Those who convened it are celebrating that it did not collapse. Some think it achieved a few things of constitution making value. But very few think it was of any seminal value. Was the confab a waste, and if so why did it not live up the billing?
As with many things Nigerian, the truth is far more complex than is canvassed on the major sides of the cleavages generated on the subject. But discussing Nigeria, its troubles and failure to claim its promise, has become too frustrating for people whose primary goal is truth, because many who seek to advance a specific perspective, either to capture power, or wealth or to ingratiate themselves to power. are in full array, stalking those who do not praise sing their point of view, After years of striving to encourage an understanding of a culture of a market place of ideas that pay little attention to persons but to issues and options of choices on the issues I sometimes feel like not bothering. Still the nature of the stakes for a conclave such as the National conference, make a review of such a conference an imperative of being.
Let me begin with a caveat about the idea of a national conference. There are those who have opposed a national conference, seeing such as an invitation to break up Nigeria, while others have insisted that a national conference is imperative if Nigeria is not to fall apart in 2014. This is partly why some celebrate the conference having avoided a deadlock. I have always argued that talk is good, whether it be cheap or not. Sure action is better than talk but few actions come without talk. Action is the trail and tail of talk.
I actually promoted a ‘private national conference’ during the Abacha era. Serving as chairman of the planning committee of a conference hatched in collaboration with the then Secretary – General of the Catholic Bishops Conference, The Reverend Mathew Hassan Kukah, and Rev. Father George Ehusani and others we convened leaders of thought from across the breath of the country at St Leo’s Catholic Church in Ikeja and raised the big question – Quo Vadis Nigeria.
When in January 2012 the Nigerian summit group convened a summit to discuss prospects of a National conference, I was not only the convener of the summit but also the moderator of the summit discussion. I was therefore not opposed to a national conference yet I declared publicly that the conference, was likely to be a farce shortly after it was convened.
I actually started to convene on alternative conference networking with some key stakeholders like youth groups, the Bar Associations and professional groupings but had to slow down on that plan not to be misunderstood. I still believe such an addendum conference is necessary.
My trouble with the conference is in both the framing of the key questions, the constituting of the participants and the consequences of the incentive frame for the key issues of values and institution building.
Niall Ferguson in his robust excursion, in the book; Civilization. The West and Rest, the framing of the 1787 constitution of the United States of America is perhaps the most impressive project of institution building in history. I share in the positive hype of that effort and feel that its gain for the prosperity and stability the US enjoys today cannot be understated. What is lost in referring to that document is that beyond structure, it deals with fundamental values of the American essence. Our conference fails in not emphasizing enough the issues of values over structures and consideration of fiscal issues of monetary transfers to levels of government.
In many ways the emphasis of the conference in sharing and fiscal administration, the essence of the Richard Josephian Bureaucratic Prebendalism is a function of the kind of people who went to the conference. They were predominantly beneficiaries of a rent-seeking elite paradigm whose sense of self has been shaped by an entitlement mentality to economic rent.
This stock of membership of the conference, deliberately or inadvertently, focused on yesterday and the wounds of previous association rather than on the benefits from future engagement. The result is that we missed the point that the biggest challenge to progress for Nigeria is a collapse of culture and a consequent perception of Nigeria’s national character as a people of low integrity and low trust, quickly inclined to corruption and low rigor in public choice.
Being one active on the international conference circuit, I have heard it so frequently stated in subtlety and with glover off, that Nigeria is a country self-deceit which has lost its strategic relevance in Africa which you could not enter 30 years ago without seeking to know how it would react but which today does not really matter.
These views flow from both a sense for how little Nigeria realizes that oil that gave her a voice a generation ago, is of rapidly declining value and that it had failed to palley what it had in the past into a cache of soft power.
I had hoped that a conference which would include more of those who would run that future should have focused on the values that can win the future. Unfortunately the average age at the conference was closer to 70 than the 35 I had hoped for. The issue was not so much the chronological age of the confab membership but, to paraphrase a retort from one American presidential election, the age of the ideas of the people there, and the antecedents of their values.
More painful, for me is that the conference reinforces an increasing setting view that the Nigerian people are increasingly hostage to a political class so consumed in self-interest and self-love that the future of their own grandchildren, and of Nigeria matters little.
I listened to arguments that suggested the expense of nearly 17 billion Naira to offer comfort to a few invited to the conference at a time when such money, wisely applied, can show millions of people, a way past misery that dominates the Nigerian way, was about how to buy more time for those in power to do with the common wealth as it pleased them. That perspective is gaining more legitimacy by the day. Whether I agree with that or not it is part of the reality to consider and our history makes it difficult with certitude.
Where it is today, it would seem, the Nigerian people who have been in powerless in the face of political class that seized space in the error of 1998, as Abdulsalam Abubakar beat a hasty retreat, leaving a system without proper checks and allowing politicians pillage the state and amass fortunes that they have used to block entry into the space for citizens interested in progress.
One of the major national challenges of now which is a critical part of culture and the essence of national character but which the conference failed to engage is the colour of justice in Nigeria. Today when I see a person being tried or sent to jail in Nigeria I presume him or her to be an innocent who stepped on powerful toes and the prosecutors as the truly guilty, until further information orients me differently. Yet this is so fundamental a subject for the sense of society.
Speaking before the Nigerian Bar Association on several occasions I have lamented the embourgeoisement of the legal profession in which the commoditization of justice make lawyers think of the process as a game of money making in which “justice” goes to the highest bidder. So lawyers collaborate with politicians to rob voters of their choice at elections and open society to extra constitutional search for solutions with a coming anarchy as its “gift”. Far from lawyers in Pakistan protesting for justice on the streets, Nigeria Lawyers are acquiescing to injustice in their air conditional SUV’s. It leaves Nigerian civil society with one option of appealing to the international community that it must help if the Nigerian people are to reconstruct national character with values that make us contributors rather than potential burdens on the global community.
One way that has been proposed is to make impunity and economic crimes by leaders anywhere and everywhere crimes against all of humanity. If people realize they are likely to go from Aso Rock or Cabinet positions in Abuja and gubernatorial chairs to trials at the Haque and a lifetime in jail, there may begin to emerge a new discipline in service that will better address the national character issues that the national conference failed to address.
Then there is the other fact that with conferences of this nature the process is far more important than the outcome. This is why the alternative plan I have offered would have two level conference. One would be at geopolitical zone level involving a spread of generations with people under 40 constituting 70 percent of participants. And we do not have to pay them any generous allowances. Delegations made up of 5% of participants from the geopolitical zones at a new mix of 60:40 in favor of those under 40 will meet at the Centre to focus more on the future and on values at the heart of national character than on how revenues are shared. If the emphasis is on how to create wealth, increase a merit order, care for the weak and build national pride we can hope for a nation we of the promise of the independence fathers.
Pat Utomi, Political Economist and Professor of entrepreneurship is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.