By Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
A small house will hold many friends—African proverb
LAST week, Daily Trust Newspaper held its 18th Annual Dialogue under the theme, ”Restructuring: Why? When? How?” This now famous event has become a platform that allows the nation to bare its soul for painful scrutiny. It has found acceptance among the high and mighty as an avenue to reach the nation, or to take up those who want to reach the nation. Its choice of this year’s theme was near-perfect. It asked questions you would think are settled in a country where the word restructuring comes second only to the word security in popularity.
It was obvious that organisers of the Dialogue knew that these questions are as relevant today as they have always been in spite of the appearance of unprecedented momentum behind it. An event that puts the popular potion of restructuring on the table surrounded by questions and people like former President Goodluck Jonathan, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, Chief Cornelius Adebanjo and Professor Attahiru Jega, was bound to excite a nation desperately in search of solutions to rising levels of challenges which provide ample ground for doubts regarding its survival as a united, secure nation.
Those who followed the Dialogue for answers got a fair mix of hope and disappointment. It was not that the impressive turn out lacked capacities to provide answers to the three most basic questions on restructuring. There were a lot of answers, but those who should decide what to do with them, including the speakers, were thin on the ground in terms of strategy and commitment.
President Jonathan who could write a book on failed attempts to re-design the structures of the nation chose safe distance to play the statesman by making the case for restructuring and accepting the existence of the nation as a settled issue, strengthening the foundations of liberal democracy, improving co-existence and tolerance of our plural nature and improving our disposition to a nation that deserves to be loved and be built to survive its current challenges.
Chief Adebanjo was his usual self: uncompromising and demanding. Nigeria must restructure now, and it should do that outside the state institutions that have no legitimacy because they are not products of popular will. He wants the nation to adopt the report of Jonathan’s Conference of 2014 as a basis for further discussions which must be concluded well before the 2023 elections. Chief Nwodo provided ample evidence to show why the nation is failing to work for Nigerians.
He insisted that all past constitutions (including those which provided the basis for the two governments in which he served as Minister) were elaborate frauds which can only be corrected by a representatives’ conference of all Nigerian ethnic groups who will decide what type of constitution and country they want.
The population should give it popular endorsement through a plebiscite. Professor Jega agreed that restructuring was a national imperative to address major failings in the state’s capacity to discharge its most basic functions. His concern was that many advocates of restructuring want massive and immediate changes to the constitution, institutions and processes without paying appropriate attention to contexts, practicalities and the values of adopting a strategy that allows the nation go through a process that avoids more problems in the process of solving them.
There were many unheard voices which followed the high and low levels of an exciting foray into minds that shape and reflect much of the many variants of the meaning of restructuring. Young people and women did not have space.
National Assembly members currently engaged in their own version of addressing ills of the nation through constitutional amendments, Fulani herders who have no states of origin but are now at the centre of controversies over the type of country Nigerians want and many others who live on the margins of a country which itself sits on the margins of viability and utility to citizens did not have a say at the Dialogue.
Still, there was an emphatic source of comfort for those who believe that the future of the nation depends on its being restructured. This was the appearance of virtual consensus that no part of the country is opposed to the idea of restructuring. In a country which habitually quarrels over all matters of importance from regional, ethnic or religious positions, this is a major asset. The positive of national consensus around restructuring does not stand out in the face of the many problems which exists.
The Dialogue exposed major distances around the question of ‘how’? There is very wide spectrum of opinions here, from those who believe that existing governance and democratic structures provide sufficient channels for constitutional changes, to others who insist that meaningful changes must begin by rejecting the entire legal and constitutional status quo and operating outside them to create a new foundation for a new nation.
There are opinions which support incremental approaches; some want existing laws to make room for greater citizen initiatives that enjoy immunity from state interference, and others believe in the utility of engaging current leaders to concede to the most pressing changes under current circumstances.
The poverty of the restructuring cause is manifest in many dimensions. One is the virtual absence of mechanisms or opportunities that should reduce distances between ideas, interests and groups. The Dialogue highlighted this in the numerous cases made for fora or initiatives that will achieve this. This is where initiatives started by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and a few other groups need to be supported, but the elite need to commit more seriously to the cause.
Another is time. Part of the attraction of falling back on existing work is that it saves the process from re-inventing wheels. A staggered process which prioritises the key goals will be of great value, but this will be challenged by arguments over strategy. The question of which strategy to adopt is crucial. If champions of restructuring cannot narrow distances on this important issue, nothing will be achieved.
Somewhere between a healthy respect for the democratic process and the need to achieve substantial changes, including changes in democratic institutions without challenging legitimate channels, a way has to be found to commence the process. Just agreeing to what strategy will be adopted will be a very difficult task. Another is the interplay between restructuring and political maneouvres towards 2023 elections. There are interests that will jettison the demands to restructure the country if they are assured that their preferences regarding the ethnic identity of the next President are secured. In many circles, the push for restructuring is informed by political grievances and group ambitions, and it will be easy for the cause of restructuring to become seriously damaged by the manner regions and interests work with or against each other towards 2023.
The sympathy for covering much ground on restructuring before the 2023 elections arises in part from suspicion that no one elected under existing arrangements will support a process that could radically alter their powers and spoils.
Then you have hostility or indifference from the current administration which will not even push its own campaign commitment to restructuring or work done by its chieftains beyond desks or archives. The limitations of our constitutional process is that it will be entirely dependent on the inclinations of the politician, not the nation. Current disposition of the legislature suggests that it stays close to the executive, even where there are pressures to exercise some autonomy.
There are major issues involved in bringing desperately needed changes in the structures of the nation, but they will need higher levels of commitment, maturity, sensitivity to the current state of the nation, skills in building bridges and alliances and courage among the elite.
At this stage, restructuring appears only as a slogan used to scare or abuse perceived enemies, or remain popular in tiny circles. Not much will be achieved by leaders who are content to issue threats, insults and ultimatums at each other, dissipating energy which should be deployed towards securing stronger foundations for the nation.