them about. The group erred woefully for failing to show why the north lacked behind in those human development indices. We needed to know whether the progress in education and income per capita in the south was due to special attention by the federal government or a product of the survival instincts and initiative of their peoples.

The presentation of those figures conveyed the unmistakable impression that either the south is responsible for the fate of the north or the federal government aided the development of the south against the north. None of the two propositions holds water. On the contrary, we do know of the existence of such principles as quota system and educationally disadvantaged states that were designed to get some states catch up. The north has been the major beneficiary of both discriminatory policies. It is a matter of regret that the southern states which are being referenced upon have been the ones bearing the brunt of such discriminatory educational policies over the years. Yet, we are still in a hurry to flaunt disparities in human development statistics to further perpetuate the inequities of extant order.

The challenge before the north is to find out how these states moved fast in the literacy ladder and other human development indicators and tap unto them. It is good a thing they are worried by the abysmal conditions of their people in the face of plenty. They should rise to the challenges of the socio-cultural and institutional hiccups that hold down their people and frontally dismantle them.

Before then, the exhortations of Osinbajo in his address at the opening ceremony blaming the present crop of northern leaders for the backwardness of the region due to selfishness and personal aggrandizement, should serve a sufficient food for thought.

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