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Published On: Mon, Mar 17th, 2014

National Conference is the Urgent Need of the Time

Obarisis (Barr.) Ovie Omo-Agege


By Obarisi (Barr.) Ovie Omo-Agege
There is no doubt that Nigeria is a country that is so remarkably blessed with great material and human resources but is too structurally defective to develop. The federal setup in the first republic which guaranteed the regional governments’ greater autonomy and significant resources and responsibilities delivered competition of great leaps among the constituent regions. If it had not been disrupted, it is safe to say Nigeria would be much further ahead than it is presently.
The military intrusion into governance inflicted a lot of damage that still bedevil our nation. First, following the failure of the first military coup, the leader that emerged, General J T U Aguiyi Ironsi centralised authority under a unitary system of government but retained regional governments which still had their fiscal autonomy. Second, even though leaders of the second coup succeeded in taking control of government, that coup led to a serious crisis that eventually led to the civil war.
As part of strategies to prosecute the war, General Gowon’s military government dismantled the regional system of government and created twelve states in a cosmetic federal system. Cosmetic because, General Gowon’s military government went a step further to decree and vest political authority and fiscal prerogative in the central government which transferred various responsibilities of the federating units to the central government. Since then, successive governments simply added more responsibilities to the federal government, creating an all-powerful central government, adding more layers of bureaucracy and barriers to efficient delivery of public services.
Undeniably, centralisation has been a disaster for Nigeria yet successive governments have refused to relinquish control to the federating units even though the civil war which was used as excuse for centralisation of authority ended 44 years ago. The present federal system is so ridiculously lopsided that the federal government now issues drivers and marriage licenses.
Decades of centralisation have left our country in its most precarious situation since independence. Centralisation has resulted in massive rural – urban migration that has created congested urban cities, over dependence on oil as source of revenue, unhealthy and divisive competition for central power, corruption and ethnicity. The consequence is that after a century of amalgamation, fifty three years of independence, and fourteen years of unbroken democratic rule, Nigeria is yet to resolve the problem of nation building and achieve its vast potential as a truly great nation. Rather, we are more divided than ever before, burdened by the weight of massive unemployment, ethnic and religious intolerance, general insecurity and insurgency that are threatening the very existence of the Nigerian state. With this kind of overwhelming burden, our nation has made little progress and in many cases taken giant leaps backwards.
It is against this dismal background that President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has offered Nigerians a national conference to reconstruct the Nigeria project to deliver on the promises and potentials we have dreamed of. For too long, we have kicked the can down the road pretending that Nigeria is working when it is clearly not working; creating a deficit that has slowed our nation down, so much that the vast pool of the unemployed feeds a significant part of the insecurities that is apparent to all.
For the first time in our history, a President is offering a national conference, knowing that its outcome will take away some of his powers. This is truly sacrificial, transformative and unprecedented leadership of a President who is determined to leave Nigeria much better than he met it, structurally equipped to match into the future to deliver on the long delayed promise of unchained greatness. We must use this opportunity well.
A successful national conference will decentralise the federal government’s vast political and fiscal powers, devolve policy competences to the federating units and restrict the power of intervention by the federal government. More powers and resources to the states and local governments will enable them to deliver people oriented projects and develop at their own pace and recreate the competitive atmosphere that existed when Nigeria had regions.
In spite of our diversity, all Nigerians are united by our common challenges of insecurity, unemployment and hopes of a better future. Let all of us keep our eyes on the ball, on the goal of a better, fairer and more just Nigeria to defeat those who want to keep all of us standing on the same spot.
When our nationalist leaders were faced with a similar challenge of designing a constitution after independence, they put aside their doubts and fears about the amalgamation of 1914 and devised the 1963 federal constitution to foster our diversity and fortify our nation. This was why the regional system of government worked. So it must be for this generation of leaders who have been chosen to represent us at the national conference.
At this defining moment for our nation, the national conference is the urgent need of the time and delegates must set aside their doubts and fears and embrace the command of consensus and compromise. They should listen to one another and appreciate each other’s point of view and position on the issue. With courage and compassion added to their moral fiber, the delegates will be able to take the big decisions that will change the trajectory of Nigeria. There is no doubt in my mind that a successful national conference will radically and positively transform our nation and affect the well-being of us all, north and south, rich and poor, Christians and Muslims, men and women, young and old.
A very interesting dialogue between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, captured in John Paden’s book is very informative, instructive and a pointer to why this national conference is crucial. Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe had said to Ahmadu Bello, “Let’s forget our differences…” to which Ahmadu Bello had responded, “No, let us understand our differences. I am a Muslim and a Northerner. You are a Christian, an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country.”
Through the years we have tried so hard to forget our differences but the time has come to understand our differences and turn them into strengths to build a united nation because in spite of the time spent in the wilderness, Nigeria is not beyond salvage. All it will take is undivided commitment from all the delegates to understand the issues and design a structure that will serve the nation well.
The conference delegates don’t have to look far to other lands to find solutions. All they have to do is to look back to our first Republic and return to the core principles of true federalism adopted by our nationalist leaders before the advent oil and bequeathed to us in 1963 constitution that made Nigeria work before. With a national conference we all own, Nigeria will finally find its feet and match into the future, a people united by a shared desire to forge a great nation out of the fires of today’s Nigeria.
Obarisi (Barr.) Ovie Omo-Agege is former Secretary of State to Delta State Government (SSG) and National Chairman
Urhobo Political Congress (UPC)

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