Those who follow my writings and comments on twitter, Sahara Reporters and this blog are well aware of my mantra: "Nigeria, nay Africa, cannot progress without holding a National Conference".
Some have been upset by my insistence on this point, in particular those who envision a conference where different groups complain and drag up shameful aspects from the past that vested interests would rather see silenced.
Others who are focused on their personal "unity" and "power to the people" projects may - understandably -be concerned that the reopening of old wounds and the potential realignment of 'progressive' forces along tribal-religious fault lines may spell doom for their 'vision'.
Regardless of the reason for avoiding the debate, opponents of independent African nations holding sovereign national conferences are proving to be as blind to the real issues that plague the continent as the leaders they take joy in castigating, reprimanding and upbraiding.
I will use Nigeria - as I often do - as my case study here, but the lessons and suggestions are equally applicable to any African country that has not had a citizen body gather to answer the age-old question that has bothered many a nation - Quo Vadis (Where Do We Go)?
Ultimately, such a conference would identify and propose implementable solutions to national issues starting with the question: "what does it mean to be Nigerian"?
In answering this question and addressing the issues that divide us, we will be better able to understand our brothers and sisters from various tribes and religions.
So which issues facing Nigeria would be solved by a National Conference - assuming its recommendations are signed into law?
The answer is "all of them".
Let us examine the main issues that would be addressed by this potential conference:
ISSUES TO BE ADDRESSED
Fears of marginalization/domination. This fear led to the counter-coup of 1966, as well as the ongoing security concerns in the Niger Delta and North, inter alia.
Federal Character/Quotas. This is also known as the lack of meritocracy and has caused a decline in the quality of education, healthcare and industry in the country.
Structural Defects in the Federation. Whether you are pro-unitary or pro-confederacy or pro-federacy, I think we can all agree that the existing mishmash of unitarism and federalism does not work.
Nature of Government. Do we want an executive that rules by fiat (a bastardization of the American system it was supposedly modeled after) as exists today or a governing parliament whose membership accurately reflects the diversity of the country and which can be recalled for non-performance?
Injustice. The civil war discussion has never been fully had, including allegations of genocide, forced starvation and illegal acquisition of properties; Ogoniland and much of the Niger Delta is an environmental nightmare while leaders feed fat; Boko Haram and the lack of opportunities for Nigerian youth and the list goes on.
"Wait a second", you may be saying. "What about all the constitutional conferences and how was Nigeria formed anyway if we never sat down at a table?"
Let us examine history.
HISTORY OF NATIONAL GATHERINGS
Pre-Berlin Conference. Until the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, there had been no concept of nations outside of the tribes that existed in the area known as Nigeria today. For that matter, this pattern was repeated throughout the African continent. Ergo, the concept of 'Nigeria' would have been non sequitur.
Post-Berlin Conference. After the Berlin Conference when the British 'right' to the area now known as 'Nigeria' was recognized, the Royal Niger Company was formed. It was in fact this consortium that spent the next sixteen years identifying the tribes and territories to be amalgamated into what became the Southern and Northern protectorates of Nigeria. Again, no one consulted the Igbo woman or the Hausa man or the Tiv woman.
Amalgamation. This much-maligned event took place in 1914, not because the Yoruba man said he didn't like the idea of requiring a passport to visit his Fulani bride. No, it happened because the two protectorates were proving difficult to govern separately from an economic standpoint. Again, no one consulted the local population.
Colonial Conferences. The value of these conferences is hard to gauge. The nationalist leaders, for all their intellect and patriotism, were not necessarily concerned with the details of citizenship and governance. They just wanted the yoke of British rule removed. Warning signs of future conflicts based on utterances by certain party leaders were missed by many in their haste to be independent. After all, it is on record that the north would not have wanted a union with the south if they were an economically viable entity (Governor-General's Report, 1958).
Post-Colonial Constitutional Conferences. All of these were convened by the military regimes in power who appointed mostly self-seeking political and economic jobbers to the conference. The result was a series of incoherent and bland documents, one of which we still unashamedly call a 'constitution' today.
I should note that only the Aburi Conference in 1967, constituted by young military officers, comes close to being called a 'national conference'. If a hastily convened - by men who knew nothing of governing - conference at the height of the nation's division can have such a profound impact nearly 50 years later, how much more one today in this age of social/citizen media!
Ergo, we can conclude that there has been NO independent gathering of Nigerians in a democratic setting to sit down and outline their differences, unifiers and chart a clear path forward.
I won't go into what I think the composition of the conference should be - those are details that an independent planning committee, made of a combination of unions, political parties and professional groups will determine. Suffice to say that for this conference to be successful it is important that all sessions are open-door with both local and foreign observers given full access to the proceedings. In addition, the resolutions of the conference should be subject to a referendum which every Nigerian will be able to vote in. The plan, if approved, should be passed into law and incorporated into the constitution as ammendments.
If people want to gripe, moan and complain, let them. It is part of the healing process. Once everyone has done that, tackling the issues raised earlier can then be approached with an aware, understanding mind by everyone in the room and will be easier because there will be no pussyfooting or dancing around sensitive issues.
Such an open, independent approach to nation building will do more for Nigeria's future growth than any "let's oust the present corrupt government in exchange for another one which may be just as bad" project. Nigeria needs invasive surgery, not a facelift, as much as some of us may want to hasten the process and get to the utopic future of our dreams as soon as possible.
Early in the last decade, the late Beko Ransome-Kuti said "without a Sovereign National Conference, the future of Nigeria remains threatened and monumental pitfalls await the country."
Events of the last 12 years have proved Dr. Kuti right. Right now, our future is threatened and we have evidence of the monumental pitfalls that await us if we proceed along the path we are on.
There can be no real unity without understanding the reasons for the disunity, and there exists no better way to identify and propose the solutions required to heal our ailing continent than the individuals of these countries voicing their fears, concerns and hopes through a gathering that pays no heed to tribe, gender or social stature.
Only a sovereign national conference provides this avenue. In agitating, let that be our cry. A joint cry as an oppressed people. A cry for our voices to be heard.